We could hear the Pescheria, Catania’s open-air fish market before we could see it. The sound of fishmongers shouting their best price to undercut the neighbouring stalls filled the air along with laughter, banter and the smell of fresh fish and salt water. Catania’s Pescheria is an explosion of sights, sounds and smells – bustling and chaotic it’s alive with an atmosphere which instantly awakens all the senses – and the appetite!
I was in Sicily with fellow destination blogger Lucy from ‘On the Luce’ to check out one of Ben Fogle’s new ‘Great Adventures’ shore excursions for Celebrity Cruises. The Sicilian Gastronomic Experience. We’d spent a day exploring Catania and were now to take a journey into Sicily’s culinary heart with a tour of Catania Market before heading to a small village on the slopes of Mount Etna and to Eleonora Consoli’s kitchen. We’d take a cooking class, put together by gastronomy journalist Eleonora, learning not only the secrets of local cuisine but also about the culture, traditions, and customs of Sicily. But more about that later, because now we’re going back to that fish market.
La Pescheria sits just off Piazza Duomo near the fountain, Fontana Dei 10 Canali, which is fed from the city’s underground canals. Many years ago the water was diverted to form an overground curtain of water which has been utilised by the market traders ever since. Step behind the fountain and you’ll find a terrace which overlooks the main arena of the fish market. People stand to watch because there’s so much to see – it’s early morning and La Pescheria is in full swing.
The fishermen hawking their catch of the day are as friendly as they are loud and as we toured Catania market with Maurizio, our guide, they didn’t hesitate in bringing their wares to our attention. A squirming octopus was held up for inspection – would that fit in Lucy’s handbag? – probably not but the stall-holder was ready to try! Some fish were so fresh they were still flipping around and crustaceans crawled their way over one another in a bid for freedom. Bright tarpaulins protected the fish from the sun and shaded the stallholders who carefully prepared the fish. Trays of silver sardines lay on piles of crushed ice, huge swordfish and tuna steaks sold alongside gleaming squid, prawns and more kinds of fish than I’ll ever know the names of. And that was just the start…
A warren of narrow streets leads off from Catania’s fish market leading to alleyways full of colourful fruit and vegetable stalls, meats cheeses, dried fruits, nuts and spices. As we turned into the fruit and vegetable area of the market the vibrancy and colour hit us full on.
Maurizio told us that all the food in Catania market was seasonal and grown locally in the fertile volcanic soil of the island and was as fresh as you could get. From the way he talked it was obvious he was passionate about food, both eating and cooking it. He told us about the different influences over the years that have changed the way Sicilians eat; from occupation by Greeks, Romans and Spanish to the North Africans and Arabs.
We found some small green spiky plant heads that looked like thistles. They were grilled wild artichokes and we peeled off the soft part of the small leaves and chewed on the deliciously earthy flavour. The stallholders were happy for us to have a taste or two…
Spices, dried fruit and dates are a legacy from when the Arabs occupied Sicily and we met Theresa Drago who plied us with salted almonds and delicious Mostarda di Mosto a chewy, caramel-like sweet made from grape must, cinnamon and ground nuts.
Sun-dried tomatoes drenched in olive oil were juxtaposed with bright green and black olives. Knots of garlic warmed in the sun and baked caramelised onions caught my eye. Baked for 2.5 hours at 220 degrees and picked at around the table after a meal. Food for sharing.
I adore the chaos and bustle of a lively market and Catania’s was a cornucopia of colour, flavours and atmosphere but we couldn’t stay any longer. We had a meal to prepare in Eleonora Consoli’s kitchen where we’d learn how Sicilians put the heart and soul into their food…
Do you like food markets? Do you have a favourite? Please share!
Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises for hosting my visit to Catania. All views, opinions and love of food are, as always, entirely my own.