The fish market in Catania on Sicily island in Italy is quite known and was part of our last destination on this trip.
We came from the North Coast via Bronte on the slopes of the Etna volcano to Catania. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant day. The rain did not make things better.
The start was promising. We left Cefalu on a Sunday drove up a beautiful mountainous landscape where I was unhappy not to have enough time for a hike. The stop at a local bakery Biscottificio Miraglia in San Fratello with the most beautiful sandwiches one can imagine. Wonderful thinly sliced mortadella, prosciutto and cheese in tasty wheat rolls. Basic food in perfection.
Then the rain started and everything got truly gray. Bronte is famous for its pistachios, but nothings seemed open on this rainy Sunday. Only at the outskirts one old guy sold them out of his little old car.
And then the “trash highway” started, trash everywhere, as if the garbage collection was on strike. All the way from Bronte to Catania. I have been living or working in poor countries on the African continent but I had never seen something like that before.
On top of that we had to take a detour on the highway as the right exit was closed, leading us through not so nice industrial and commercial areas.
We finally arrived just before darkness at the hotel in downtown next to the fish market.
While it was still raining, we made a walk through town, the old architecture made the city look nicer than at the beginning. Unfortunately the fish restaurant where we wanted to eat was fully booked. I texted back home to a chef friend and got a good recommendation. Peace of mind was back.
Starting early at fish market day
We started early on Monday. At 8 o’clock we stepped out of the hotel, passing the beautiful “Fontana dell’Amenano”to enter the fish market and saw:
Just a few improvised stalls and a few people.
It was so quiet that an octopus had the chance to jump out of his box full with his comrades to start moving a bit on the ground. This was probably the most lively scene yet.
What was supposed to be stalls was still empty. Was this the fish-less season? Are fish mongers getting up late? I never found out.
So we decided to stroll over to the main market to come back later. This was the right decision. The main market was very lively, big and worth a visit but this is for another post.
A couple hours or so later we came back and the stall had filled up.
The octopus was of course back in his box, and we saw many other fishes and creatures of the sea. I am not too familiar with this type of food, but it was easy to identify the mighty swordfishes, remarkable animals and to my surprise plenty at the market.
Being a tourist at a fish market
Being a tourist is a disadvantage when you are interested in fresh produce hence farmers’ markets. Some produce cannot be eaten fresh so easily, and sometimes the transport time without cooling is too long for an unspoiled produce experience.
So I feel rather like a spectator of a sea world zoo or a streetfood festival visitor than a fully embedded market visitor, especially as I am not speaking Italian or Sicilian (yes this is considered to be a separate language).
Opening my eyes, observe, trying to get good shots, this is what I am aiming for then.
What the fish market exudes
It is worth opening those eyes as I do not experience that many open fish markets in my life.
This market exudes robustness. We are not in a hipster world here. No fancy signage or displays. Lots of ice to cool down the produce. Surprisingly no shouting. Many people coming by without buying.
As the market is not one single plaza but is spread around various spaces under or next to the surrounding buildings and alleys, each corner has its own distinct set of merchants. The stalls were some times only a camping table with a few boxes, giving the impression that the gradient from hobby fishermen to commercial trader was rather fluid.
I loved the unpretentious ambiance of the market, despite being a tourist attraction life seemed normal and I did not spot any market souvenirs, neither bags nor mugs or stickers.
What the fish market offers
I have hard times remembering names. Even after decades of eating lots of great cheeses, I cannot remember their names. Okay Parmesan and mozzarella are fairly easy. But how does a Vacherin again look like? Embarrassing. Now imagine that with fish. No way. Especially as I almost only see fish filet and not whole ones.
Still it seemed that the variety was not very large, I doubt that there were more than 20 different species being sold. But all sorts of mussels and shrimps added diversity to the offering.
King of the market was the swordfish. A big fish. Some of them longer than my arm span. Its head with sword were on display quite frequently, almost like a show-off: who has the biggest. But it is also a great signage when your eyes are wandering around.
It was mostly sold as slices looking like round steaks, just that the meat was not as red, rather whitish with red tones. The muscles formed often a four leaved clover around the fish’s spine, and each “leaf” with several rings reminding of growth rings from trees.
Other fish were eel like (they looked a bit sad), some had the sizes of sardines, others were tiger like striped or looked like gilt-head breams. But as said, I am pretty bad at recognizing fish varieties and even worse at remembering their names.
Some of the mussels made us smile: in one box, covered with water the mussels seemed to burp as the infrequent air bubbles coming up to the surface indicated.
It was not clear to me where all the fish and seafood came from. Where they captured in the Mediterranean Sea or did they come from further away? Were they captured by small scale fishermen or by large fleets?
Some of the frozen fish in boxes for sale, indicating a diversity of origins. Next time I will look at the individual labels to get a better understanding of the market.
The other side of the market
imagine an inner circle for fish and an outer ring with vegetable shops, butchers, cheese mongers and a few rather unusual stalls. This outer ring complements the fish market in a very nice way. And it is worth exploring the beautiful produce!
Being October the fruits and vegetables were still very colorful almost summer like, not so many tomatoes, but prickly pears all around.
The butchers were of the rustic kind, cutting the animal parts in front of the customers, something I do not see this that often anymore. Nose to tail was not a trend, tripe, liver, pork feet seemed to be part of the local cuisine. I really love to see the animal being used in his whole entity and not being so abstract as in the plastic wrapped Styrofoam boxes in supermarkets.
The cheese mongers made it easy on me, they vacuumed some of my purchases, especially the smoked mozzarella was still great at home.
The local street food experience was great (no burgers!) and deserves another post.
Was it worth the visit?
Open fish markets are always fascinating to me, so far the most impressive one was in Athens but I also experienced one in Marseille.
When I see all the fishes I am always asking myself: how were the fish killed, how much did they have to suffer? Are the areas where the fishes came from over-fished? I never properly researched on those questions, probably of fear that I would not accept the way these animals are treated and eaten.
It is hard not to be sucked in into the beauty of the Catania fish market.
All in all: The Catania fish market is worth a little detour, its rustic ambiance and the fascinating offering and surroundings being the reasons.