Travel tales

Tastes of Sicily: Touring Catania’s markets

Market stall in Catania, Sicily

Like a lot of people, before going to Sicily I’d assumed that as part of Italy it would have a similar cuisine to other areas of the country. But the food of this island is a lot more complex than that. Years of occupation have left it with a mix of influences, so you’ll find ingredients and dishes you’d expect to see in Greece, Spain or even North Africa. To learn more about Sicilian cuisine I took a gastronomic tour of Catania, starting in the place where all good food begins – the market. The freshness of ingredients is the key to Sicily’s delicious food, and its markets are overflowing with local, seasonal produce. Our guide Maurizio took us around Catania’s markets, introducing us to new ingredients and providing an insight into Sicily’s history through its cuisine (while being incredibly patient as we stopped for photos every two minutes).

Stallholder in Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

A fish market stallholder wields an impressive cleaver

We started off in Catania’s fish market – La Pescheria. This is one of the biggest fish markets in Italy and its atmosphere has hardly changed in hundreds of years. The market takes place around Piazza Alonzo on weekday mornings from 7am to 2pm and all day on Saturdays. When we visited early in the morning set up was in full swing. Young guys hauled bags of ice and wheeled stacked trays of fish through the alleyways into the square, where they were piled up on a jumble of makeshift tables.

Fish stalls in Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

Piles of seafood, including the mantis shrimp with their fake eye markings

I’d never seen so many different types of seafood. Some I recognised, like the plump pink prawns, buckets of tiny clams and the long, silver metallic-looking eels. Then there were some weird and wonderful creatures I’d never seen before. There was the octopus that opened up like an umbrella when you picked it up, the pannocchia or mantis shrimp with markings on its tail that mimic big eyes, and the rare slipper lobster, a sort-of cross between a crayfish and lobster only found in the Mediterranean.

Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

A slipper lobster and a stallholder showing off a giant metallic looking eel

Fishmongers wielded dangerous looking cleavers, slicing thin steaks from giant tuna on chopping boards marked with blood and knife marks from years of use. They line the fish heads up to show how fresh the produce is, though the ground was covered with bits of fish and pools of water so sturdy shoes are a good idea. When the setting up is done, things get even more rowdy when the shoppers start to descend later on. Stallholders compete for sales, calling out their deals of the day and straining to out-holler each other.

Octopus in Catania fish market, Sicily, Italy

One of the strange umbrella-like octopi

But the market isn’t all about fish – other stalls spread into the sidestreets around the Piazza. There are cheeses and mushrooms brought down from the mountain villages, as well as fruit and vegetables from the fertile soils around Mount Etna. In late spring the stalls were full of plaited stems of wild garlic, bunches of asparagus and juicy strawberries. We also tried a few more unusual things like orange medlar fruits, spiky wild artichokes roasted on an open grill, and white mulberries that looked disconcertingly like grubs.

Fruit and vegetable stalls in Catania market, Sicily

Maurizio shows us around some of the fresh produce on display in the market

We also stopped at a spice stall, where in among the spices, dried fruits and candied peel we spotted these strange things that looked almost like carved stones. Stall owner Theresa explained that they were actually edible – known as Mostarda, they are a kind of solid jam made from grape must. Each year after the grape harvest, pressed grape juice is mixed with orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves then cooked and reduced down to a paste. Then it’s put into decorative moulds and dried in the sun.

Mostarda in Catania spice stall

Mostarda in Catania spice stall

Sicilians love their sweets, and many of the island’s classic desserts were were created by convent bakers. These nuns combined ingredients like sugarcane, pistachios, spices and candied fruit that were introduced by North African Saracens with cookery techniques that came from French pastry chefs. And the result was delicious sweets like cannoli, tubes of fried dough filled with creamy ricotta, or cassata, a sponge cake layered with candied peel and ricotta and covered with layers of marzipan and icing. There are plenty of others too, many using almond or pistachio flours so they are gluten-free too.

