To wander down the narrow alleyways of one of Sicily’s ancient street food markets is like taking a step back in time. Many of Sicily’s open air markets have been in continuous trade since the time of Arabic rule, and thanks to the island’s appreciation for quality and the fact that most Sicilians still prefer to shop daily in markets or at small local neighbourhood stores, there’s no sign of this wonderful tradition slowing down any time soon. Very little has changed in Sicily’s ancient markets over the centuries; the profusion of fruit and vegetables still burst from rickety table tops as they once did during the ninth and tenth centuries when the Saracens ruled the island, in fact these medieval markets may well be one of Sicily’s best preserved Arabic traditions. Amongst the tables overflowing with crates of locally grown seasonal produce and fresh fish displayed proudly on cool beds of ice you’ll find an abundance of heady aromas that assault the senses and awaken the appetite. As confident vendors chant the specials of the day in the local dialect, they’ll be sure to convince you that theirs is the best, even if you don’t speak the language, you’ll surely be persuaded by their confidence and great showmanship.
Sicily’s markets are a great place to soak up the local atmosphere and while away a morning as you meander through the alleyways laden with everything the Mediterranean Sea and the surrounding terrain has to offer. These daily events are a fish lovers paradise, and even if you prefer to observe rather than purchase something you will be overwhelmed by the abundance of aquatic delights. Arranged with meticulous flair, as you pass each new stall, you’ll feel as though you’ve taken part in a theatrical display. Huge swordfish, sea bream, mussels, octopus and other crustaceans stand erect on melting ice plucked straight from the sea that morning. Even if you don’t intend to buy any produce you absolutely must partake in a little street food tasting. Sicily is renowned for the tastiest street food, and some delicacies more than others require a strong sense of adventure. If, like me, you prefer to play it a little safe, try my personal favourites such as the typical panelle made from chickpea flour and water and fried to a crispy deliciousness, or fresh sardines rolled in a little flour and flash fried in oil; Sicily’s answer to fried potato chips. For the more adventurous foodie you can’t go past the island’s most famous street food delicacy Pani ca Meusa. This simple sandwich comprises of a soft bun that is filled with strips of fried calf’s spleen and lungs, often topped with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of caciocavallo cheese. This is a Sicilian tradition that I must leave to much braver souls than I.
A trip to one of the island’s great food markets is an absolute must for anyone wanting to experience a part of Sicily that time forgot. Untouched by modernity and seeped in local traditions and tastes, the markets can be found in almost all towns across the island and for some of the very best head to Palermo, the regions capital city, and you’ll find three of Sicily’s oldest and most authentic venues.