Catania’s aphrodisiac cuisine and ingredients and the city markets
Photos by Giuseppe Leone – Text by Pino Correnti
(Article drawn and translated from “La Sicilia Ricercata” no.8 – Markets of Sicily)
American astronauts reported that on their journey back to earth, they could distinctly see the column of smoke coming out of one of the four Etna craters, and how this, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, reached the Nile mouth. Due to this phenomenon documented since Antiquity, the ancient Egyptians of Alexandria and Cairo called Catanese the wind blowing from Etna volcano towards the Nile delta.
Apollodoro, the Catanian cook of queen Cleopatra managed to tranquilize her and her companion Marc Anthony, as they were going up the Nile on a golden boat, thanks to wind-blown tiny balls felt from the sky on the food he was preparing on the poop deck. He said that that was the ripuddu, cinders from the Etna, having positive effects on vegetables and fruit of his Country.
Arabs settled in Sicily grew citrus fruits and jasmine on the slopes of Etna, the tallest European volcano, and since then the Catanese would smell of orange flowers and jasmine, as much as it still does today.
These interesting anecdotes serve to introduce my discussion on the aphrodisiac ingredients of the Catania cuisine and how to get them, which is something I really care about.
Catania has four city markets. The main ones are the big fresh produce market in Amerigo Vespucci street, covering an area of 70.000 sqm, and the fish market in Cristoforo Colombo street, opening from 3.00 to 10.00am, trading some 7,000 tons of fresh and frozen fish per year.
But I won’t talk about these, here, which, in fact, look much alike those of other big cities. Basing on the old saying “You are what you eat”, I’ll rather engage in a detailed description of the two minor city markets, the so-called A Fiera o luni (the Monday Market, actually open every
day except sunday) and the well-known Pescheria, the fish market.
At 8.30am, we start from the Monday Market, in Carlo Alberto square, in the town centre, right between Via Etnea and Via Umberto. A dense crowd and coloured sunshades greet you by the Santuario di Maria SS. del Carmine, where, much alike many North-Africans souks, an endless number of crowded stands criss-crosses the whole area. Offers and products of any kind are available: vegetables, fish, meat, cheeses, legumes, fresh or dried fruit, salted or cunzate olives (that is garnished with vinegar prickles, mushrooms in olive oil, oregano, parsley, garlic and red pepper). Black and big shiny olives are available at different prices and varieties, even baked and garnished with local oil and celery. They’re ideal aphrodisiacs for people who cannot afford expensive delicacies such as lobsters, prawns or the “beef eye”, described below.
Let’s rather try some cod fish with bitter greens. Cod, here, is usually cut into slices and boiled along with the caliceddi, a green growing amidst vines usually served with olive oil, garlic and red pepper. This is much regarded as Catania’s reply to praised pescestocco alla messinese (Messina cod-fish). Its secret lies in the ideal match between the ragno (a best variety of cod-fish) and the green soup where it was boiled, which is slightly bitter due to effects of the ripuddu, containing azote and potassium. These two elements also contribute to Bronte pistachio’s vitamin E, that enhances fertility. Black olive caviar and red pepper finally help make an extremely stimulating meal.
The fresh produces you find at this market are basic ingredients for many other “strenghtening” and not very expensive soups with proven aphrodisiac effects. Sea-urchins, whose coral is served on aphrodisiac spaghetti, or clams, are both perfect for a “love” dish. One kilo is enough for an energetic soup for two people. Leave half a kilo chickpeas to soak the night before. Boil them in salted water with onion, rosemary leaves and some Pachino pomodorini, until soft. Open the live hard-shell clams in an iron pot with extra vergine oil and flavour with garlic (2 cloves) from Randazzo, fresh pepper and a bit of dry wine from Etna. When clams open stir them into the chickpea soup, and add some of the chickpeas cooking broth. Its flavor is ethereal; for that reason throughout Sicily a moderately intense feeling is ironically referred to as Amuri e brodu di ciciri, “love and chickpea broth”. It’s an oldest saying, even older than the Vespers War, dating back to the 13th century, when rebellious Sicilians could identify the French by having them to pronounce the word “ciciri” (chickpeas), whose sound they could never correctly reproduce because lacking the palatal “c”. That revolt, that drove the French out of Sicily, inspired many poetic lines, even relating to cooking, like the following:
‘Nta n’ura fu distrutta da simenza fu
pri tunnina salata la Franza!’
