I didn’t even know that Jesus of Nazareth had made it as far as Sicily. Turns out that he did and his descendant Giorgio is carrying his flame as he mixes with the great and the good in the street markets of Palermo. Our street food tour of this historic city started outside the aptly named Massimo Theatre. It is the third largest opera house in Europe, after those of Paris and Vienna. A reminder that this city was the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily for generations. There was an important royal court here from the 12th century onwards. In fact Palermo was probably the most open-minded and liberal intellectual centre in the Mediterranean, until the arrival of the Spanish. But that’s enough history and politics lets have a good look at the food!
PALERMO – We started our street food and market tour just around the corner from the Massimo Theatre, at the entrance to the Capo Market. Over the next couple of hours we learned about the history of Sicily and specifically the fascinating city of Palermo through its food. Our first street food experience awaited us at the very threshold of the market. An innocent looking wicker basket covered with tea towels, contained a hot, meat stew. It was not for the faint-hearted. Off cuts of veal, boiled, re-boiled and then kept warm in a large basket, lined with cloth until a customer came along. Once an order was received a fresh bread roll was cut in two, split open and the inside filled with the ‘off-cut veal mix’. This created a very cheap, tasty and satisfying sandwich for the market traders and visitors. We tried it, slightly reluctantly. It was a little too chewy for me and its origins a little too obvious.
HOWEVER – when we turned through 90 degrees, we saw a visual feast, a rainbow of colours, with large numbers of stands selling fresh green vegetables, bright red fruit and all manner of aromatic, fresh, fresh berries. Spring comes early in Sicily and the markets of Palermo were overflowing with the fruits and vegetables of the new season. By noon the sun was high in the sky and the temperature (in April) was a balmy 24 degrees celsius. I immediately bought some ‘fragoline‘ tiny wild strawberries, with an intensity of flavour that is both surprising and delicious, all at the same time.
When we sat down for a small snack of freshly fried fish, in a light tempura batter, Jesus explained to us, oops sorry, I mean Giorgio, about the history of Palermo and how ‘everyone’ invaded them. In fact he was quite right. The Phoenicians from North Africa, Greeks from Athens, Romans, Moors and Byzantine people all tried their luck when it came to conquering the largest island in the Mediterranean. They brought with them exotic foods, herbs and spices and different recipes.
FOOD & WINE – of course food and wine go hand in hand throughout the Italian peninsula and Sicily is no exception. As we enjoyed our lightly battered and deliciously fresh seafood mixture, Giorgio produced a bottle of dry white Sicilian wine, Grillo 204. The wine was dry, crisp and great with the seafood. Even more interesting however, was Giorgio’s story of the development of the Sicilian wine industry in recent years. Sicily had less than twenty wine producers in the 1990s, now there are more than four hundred. They are almost all producing quality rather than quantity. The price of the wine has risen, however this is more than matched by the superior quality of the wine being produced. Italians are obsessed with the price-quality ratio. They’ll pay more for something that’s good – but it has to be good, really good. Even land repossessed from the mafia is being used by small, local co-operative groups to produce good quality, local wines. An example is ‘Cento Passi‘ which literally means 100 paces. If you see it for sale near you then buy it, you’ll be helping a group of young Sicilians to make their mark on the wine industry.
Just a short stroll further into the Capo Market revealed a small stall selling ‘arancini’ the typical snack loved by almost all Sicilians. These circular or pyramid shaped croquettes are prepared with a savoury meat mixture or a cheese and ham filling. They are then dusted with flour, rolled in breadcrumbs and cooked. They are quite delicious, especially when served straight from the oven or frying pan. Sicilian chefs and home cooks love to compete with one another for the lightest and most flavourful final article. The cities of Catania and Palermo are in a constant state of dispute over who produces the best ‘arancini’ and in which of the two cities they originated. Of course Giorgio, as a Palermitano is convinced that the finest ‘arancini‘ are from his native city. One of the most famous Sicilian characters these days is the fictional detective ‘Commisario Montalbano‘, he has been known to halt a murder investigation to allow himself time to sample the ‘arancini’ on offer at a family birthday party. Most Sicilians would agree with his sense of priorities.
JUST when we thought we were emerging from the market, we came into a square full of people, with numerous smoking stoves, filling the air with a mixture of fumes, flames and a slightly acrid aroma. Jesus was in spleen and lung sandwich territory and he wasn’t getting any takers. The square we were stood in was more reminiscent of Cairo or Marrakesh than it was of Italy. Crowds jostled for position immediately behind each of the chefs, offering money, shouting their orders and generally being raucous and enthusiastic. At least the large numbers of potential and eager buyers distracted from us and our lack of a purchase.
WE followed our great leader out of the market and into a bigger, commercial street, where we soon took a break at a well known and famous ‘gelateria’. Here Giorgio explained to us about the relative merits of the different ice cream flavours. As a boy he informed us, simple, fresh flavours were best, lemon, strawberry or raspberry. We followed suit and selected accordingly. He was quite right the flavours were truly exceptional and very nostalgic ‘c’era una volta’ as the Italians would say. Meaning ‘once upon a time’.
ONE OF the things I love about Italy is the open access policy that exists almost everywhere. You can stroll into any hotel, bar or restaurant just to have a look. The terrace of the Daniele Hotel, for example in Venice, gives amazing views over the lagoon of Venice. You can go and have a look, nobody will mind. In Palermo you can stroll into the upmarket Rinascente Department Store and take the lift to the top floor for a superb view over the city and the Church of San Domenico next door. We gazed over the city and reflected on our morning’s tour. What a fascinating place, centuries of history and a real mixture of cultures, African, Greek, Middle Eastern and European. It’s no wonder that the Sicilians are unique. If you haven’t been to Sicily yet I urge you to go and why not spend the morning with Giorgio, he’ll lead you through the narrow streets and explain the history of the city through its food. Every time I think about this tour I have Depeche Mode’s song “Personal Jesus’ playing on a constant loop in my head.
- For the sound track: Here’s a link to the Depeche Mode song ‘Personal Jesus’ https://youtu.be/u1xrNaTO1bI
- With thanks to Rhonda Rasmussen for many of the photos.
- Thanks too go to Gabriella Costa our partner in Palermo
- To discover more about Sicily check out: www.educated-traveller.com and type in Sicily. Happy Travels.
- If you’d like help with planning a trip to Sicily – why not contact me to discuss your requirements. Simply complete the attached form. An initial consultation (30 minutes) is free of charge. Detailed trip planning costs start at Euros € 500– depending on length of tour and level of assistance required.
- Written: 02 May 2019
- Updated: 24 May 2019