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.
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…
to silvery, fresh herrings at Euro 2 each, which doesn’t seem enough for everyone in the supply chain to make a living from…
and on to something I don’t know the name of, but which was a bit off-putting….
to ancient wooden tubs packed with preserved anchovies. Caskets that looked like they dated from Roman times.
…and finally what was left of the swordfish, a pink flash of the remaining prawns and the last of the calamari being gutted…
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.