Sicilian markets #1: and a fish chowder

A fish market in downtown Catania. We got there late, as visitors to cities do. Even so, there was still plenty going on. An earthy place where food takes pride of place. Home again, the market inspired me to try a fish chowder which turned out quite delicate and refined, in contrast to its gutsy muse on the Catania market stalls. Recipe below market photos.

Catania, Sicily, market

The market lies a stone’s throw from the main shopping street, Via Etnea, with its winter sales and swisher dressers. A glance down a side street revealed the canopies that belie a market lurking; I am a pro at sniffing them out whether food or not. Brocantes in France, flea markets in Malta, fish markets or undercover food halls, I find them all when travelling.

This Catania market was discovered at around midday. Now, if I were in Malta, I’d have been up before light to get to our local fish market to grab the sea’s riches in their ultimate prime, well before any casual tourists are up, let alone snapping photos. But our earlier business meeting left only lunch hour to pace around Catania’s back streets and delight upon the market. Malta and Sicily are two of the same kind of island. Born living off the sea since antiquity and before, yet fearing it too for the many enemies it brought. Wave upon wave of colonisers.

Catania’s fish market could have been our own at Marsaxlokk; the sights and sounds so familiar and yet with an array of fish species that we don’t play host to on our tables in Malta though we fish the same sea, just kilometers apart. The islands retain their individuality. We’d spent a morning with our Sicilian colleagues fathoming the real meaning of ‘Mediterranean’; a figment of our imagination perhaps, a ‘region’ that exists in tourism brochures but not in the hearts of people from the sea’s myriad islands with their own distinct cultural mores. It’s not the myth of the Mediterranean that links the people in this part of the world, but the everyday-ness of their lives played out in markets like this one in Catania. Strolling round it as a visitor rather than being in the thick of it as a buyer, I realised that it would have been like this for centuries. Hawkers were bemused at my photographing it as a spectacle.

Now to what was on offer and what my lens recorded…

This Catania market is home to people in heavy-duty aprons, thick-gauge oiled wool sweaters and workman’s overalls – clothes worn season after season and designed for trade. Stallholders wrapped up warm, hardened hands smeared with the dirt of their fresh dug up vegetables or splattered with the business of handling meat and fish. The odd yell to attract attention to their produce, a bit of shoving and jostling from the shoppers, and general dodging of the wooden crates being tossed up on Ape vans.

Fish everywhere…from salted and preserved, like this baccala’ (salt cod) which came from Norway but is such traditional Sicilian fare…

Baccala at Catania market

to silvery, fresh herrings at Euro 2 each, which doesn’t seem enough for everyone in the supply chain to make a living from…

Fresh herrings at Catania market

and on to something I don’t know the name of, but which was a bit off-putting….

Weird fish Catania Market, Sicily

to ancient wooden tubs packed with preserved anchovies. Caskets that looked like they dated from Roman times.

salted anchvies in a Catania market, Sicily

…and finally what was left of the swordfish, a pink flash of the remaining prawns and the last of the calamari being gutted…

Swordish at Catania market

This particular market wasn’t Catania’s fish market proper which is a must-see on my list for future visits as it’s far more an assault on the senses than even this one. Gutsy enough it was, literally, and a reminder of our common past, Malta and Sicily’s. In the next week, I’ll be posting up the vegetable and deli quarters of the market with more Catania-inspired recipes to accompany them.

All images © Liz Ayling 2013

Fish Chowder recipe

serves 6 with good-sized portions

I was tempted to make a lighter Aljotta fish soup which is stock based and uses all those indescribable bony little fish you find on southern Mediterranean fish markets. As it’s wintry right now (though no big freeze as in Northern Europe), I fancied something more substantial, creamy and warming; a meal in one needing just some crusty Maltese bread to mop up the sauce. Chowder on the menu it was then. I’ll leave Aljotta til spring time when lighter mornings mean I’ll manage to get up early enough to make a trip to Malta’s vast fish market at Marsaxlokk.

