Friday, 28 September 2012

Eating my way through Sicily

One of the pleasures of foreign travel is being able to try different foods - if I'm honest, it's one of the main attractions, more interesting than lying on a beach for a week or two. I've been known to dash off for short breaks purely for the food, but longer trips really give you plenty of time to eat your way round a cuisine.

I've been to Italy many times, but not Sicily until now. I was itching to climb Etna but had to read up on the food culture before I flew out. No surprise to learn that pasta and pizza are as widespread in Sicily as the rest of the country, but there are lots of local specialities too.

I was based in the east, where fish dominates the menus, thanks to the thriving fishing industry and abundance of varieties. At Catania's massive outdoor fish market, a daily theatrical spectacle, I saw hundreds of fishy things I'd never seen before.

With so much fish on menus everywhere I ate very little meat. Stuffing and rolling fillets is a local speciality. The sarde a beccafico (sardines stuffed with pine nuts, capers, breadcrumbs and almonds) were delicious, as was the swordfish (involtino di pesce spada) stuffed with anchovies, garlic and salted ricotta (and an unexpected but very tasty side of deep-fried celery leaves).

Sampling the pasta all Norma was a given - a plate of pasta, tomatoes, fried aubergine slices and salted ricotta, named after the opera by Bellini, who happens to be Catania's most famous son. I also enjoyed this plate of pasta with tomato sauce, peas, fresh anchovies and fried breadcrumbs (which are another local tradition).
And this is what I call a proper rocket pizza.
The desserts also delighted. Annoyingly, my every attempt to try the cassata was thwarted - time and again I was told sorry, it's off the menu. But I did scoff a few cannoli - deep-fried rolled pastry shells (a bit like a brandy snap), stuffed with fresh, sweetened ricotta and candied fruits then dipped in crushed pistachios. And the semifreddo of pistachio, marsala-soaked sponge and soft meringue was amazing.
There were many more memorable meals, too many to post here. Naturally I came home with food - a large hunk of salted ricotta, a lump of coppa, a jar of pistachio cream, bottles of limoncello and fennel liqueur, and a basket of these beautiful marzipan fruits...
Lastly, I've just found this lovely blog on Sicilian food and I'm enjoying dipping into the recipes and learning even more about the food culture there.