Pastries in Catania, Sicily

Delicious pastries on display in Prestipino Cafe

We dropped into Prestipino Cafe to try out two sweets dedicated to Catania’s patron saint, St Agatha. First were the Minni di Sant’ Agata – aka St Agatha’s breasts – where the gory story of her being tortured and having her breasts cut off has been turned into a tasty cake! They are a dome-shaped cassata topped with a red cherry nipple. Next were the Olivetti di Sant’ Agata, or St Agatha’s little olives, green olive-shaped marzipan balls which commemorate an olive tree she sheltered under. Then – already starting to feel stuffed – it was time to learn how to put this great produce to use in some classic Sicilian dishes.

Read more: Learning to cook like a Catanian
St Agatha’s breasts, Sicilian pastry, Catania

Minni di Sant’ Agata – aka St Agatha’s breasts

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 Discovering Sicilian cuisine with a guided tour around Catania's fish and produce markets, bursting with colours and delicious flavours – ontheluce.com

A guided tour around Catania’s markets forms part of the Celebrity Cruises Sicilian Gastronomic Tour shore excursion, along with a cookery class. Many thanks to Celebrity for hosting my trip to Sicily to try it out. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.

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51 Comments

  • Reply
    Rob Weir
    May 29, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Nice photos of the food on display

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 10:57 am

      Thanks, I do love all the different colours and textures on display in markets, they’re always good spots for photos.

  • Reply
    Shelley @Travel-Stained
    May 29, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Thanks Lucy. Now I am really, really hungry. 😉 Gorgeous photos!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 10:56 am

      Haha, yes I think I was snacking the whole time I was writing this – especially the bit with the cakes!

  • Reply
    Bama
    May 29, 2014 at 11:24 am

    What an interesting tour of the market! It’s one of the best ways to really understand local cultures and people, and the one in Catania surely didn’t disappoint. I’m really intrigued with Mostarda since it uses ingredients not native to Sicily; the exact same spices that drove the Europeans to come all the way to Asia to find the fabled Spice Islands. Fascinating!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 8:53 pm

      Mostarda was a really new one to me too, such an inventive use of the grape must and quite a unique taste!

  • Reply
    emmapostcard
    May 29, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Those pastries look yummy! Trying out the local food, especially cakes or anything sweet actually, is one of my favourite parts of exploring somewhere new.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      They were so good, and loads of different types too so you could definitely do a sweets tasting tour around Sicily!

  • Reply
    andiperullo
    May 29, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    What an incredible place to explore!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks Andi, it’s a great part of the world, I hope to go back and see a bit more sometime (and eat a bit more of the food!).

  • Reply
    timelessitaly
    May 29, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    What a wonderland of seafood! I could make dinner out of this….sweets first, than seafood:)

  • Reply
    atravelingb
    May 29, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    It is so interesting to understand the different influences that impact the cuisine. I love when cities and villages revolve around the market – it always makes for the freshest ingredients! Looking forward to reading about your cooking class!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      Yes the food of a place can really reflect so many other aspects of its culture and history. I’m a big fan of overseas markets (and even supermarkets!), you always come across something new and unusual.

  • Reply
    Global Residence
    May 29, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    Loved the beautiful pix and crisp write up!

  • Reply
    aBitofCulture
    May 29, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    I saw a kebab pizza on a menu in a nice restaurant in Palermo. My mate ordered it for a laugh and it was as you’d imagine – kebab meat and salad dumped onto a pizza base! The perfect mix of east and west.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 29, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      That’s what you call fusion cuisine! Not sure I’ll be trying that one out though!

  • Reply
    Packing my Suitcase
    May 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Ohh I would love to go to this market…it looks amazing, everything fresh! 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 30, 2014 at 10:48 am

      The produce out in Sicily was so fresh, it made me wish I could do all my food shopping there!

      • Reply
        Packing my Suitcase
        May 31, 2014 at 7:19 am

        Hahaha I can imagine!! I love these markets, it gives a lot of cooking inspiration! 🙂 I guess you had lots of fun here!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    May 29, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    A fantastic reminder of our visit to that amazing marketplace. I’ll have a post up at the weekend but working long long days this week 🙁

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 30, 2014 at 10:49 am

      Look forward to seeing your take on it too! And hope your trip to the slightly less exotic Birmingham is going well too!