Matching vegetable soups with fish or meat was usual in ancient Magna Grecia. Today’s renowned vellutina di fave secche, that is dried-beans vellutina flavored with wild fennel, according to Aristophanes’ ”frogs” allowed Heracles to love ten thousand virgins in one night! No wonder today’s Catania’s best amateurs feed themselves large quantities of macco di favi, a fava-beans soup that can also contain spaghetti into tiny pieces or be combined with polpettine di neonata (balls of newly-born fish), called maccu. Yes, the macco and the maccu for their imminent love night!
Who’s writing this article feels particularly qualified to give advice on this matter, just for writing a book, in 1992, in French, published by editor Robert Laffont and translated into several languages (but Italian), entitled Cinq mille ans de cuisine aphrodisiaque (Five thousands years of aphrodisiac cuisine), describing gallant recipes from here and elsewhere through history. I didn’t want an Italian edition to avoid the flagrant plagiarisms perpetrated by my numerous “fans” on my previous Il libro d’oro della cucina e dei vini di Sicilia (Mursia, Milano, V ed.)
However, I want to thank you, life, for allowing me to grow here, among the ancient Etna people, what allows me, at over 75, to be an active person, mainly due to the powerful fresh produces of Catania, that besides erotic addition are infinetely more inviting than Australian or American foods. This is the reason why, still, I stand enraptured before the stands of the city market.
O ‘cchi belli pipi ajiu (I have such beautiful peppers) sings the vegetable seller. Shiny yellow and green bell peppers. He’s not saying “they’re so delicious” but he’s right singing their beauty, as much as the next does, praising the look of his broccoli, here usually boiled and eaten with pasta, or, even better, affucati: poached, by stewing their florets in red wine along with Ragusan peppered caciocavallo flakes and salted anchovyes.
The erotic broccoli are contained in another recipe that Catania has shared with Rome, after first praising these vegetables in amazing Sicilian lines:
Senta ‘n ciàuru di brocculi fritti:
Lu mè cori ‘nzalata si fa!
that I could translate: “On smelling the fragrance of the fried broccoli my heart itself becomes a salad”. That’s something, indeed! Fry the broccoli florets in olive oil with some garlic, salted anchovies and red pepper. Put them into a soup of devilfish wings and fillets, a cheap type of fish here known as the picara, while in Lazio, where our migrated fishermen made it known, it is called arzilla.
Before ending our tour through the market of Piazza Carlo Alberto, a stop is due to the vast choice of green majore basil, normally flavoring the pasta alla norma, made with fried aubergines and grated ricotta salata. Basil, along with parsley and onions, is sold in the streets, amidst wooden barrels containing anchovies, salted sardines and herrings, and booths selling seasoned olives, cheeses and fresh ricotta, which is perfect to make the sweet cassate and the fried crispelle. At the far end of the square, a group of booths sell second-hand dresses. For mille lire (today’s half a euro) you can get very nice and well-kept things.
On sunday morning the square hosts the plea market, where you can get very good deals. Walking the via San Gaetano alle Grotte, on both sides you’ll see all kinds of items: shoes, bags, dresses, music and video tapes, and many others. Then is Stesicoro Square, accommodating a statue of the well-known Catanian composer Vincenzo Bellini. On the other side of Via Etnea are the ruins of an amazing Roman amphiteatre.
It’s 10.30, let’s hurry our trip a bit and cross the Via Etnea, Catania’s Hall, heading towards the sea. At the end of it, is the beautiful Spanish Piazza Duomo surrounded by the Chiesa di Sant’Agata, the Collegiata façade, the University and the Palazzo degli Elefanti (Elephants Palace), the Town Hall, standing right in front of the city’s symbol: the lava-stone statue of an elephant rising above a fountain designed by Vaccarini after the 1693’s devastating earthquake.
In front of Palazzo dei Chierici, the Amenano, an underground river that gives its own name to a fountain nearby, flows into the well-known acqua a lenzuolo that hosts the oldest market in town, the fish market.
This market owes much to the terrific baroque scenery of the square. It is illuminated, even during the day, by lights situated under the massive Charles V Arch and under the city gate giving access to the old harbor, the sole remained of original eight contained in the city defensive walls. The lamps are useful to lighten the big fishes into the basin, destined to be cut into slices by the skilled Catanian sailors. It’s a real show of big and small fishes: tunas, swordfishes, groupers, sea-breams, anchovies.
Anchovies are usually served with garlic, parsley and lemon. If they have any aphrodisiac power? Well! That’s what aged Catania people, lovers of bluefish, claim. This fish, often eaten as an appetizer, was once served to young couples for dinner with boiled lettuce garnished with pepper, garlic and oil, and an egg boiled into the lettuce broth. A light meal that allowed easy digestion and prepared them for an incredible night.
