Italian food has to be one of the most popular cuisines in the world – who doesn’t love pizza, pasta and risotto? Before my trip to Sicily I assumed the island would have similar food to the rest of Italy. But Sicilian cuisine 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 the island’s food I took a Sicilian cooking class in Catania, starting where all good food begins – the market.
Catania’s fish market (La Pescheria)
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 giving us an insight into the island’s history through its food. We started off at the fish market – La Pescheria. It’s one of Italy’s biggest fish markets with an atmosphere that’s hardly changed in hundreds of years. Set up was in full swing when we arrived early in the morning. Young guys hauled bags of ice and wheeled trays of fish through alleyways into the square, where they were piled up onto makeshift tables.
I’d never seen so many different types of seafood before. 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 kind-of cross between a crayfish and lobster which is 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 it’s not a place to come in your flip flops. Once it’s set up, things get even more rowdy when the shoppers start to descend. The 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 side streets 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-holder 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. The paste is then put into decorative moulds and dried in the sun.
Sicilians love their sweets, and many of the island’s classic desserts were created by convent bakers. They combined ingredients from North Africa like sugar cane, pistachios, spices and candied fruit with cookery techniques 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. Others are made using almond or pistachio flours so they’re gluten-free.
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 fresh produce to use in some classic Sicilian dishes.
Sicilian cooking class
We headed up into the foothills of Mount Etna to meet Monica Consoli – the daughter of cookbook author Eleanora Consoli – for our class in Eleanora’s lovely 18th-century villa. Over drinks under the lemon trees, Monica explained how invaders over the years brought new ingredients and cooking techniques to Sicily, but the Sicilian national identity always stayed strong. You won’t find any national dishes, but instead there are lots of local specialities, from every part of the island. The cuisine today mixes old peasant dishes – cucina povera – with more elaborate dishes brought over by French chefs who worked for Sicilian noblemen. A big focus throughout though is on using fresh and seasonal produce – or ‘eating with the sun’.
Traditionally lunch is the largest meal of the day in Sicily, with a first course, main course, side dishes and dessert. Which is what was on the menu for us – though Monica kindly adapted some of the dishes for me to make then gluten-free. She started off by making Sicilian meatballs or Polpette alla Siciliana. Ours were made using veal mince, though you can also use chicken or beef. Monica mixed the mince with breadcrumbs, explaining how they were historically used to bulk out dishes when money was tight. They’re still used a lot, but it’s often more for taste than economic reasons today as they help soak up the flavours.
Next she added a beaten egg, lemon zest, chopped parsley and grated caciocavallo cheese. We’d spotted the caciocavallo earlier in the market – it has a strange shape, a bit like an old Greek urn, with two cheeses tied together. But if you can’t get it back home then you can also use Parmesan. To finish off, the mixture was rolled into balls and wrapped up in lemon leaves picked from the garden. Ours were cooked in a pan on the hob but you can grill or bake them too, or cook them in marsala or wine. Or even use them in the tasty-sounding spitini, where they’re cooked on skewers along with croutons and cubes of cheese.
Our next dish was Pasta all Norma – named after an opera by local boy Vincenzo Bellini. It’s usually made with pasta, but Monica came up with a special rice version for me. The heart of this dish is the tomato sauce. Apparently every woman in Italy, and especially in Sicily, thinks their tomato sauce recipe is the best. Monica’s used ripe tomatoes blanched in hot water then peeled, finely chopped and cooked until soft with olive oil, garlic and a handful of fresh basil. Tomatoes are a huge part of the cuisine here, but when the Spanish invaders first brought them to Sicily the locals just used them to decorate the plate.
The rice was cooked pilaf style to keep the grains firm. The key is to use a deep frying pan and fry the rice in oil before covering it with water and simmering until it’s absorbed – but make sure not to stir it. When the water’s absorbed you end up with a firm but creamy rice. It’s then mixed with the tomato sauce and topped with slices of deep-fried aubergine. Aubergine can sometimes get a bit oily, so Monica gave us a tip to keep it crisp – slice the aubergine lengthways not across as that means you’re going with the fibres and not across, so it won’t soak up as much oil. Then to finish it’s sprinkled with grated cheese and basil leaves.
Next were the side dishes, starting with Peperonata Agrodolce – sweet and sour peppers. Monica told us how sweet and sour dishes, made using a combination of sugar and vinegar, were originally introduced by Arab invaders. The Sicilians used them to help preserve food in the days before refrigeration. So it meant you had a source of fresh vegetables in the winter or on long sea voyages. And these dishes still taste better if you make them the day before. Chopped peppers are sauteed with onion, then you add sugar, vinegar and fresh herbs and cook it down using a low heat. You can also add things like raisins, capers or pine nuts.
For me, vinegar’s something you buy from a shop, but Monica brought out a bottle of her own homemade version and gave us a lesson in how it was made. You start with a broad bean in a glass jar, fill it with wine and leave it for a month until a layer of gelatine forms on the bottom of the jar. This is the ‘mother’, and women pass it on through generations or to friends, like the starter used for making bread – Monica’s came from her mother who got it from her mother. She described it beautifully as ‘like making eternity’. Just remember to top the jar up with wine and a broad bean every now and then, as ‘mother’s got to eat’!
The final course was a Gelo di Canella – cinnamon jelly. Monica described it as the perfect dessert for a hot day. It’s also fairly healthy as the only ingredients are water, cinnamon, sugar and starch (you can use wheat, corn or rice flour) to make it set. Our version used cinnamon, which had been infusing in the water overnight. But you can use all sorts of other flavours, like fruit juices, herbs, almond milk, chocolate or coffee. And if you’re feeling artistic you can layer up different stripes of coloured jellies in a glass dish.
After all Monica’s hard work, it was time to head to try it all out. It was the perfect summery meal – bursting with fresh flavours but also very light. The fertile volcanic soils and Mediterranean sun makes the produce taste so much more intense. This is an island where the most revered cooks aren’t Michelin-starred chefs in fancy restaurants but home cooks making recipes passed down through generations. Learning to cook like a Sicilian gives more than just a taste of the island’s food, but a window to lives of its people too.
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