  • Reply
    mytravelmonkey
    May 29, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    How amazing! I’m getting jealous just reading this. I’ve always wanted to go to Sicily… So when I do, I’m heading straight to the market!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 30, 2014 at 10:50 am

      I’ve always fancied the idea of Sicily too so was really glad to get the chance to get a taste of it – there’s so much more to see that I will have to go back, and will be trying out a few more markets when I do!

  • Reply
    unfinishedtravel
    May 29, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    If I saw all those pastries, I’d be tempted to sample one of everything!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

      The day we spent exploring Catania was just constant snacking on cakes and gelato – not the healthiest of diets but they were so good!

  • Reply
    pattimoed
    May 30, 2014 at 1:30 am

    Great post, Lucy! Not many people travel to Sicily, but it’s well worth it. I love it!–Patti

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 30, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Thanks Patti, yes I think the mainland Italian destinations are more well known but Sicily has so much to offer it’s well worth the trip.

  • Reply
    Aggy (@dewtraveller)
    May 30, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Wow that Mostarda looks very interesting, would love to taste it! And also there is a cake with my name! That is so cool! I think the history of the food makes this place extra special.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 30, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Yes you’d find a lot of things with your name on in Catania – the cakes are probably the best though! Mostarda was very strange, I wonder who first came up with the idea?

  • Reply
    Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)
    May 30, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    You’re totally right: all great food starts at the market. And this market looks amazing!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm

      It was great – I only wish I had longer there to try it all out!

  • Reply
    thegrownupgapyear
    June 1, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Wow, this instantly makes me want to visit Sicily. Fresh, simple food is the best!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 2, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      Definitely – Sicily was fantastic, I’d love to go and see a bit more of the island.

  • Reply
    Teddy Espela
    June 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Reblogged this on Anywhere But Here and commented:
    Nice find.

  • Reply
    Trish @ Mum's Gone To
    June 4, 2014 at 11:20 am

    I saw your post via a Facebook link from Heather on her Travels. I have happy memories of a trip to Sicily many years ago. Definitely worth another visit 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 4, 2014 at 10:07 pm

      Thanks, I can see why you want to go back – it packs a lot into a small island doesn’t it!

  • Reply
    ournextsunrise
    June 7, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Love the pics and the virtual tour through the market! Definitely hungry now. I have been to Palermo but not Catania, but I think I will have to go check it out!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm

      I really liked Catania, there’s a lot to see – and eat!

  • Reply
    Madhu
    June 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    What a lovely market! The Mostarda looks intriguing…have never seen or even heard of it before!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      Me neither, it sounds like a very strange concept but was really tasty – I wonder who came up with the idea though!

  • Reply
    Shikha (whywasteannualleave)
    June 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Just looking at the Saint Agata cake – such a strange story and yet the dessert looks so yummy!!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      June 22, 2014 at 1:24 pm

      It is isn’t it! Bit of a gory tale to turn into a cake but it’s a tasty one!

  • Reply
    amilejessica
    July 2, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Your pictures of the fish market remind me of the charming (and smelly) markets I visited at the sea side town of Essaouira in Morocco.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 2, 2014 at 10:08 pm

      I love Essaouira. I was there in March this year and had a really great time – the fish market there is seriously smelly though, and so many seagulls!

      • Reply
        amilejessica
        July 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm

        Small world! Yes, and don’t forget the glaring men. 😉 😀 :p

  • Reply
    Actually Mummy
    July 8, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    There is nothing better than a Mediterranean food market! I love how you’ve really brought it to life with your descriptions of the fish stalls. I’m on a mission to get my family more involved in my love of proper food – and what better way than to drag them round a market on a holiday!

  • Reply
    browney237
    January 8, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    We have just visited this market. It’s an assault on your senses. A fabulous place that your post completely does justice too.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      January 8, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks, I love markets and this was one of my favourites – so much to see (and smell!).

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