fish chowder recipe

Fish chowder recipe

Sicilian market fish chowder
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
A bowl of goodness that's a main course soup. Use almost any fish, but if using small ones, do mouli or sieve for small bones. A dish to warm and give health.
Recipe type: soup
Cuisine: Italian, British
Serves: 6
  • 700g of steak fish, filleted, deboned and cut in largish cubes – any chunky white fish or salmon steaks.
  • 750ml fish stock or water (you may need more or less depending on how much liquid you want in the final chowder)
  • 3 leeks, sliced finely
  • 2 red onions, sliced finely
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
  • quality salami*, cubed or bacon lardons – around 100g
  • 3 tbsp peas or use other greens like broccoli (frozen or fresh)
  • 300ml single cream
  • sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • handful of flat-leafed parsley, chopped (to garnish on serving)
  • knob of butter and two tbsps olive oil
  • * I used a fennel salami I brought back from Sicily. It lent a really wonderful extra flavour to the chowder. If you can’t find fennel salami, just add a few fennel seeds whole and half a teaspoon ground to the soup.
  1. Par boil the cubed potatoes, leaving them firm. Drain, rinse with cold water to stop them cooking, and set aside. Melt a knob of butter and the olive oil in a heavy-based, deep-sided pan. Add the salami or bacon lardons to the pan and fry on a medium-high heat til cooked and crisped up a bit. Reduce the heat to low and add the chopped leeks and onions to the pan, tossing the veg to begin with, then popping on a lid to let them soften slowly for around 10 mins. Watch they don’t burn so check occasionally.
  2. Once the veg is soft, add the stock and the cubed, prepared fish. Bring to the boil, then reduce and simmer for around 10 minutes. Then, add the potatoes and peas or other cubed green veg like broccoli florets. Simmer for a further 10 minutes until all the veg is tender. Add the cream and bring the chowder back to a simmer for around 5 minutes until it is heated through again.
  3. Serve immediately with chopped parsley sprinkled over, accompanied by fresh crusty bread. It freezes well as you’ll find these proportions make quite a lot of chowder.


  1. SteveC says

    Great post great memories – the food markets in Sicily are exactly what that Island is about and a must everytime you go there. The ‘off-putting’ fish is literally known as “Pesce Cintura’ – always fascinated me on our trips to Sicily since i was very young. Last year I actually tasted it for the first time in Sicily, prepared by a foodie friend of mine in Siracusa, as a ‘parmiggiana’ style with layers of fish, aubergines and mozzarella, and again repeat the layers of fish, aubergine and mozzarella, all lightly baked in individual portions – absolutely excellent ‘primo di pesce’.
    I now look at this fish in a less menacing way.

    • says

      What a practical name for that long, weird fish – belt, love it! Had I had a bit more time (and had put the lens down), I might thought about grabbing the stallholders attention to ask. It’s been intriguing me since we returned, so thanks for the info. He seemed to have just the one whole crate left and had sold a lot, so it must be less off-putting to locals. One I must see if I can find on Malta’s fish market, and test out as per your recipe hint. I’ll get them to cut it up though! Not sure I can face that bit.

  2. claude says

    I caught a ‘pesce cintura’ in malta a couple of years ago. They are deep sea fish & beautiful. locals don’t really know what to do with them now we know. Thanks Liz.

    • says

      Yes, Claude, I think in Malta often we’re less adventurous than our Sicilian neighbours in using local fare, and not just various types of fish. Carob and prickly pear are two ingredients that feature far more across the straits to Sicily than here for example. Thanks to Steve for giving us a hint of what we can do with the Belt Fish. I’ll see if I can experiment with his recipe in a few weeks time, with some less commonly used fish (no doubt a cheaper species) from Marsaxlokk’s market.

  3. says

    While we were in Catania, our Sicilian friends hosted us at an understated trattoria specialising in the cucina tipica marinara . It’s the Trattoria al Gabbiano at Via G. Bruno 128. Tel 095 537842. It has a splash site at We didn’t try the fish soup, but the fish antipasto (supposedly for 2, but in reality for 4) was the most amazing display of frutti di mare I have seen. The pastas were all sublime (particularly my spaghetti al bianco with cherry tomatoes and vongole). Only one of us made it to the main course, a grigliata miste di pesce. On another day, I would have loved to try the pesce al sale. One to look out for, if you’re in Catania. In the meantime, Liz’s fish chowder is as fabulous to savour as its visual incarnation above.

  4. says

    Liz – just come across your beautiful blog – congratulations! The photography is stunning. I’m particularly looking at Sicilian stuff at the moment as Nick and I are off to Panarea (via Catania) for a week in April. Can’t wait! Hope you and the family are well! Love Robin x

    • says

      Hi Robin,
      What perfect timing that you stumbled upon Red B! Thanks for the kind comments on the photos – am learning still but having fun en route. I love Sicily, and went to Panarea just after our year in Brighton. The Aeolian Islands are amazing – just like in Il Postino. Panarea a bit small, but you’ll island hop anyway across them all. Palermo is worth a visit if you change your mind and fly in there. The market there is even more amazing. Weather should be warmer in April, but be warned, those islands are named after the god of wind, and we had immense difficulty getting off them on our day of departure (July holiday) as the boats stopped! Bring something wind and waterproof that time of year. I am envious, but I’ve been getting to know the S.E corner (baroque cities) as they’re a hop from Malta. Blog speed you! Liz

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