The “royal” limpets, the previously mentioned “beef eye”, are among the most demanded aphrodisiacs. No wonder their price is over 20 Euro a kilo. This aphrodisiac shellfish can be eaten raw, or, more often, cooked and dressed with salmoriglio sauce, or even fried and served on spaghettini aglio, olio e peperoncino.
Many other Catania writers, beside myself, have written of aphrodisiac cuisine. The earliest book on the matter was published in Catania by Olimpio Rompini. Unfortunately, he paid too little attention to the local cuisine while especially focusing on the French. More interesting books, in this view, were written by Antonio Aniante, Vitaliano Brancati and Ercole Patti, who detailedly described the erotic dishes of our traditional cuisine. Cinema, as well, has helped make Catania a “cradle” of aphrodisiac cuisine.
Let’s back to our wonderful fish. At the Pescheria, people can find lobsters, astice, prawns, mullets and many other varieties of fish. The market is surrounded by an endless number of narrow streets criss-crossing the whole quarter. At every door there’s a shop displaying its products outside. A wide choice of fresh meats is, there, also available: chicken, turkey, lamb, veal, sausages, falsomagro, and many others. You can even find vegetables, the seta aubergines, prickly pears and best erotic veal entrails. The popular trippa (tripe) is a light meal that well-known poet Miciu Tempio praised in his erotic lines:
... tutta la sciara ‘ntra ‘na botta canciarisi si vulissi in trippa cotta!
This colorful and lively quarter, especially in the morning, is marked by a deep scent of legumes and flours (included that of chickpea used for couscous), candied fruit, used to decorate cassate and cannoli, red cherries, often topping the sugar glazed cassatine. Here you find all the dried fruit used in the Sicilian pastry-making: almonds, nuts, hazelnuts, Bronte green pistachios, raisins, pine-nuts, candied citrons. At midday, all these tasty products have whetted your appetite for a fine cooked meal. At least two nice traditional trattorias are available in the market district. My preference goes to Trattoria La Paglia, since I knew its first owner, now passed away. This restaurant, looking out on the many fish stands, is located at 23 Pardo Street, in the very heart of the market, and it’s been the set of many celebrated movies. Its owner and cook is the cheerful Maria La Paglia, the founder’s daughter, who runs the prosperous business with her sons. A ritual dry Zibibbo wine opens the meal accompanied by the sarda a beccafico, just fried and consisting of two flat sardines, rolled around a filling of toasted bread crumb, garlic and salted anchovies, a little beaten egg, cheese, parsley, red pepper and brined white olives. The rolled sardines are brushed with beaten egg and dust with flour.
In Palermo, they use to add some lemon and orange juice in the filling and then bake it.
But Catania people do not appreciate that much which they rather consider a namby-pamby. They’re probably wrong since that is as delicious as theirs. Let’s then have an octopus salad or a jellied pork and veal loaf as an appetizer, what is here known as zuzo; some good spaghetti with cuttle-fish ink; then ask for advice about the vast choice of second courses available. Last thing: don’t ask them for “some aphrodisiac food” when you’re there. They could even not understand what you mean. They just serve it.
So far, we have only talked about what is traditionally referred to as the “poor” aphrodisiac cuisine. Catania can obviously offer more expensive and refined voluptuous food, like that I used to serve at my Fata Morgana club-restaurant up to two years ago. I would serve an Angelica Bionda as aperitif, accompanied by a steaming Scacciatina dell’Arcunè, with tuma cheese and seafood. Prawns, stockfish, lobster, astice or sea truffles as appetizers. As a first course I would recommend an alga sultana nel pomo d’amore with botargo. Grilled Sfogliatina di petali di roda with bass fillet and sea-urchin sauce as a second. A Torta Normanna, a cake with ricotta, apples and Bronte pistachio to close the meal. Further, an amazing show of the world known Sicilian Puppets used to entertain my guests during lunch.
Here’s a list of restaurants that I also highly recommend:
the La Siciliana, in Viale M. Polo 52/A , owned by brothers Salvo and Vito La Rosa; the Poggio Ducale, in Via Gaifarni 7, owned by chef Nino Statela; in the neighboring Acitrezza, is the Galatea, owned by Vito Fusari; along road to Etna, there are: in San Giovanni La Punta, the La Pigna, inside the Paradiso dell’Etna hotel, run by the chef Pippo Laudani, and, in Zafferana Etnea, the Parco dei Principi run by Enza Cutuli and her son, Sebi, serving the porcini mushrooms, that is one of Etna an Etna’s major specialties.
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