Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy, Sicily – The fish market, cooking and deals in the piazza

Jan 26, 2016

Sandra and I are in Sicily with her sister Paola and Paola’s partner Simone. We are staying in a small apartment in Trapani, just one street back from the harbour where giant cruise ships dock at the quayside and spew out hordes of grey haired passengers who stroll along the streets before being bussed up to the ancient mountain summit town of Erice. Our apartment is on the second floor of a handsome old palazzo overlooking Piazza Lucatelli.

Of course I am full of Anglo Saxon preconceptions about Sicily. I have read Peter Robb’s incredible book about the mafia, ‘Midnight in Sicily’, so I think I know a lot but as usual I find my knowledge outweighed by ignorance. Sicily turns out to be stunningly beautiful and even more complex and contradictory than the rest of Italy. I had the impression that the island is chaotic, run down and under the influence of dark, sinister criminal and political forces. I am mildly surprised to discover that Trapani having gone through a major renovation to the Centro Storico two years previously is a pleasant place to spend some time.

This day we are off to the fishing port and the fish market because we are going to cook our dinner on the interestingly equipped and tiny kitchen in the apartment. On the north side of the town is Piazza Mercato del Pesce lapped by the waves of the Mediterranean. A classically columned nineteenth century market building curves in a graceful arc around its seaward border and standing in the centre is a statue of Venus. But this ordered, neat and recently restored market is no longer where the fishermen’s daily catch is sold. We are going to the modern market in the hard working practical part of the city.

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The modern fish market is a fine example of brutal, purely functional concrete architecture. A rectangular box with a cantilevered veranda along one side, its walls are punctured by arched doorways and semicircular windows. With its fading paint that’s being shed like old dry skin it’s as if it is showing sympathy with the more weather beaten fishermen and the well-worn older customers. Inside there is an unfamiliar variety of fish for sale, some familiar others none of us have ever seen before. Like everyone from Pescara, our group of three Pescarese is crazy for fish and all forms of seafood – so what else would they prepare for tonight’s dinner? The variety has them transfixed, especially Simone, who is going to cook a fish soup. He needs small but flavourful fish, sort that the elderly Trapanese are buying for their own fish soup but he is suffering from confusion and indecision. Confusion because he has not seen some of the species before and indecision because of the huge variety.

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The market is loud and has the clean smell of fresh fish. This not the sort of market where tourists wander aimlessly marvelling at the offers and colors of exotic foods. This is a practical, every day market for the Trapanesi. The rough weather of the last few days has not been ideal for fishing so the market is hardly presenting an abundant catch. There is a gaggle of the elderly milling around the entrance in the hope that a supply of the small bony fish they need for fish soup will arrive. Inside the market there is a live, freshly caught, writhing octopus trying to escape its box. It flails its arms about trying to haul itself out to freedom. Each time it seems to have escaped a fisherman absent mindedly prods it back onto the box with a wooden stick. We buy cuttlefish, red prawns and a few other prawns while a still undecided Simone gives the fish another careful review. There is sudden liveliness from the pensioners when some crates of fish for soup are spread over some trestles. Quick – get them before they’re all gone. Now, laden with bags of fish, the “anziani” can make their dinner. Simone makes up his mind and collects a variety. The familiar red mullet, a smooth, sleek pink one, a spiny finned spotted brown thing, one with brilliant blue fins and a streamlined silver sort with long winglike fins, all weighed out by the fisherman on hand held beam scales. Just the right small, bony fish to give great flavour to Simone’s soup. When we travel we often take an apartment for a week, shop in the market and cook as well as dining out – that way we get to get the true regional flavours of a particular dish. At home in Melbourne we can often only make an approximation as we don’t have everyday availability of key ingredients. This is particularly true of seafood.

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1303 CROPPED

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As the three cooks begin to prepare dinner with our market produce I pour myself a glass of Grillo, the delicious Sicilian white wine, open a window, sit on the ledge and look over the piazza. There is a perfect eye in the sky view of Piazza Lucatelli from the windows of our apartment. The piazza is so named because it is in front of the Baroque facade of Palazzo Lucatelli which was established as a hospital in 1455 by the Compagna di Sant’Angelo. The much latter facade is part of the evolution of the building over time. The piazza contains a few palm trees, a couple of unkempt garden beds and a central fountain.

971Opposite there is a bar that only opens in the evening. There is a shop selling coral jewellery and a CD shop with a roller shutter painted with a portrait of Jimmi Hendrix. Leading to the graffiti covered front door of the palazzo is an elegant set of steps, a perfect place for local kids to meet, talk, cuddle and smoke joints. The kids are beginning to arrive for their evening meeting. They have dragged their school bags along with them and they settle in for their usual activities. Now a man on a bike rides along the street, stops at the bar for a few minutes and then rides up and down the street a couple of times. Each time he passes he checks the kids. I guess that he is in his mid-thirties. Eventually he drifts into the piazza and approaches the kids and begins to chat to one of the boys.

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In the tiny kitchen, dinner preparation has started. There are three cooks with about one square metre each to work in. Simone has claimed the stove for his “brodetto” (fish soup) and Paola and Sandra are doing their best to work around him. It has the appearance of a badly choreographed culinary dance routine. They twist and turn and sidestep, slicing, chopping, stirring and somehow no one is stabbed or splashed. It looks like they know what they are doing. I pour myself another glass of Grillo; go back to the window to enjoy the fresh breeze and to see what is happening below.

The music is floating up from the bar and the bike rider is still involved in a serious conversation with the boy. What’s going on? Then I understand. Bike Man is holding open a small bag. The kids and putting their noses in the bag, inhaling and nodding. Someone produces some papers and they begin to roll joints. Money changes hands and Bike Man retreats to the bar where he continues to lounge around. Everyone seems happy, but not for long. A group of men rush into the Piazza, flash ID at the stunned kids, grab the boy and upend his bag strewing the contents across the piazza. Bike Man slumps against the bar with barely a glance toward the boy being dragged off to a police car thrown in to the back seat. The jeans and t-shirt crew of Carabineri are showing the same lack of interest in the dope dealer as he does in them. Now I know this is different in Sicily but the Carabineri have seen the whole deal. Letting dope sellers go free must be a local convention I don’t get.

Cooking together, the best!!!

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While I puzzle about this everyone else is concentrating on their cooking. Sandra is carefully filling the cuttlefish with their stuffing, Paola is busy with the red prawns and Simone is totally absorbed with getting just the right flavours in the soup base. He needs mortar and pestle so he can crush herbs and garlic. Of course there isn’t one, so calling all his resources of Italian ingenuity he improvises with a cup and a heavy handled knife. And so dinner comes together with the aid of an ever-full wineglass. Red prawns, the brilliant fish soup, (Simone’s fish choosing instincts are finely honed) and finally the stuffed cuttlefish. This all took until eleven thirty to get ready, so it’s almost midnight before we sat down. This is perfectly normal; it’s a long time since I was persuaded to give up eating at Anglo Saxon teatime. Even so this was late to eat. Sandra said it was late enough to be “un Cenone di Capodanno” – late enough to commence New Year’s dinner.

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There’s a post script to the tale of the dope smoking kids in the piazza. Needless to say we didn’t sight them again but we did see the dealer. One morning, at coffee in a bar also having espresso were the jeans and t-shirt Carabineri who arrested the kid and with them, badge visible, wearing standard plain clothes jeans and t-shirt as well is Bike Man the dope dealer. No wonder he was relaxed. It was a set-up!

Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)

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