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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.