Journey into the secrets and flavours of fish cooking in Sicily [6/6]

by Franco Andaloro – Head of the Department for the Sustainable Use of Resources of the Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca sull’Ambiente (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research).

All the species of fish described above are pelagic or nektonic, i.e. live close to the surface or in the water column. Also economically important and very widespread in Sicily, however, are the demersal and bentonic species, i.e. those which generally live on or near the bottom of the sea. The most common are mullets, both the white (triglia di fango), which is the less popular, and the red (triglia di scoglio) versions. Mullets are caught with the trawl method using nets known as reti da posta, which represent the most ancient and traditional fishing equipment in Sicily. Mullets are found everywhere but are subject to fierce parochialism, based on which the groups of the different areas are all claimed to be the best in the world. They are traditionally served fried or baked, according to their size, but mullet dishes are continually being reinterpreted and an increasing variety can be found.

The same applies to the hake, generally referred to in Sicily as cod, which is also fished with the deep-water longline method. The hake is considered a delicate, easily-digestible fish and is often served to children and convalescents; for this reason, it is usually cooked in a sauce, all’acqua pazza (water flavoured with wine and herbs) or simply boiled. As the longline hake is preferred it is common to see large specimens of the fish displayed in fish shops with the hook still in the mouth. The hake is a part of the cooking traditions of the whole island, with relatively few variations; the small ones are fried whole, while the larger specimens may also be breaded and roast or oven-baked.

Sicily also does honour to the true cod, that of the Atlantic, through the island’s traditional consumption of stockfish, or piscistoccu, and dried salted cod, or baccalà. Here again Sicily is divided: as in the mainland ports of Genoa and Livorno, stockfish was traded from the ships in transit and elected Messina as its Sicilian home, while baccalà is preferred in Palermo, where it was brought by the French monsù. Stockfish is cooked a ghiotta, served raw in a salad or simply parboiled with potatoes, but sometimes also served in a dish known as ventri i piscistoccu chini, in which it is stuffed with breadcrumbs and cooked in tomato sauce. Baccalà cooked with cream is a dish that graced the tables of the nobility, and is mentioned in the description of a banquet in the famous novel ‘The Leopard’ (‘il Gattopardo’) by Giuseppe Lanza Tomasi da Lampedusa.

One seabed species that is fished even at a great depth is the scabbard fish, known in Sicily as the spatola. For years this fish has been an accessory catch of longline hake fishing and in Messina it was once brought ashore and sold by the famous femminote, the wives of the fishermen of Bagnara Calabra, who crossed the Strait of Messina carrying on their heads baskets full of rolled-up spatole and returned with packs of salt (on which until a few decades ago Italy had the monopoly but in Sicily was not subject to the notorious gabelle salt tax) hidden in pockets sewn into their full skirts. The spatola was only popular in the areas where bottom longline fishing was practised, i.e. in the Tyrrhenian and Ionian parts of the island. The most well-known recipes are i bracioli i spatula, where the fish is rolled up with a breadcrumb stuffing, a type of fish cake made with layers of boned spatola slices alternated with breadcrumbs and cooked in a bain-marie, and cutuletti i spatula, or cutlets made with fish fillets, boned, coated first in egg and then breadcrumbs and fried. Over the past few yeas, the tender, white flesh and delicate flavour of this fish have made it much more popular in Sicily than it was in the past, transforming it from a forgotten fish to a popular species; today, therefore, it can easily be found even far from the areas where it is fished.

It is important to bear in mind also that the cheese used in Sicilian stuffings is invariably the matured caciocavallo and the wine drunk by fishermen has always been red or ambrato. The descriptions above show a clear diversity in Sicilian cuisine, both regarding the territorial distribution of the various species of fish and the use of ingredients: capers, celery and olives are basically found in ghiotte and matalotte type dishes of eastern Sicily, while raisins and pine nuts are used in western Sicily. Fish is made into fish cakes mainly in the south and rolls in the Messina area, while around Palermo sweet-and-sour is characteristic; a common feature of the minor islands, meanwhile, is the use of capers, mint and oregano. Many of the most famous Sicilian recipes began as traditional local dishes and gradually became popular throughout the island (although, obviously, they are best enjoyed in their place of origin).
The freezing and, more recently, blast-freezing of fish products enables out-of-season consumption, although it is always preferable to match the recipe with the relative fishing period.
On this journey in the discovery of the secrets and flavours of the Sicilian sea there are a great many species of fish that I have not been able to mention – in past times, in fact, throughout the island as many as one hundred and fifty species of fish were eaten, compared to the forty species consumed today. Restoring the remaining 110 forgotten species to their rightful place in Sicilian cuisine means redistributing the fishing effort over all the resources and recovering an immense ethno-gastronomical legacy with cultural and economic importance to not only the fishermen but to all the fishing communities of Sicily.
Through patience, attention and good reading we have the chance to discover the original or lost flavours of the island, and to sit at the tables of the Malavoglia and the Viceroys of Sicily.