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Tastes of Sicily: Touring Catania’s markets

Fish market 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.

St Agatha’s breasts, Sicilian pastry, Catania

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

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.

49 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice photos of the food on display

    May 29, 2014
    • Thanks, I do love all the different colours and textures on display in markets, they’re always good spots for photos.

      May 29, 2014
  2. Thanks Lucy. Now I am really, really hungry. ;) Gorgeous photos!

    May 29, 2014
    • Haha, yes I think I was snacking the whole time I was writing this – especially the bit with the cakes!

      May 29, 2014
  3. 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!

    May 29, 2014
    • Mostarda was a really new one to me too, such an inventive use of the grape must and quite a unique taste!

      May 29, 2014
  4. 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.

    May 29, 2014
    • They were so good, and loads of different types too so you could definitely do a sweets tasting tour around Sicily!

      May 29, 2014
  5. andiperullo #

    What an incredible place to explore!

    May 29, 2014
    • 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!).

      May 29, 2014
  6. What a wonderland of seafood! I could make dinner out of this….sweets first, than seafood:)

    May 29, 2014
  7. 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!

    May 29, 2014
    • 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.

      May 29, 2014
  8. Loved the beautiful pix and crisp write up!

    May 29, 2014
  9. 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.

    May 29, 2014
    • That’s what you call fusion cuisine! Not sure I’ll be trying that one out though!

      May 29, 2014
  10. Packing my Suitcase #

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

    May 29, 2014
    • The produce out in Sicily was so fresh, it made me wish I could do all my food shopping there!

      May 30, 2014
    • Packing my Suitcase #

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

      May 31, 2014
  11. 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 :(

    May 29, 2014
    • Look forward to seeing your take on it too! And hope your trip to the slightly less exotic Birmingham is going well too!

      May 30, 2014
  12. 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!

    May 29, 2014
    • 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!

      May 30, 2014
  13. If I saw all those pastries, I’d be tempted to sample one of everything!

    May 29, 2014
    • The day we spent exploring Catania was just constant snacking on cakes and gelato – not the healthiest of diets but they were so good!

      May 30, 2014
  14. Great post, Lucy! Not many people travel to Sicily, but it’s well worth it. I love it!–Patti

    May 30, 2014
    • 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.

      May 30, 2014
  15. 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.

    May 30, 2014
    • 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?

      May 30, 2014
  16. You’re totally right: all great food starts at the market. And this market looks amazing!

    May 30, 2014
    • It was great – I only wish I had longer there to try it all out!

      June 2, 2014
  17. Wow, this instantly makes me want to visit Sicily. Fresh, simple food is the best!

    June 1, 2014
    • Definitely – Sicily was fantastic, I’d love to go and see a bit more of the island.

      June 2, 2014
  18. Reblogged this on Anywhere But Here and commented:
    Nice find.

    June 4, 2014
  19. 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 :-)

    June 4, 2014
    • Thanks, I can see why you want to go back – it packs a lot into a small island doesn’t it!

      June 4, 2014
  20. 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!

    June 7, 2014
    • I really liked Catania, there’s a lot to see – and eat!

      June 22, 2014
  21. What a lovely market! The Mostarda looks intriguing…have never seen or even heard of it before!

    June 7, 2014
    • Me neither, it sounds like a very strange concept but was really tasty – I wonder who came up with the idea though!

      June 22, 2014
  22. Just looking at the Saint Agata cake – such a strange story and yet the dessert looks so yummy!!

    June 13, 2014
    • It is isn’t it! Bit of a gory tale to turn into a cake but it’s a tasty one!

      June 22, 2014
  23. amilejessica #

    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.

    July 2, 2014
    • 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!

      July 2, 2014
    • amilejessica #

      Small world! Yes, and don’t forget the glaring men. ;) :D :p

      July 14, 2014
  24. 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!

    July 8, 2014

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