Strolling Around an Ancient Island and a Lesson on Making Fishy Birds

‘The greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’ is how Cicero, no slouch when it came to all things Hellenistic, described Syracuse.  Since he died an untimely death in 43 B.C. at the hands of Mark Anthony’s henchmen, it’s safe to assume the Syracuse he had in mind was Ortigia, the historic centre of Syracuse.  It had been my favourite city on my first visit to Sicily and I was curious to see if it was as beautiful as I remembered.  (In case you have visited Taormina, further north along the coast, and are wondering about my aesthetic tastes, Taormina is more a resort town than a ‘real’ city, so doesn’t count.)

Ortigia (or-tea-juh) is a small island, and by small, I mean so small it took me longer to find a parking spot than to walk around it.  Despite its size, a succession of invaders were keen to call it theirs.  Etruscans, Carthaginians, Spartans, Arabs, Normans, Bourbons and Aragons.  Ironically – maybe not – while most of us know nothing about any of the warriors, tyrants and emperors that litter the city’s typically embattled history, we do have at least a vague notion about one of Syracuse’s ancient citizens, who instead of waging war, spent his days mostly pondering numbers, and who one day famously – and possibly apocryphally – exclaimed ‘Eureka!’  I’m talking of course about Archimedes, who was born, and lived most of his life in Syracuse.  The piazza named for him seemed like a good place to start my return visit.

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As if there weren’t enough Greek gods to keep track of, in Italian they’re known by their Greek names and in English we tend to prefer the Roman version. The fountain in the middle of Piazza Archimede is the Fontana di Artemide – Artemis or Diana – depending on your linguistic viewpoint.  It can be confusing.

I hadn’t been very happy on my first visit to see that most of the buildings in Archimedes’ Piazza were under wraps, although there was a rather nice fountain featuring Diana,  Goddess of the Hunt and protector of the ancient Greek settlement.

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Scientists call it the ‘Law of Hydrostatics’, but speaking from personal experience, I know that just as plants have their Latin names and their ‘common’ names, Archimedes’ famous discovery is also known as the ‘Bathtub Law’.  Like all such names, this one is derived from everyday life.  What most of us miss however, when we step into the bathtub, and what struck Archimedes that fateful day, is the realization that our immersed bodies are lighter in exact proportion to the weight of the water we spill on the floor.


May 2015.  Now it’s the fountain that’s being restored.  Which leads one to wonder, if it was such a serendipitous discovery,  what would have happened if the water had been cut off at Archimedes’ house that day?

Another must-see site, and the social hub of the island, is Piazza Duomo.

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I was sorry to learn from Dora that the figure struggling to emerge at the far end of the piazza was long gone. It had just been one of those temporary installations.

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As I walked to the other end of the piazza, I could almost see the line of the sun move across the struggling figure.

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Even if you’re not a fan of Baroque, it can look quite splendid at night.

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The idea of so much space left ‘undeveloped’, even in a large city is hard to imagine. On an island barely 1km by 1/2 km it’s inconceivable.

This visit I wanted to focus on Ortigia’s side streets.


PARTECIPANTE. What were they participating in?


We are not ash trays. We give oxygen to the world. Respect nature.


A well-used balcony and a potted garden.


Another ‘partecipante‘.  I saw quite a few of these signs as I strolled along the narrow lanes. All participating in Ortigia in Fiore (in Bloom), one of those friendly competitions designed to promote community spirit.


Such restraint!

What were they thinking?

What were they thinking?


They say your front door tells a lot about you.


Did someone get off to a good start and then change their mind?  I hope that pot is firmly secured to the railing.

This is more my idea of a well-planted balcony.

When a balcony is too narrow, even for a chair, there is only one thing to do.  Besides, these lucky people have plenty of room to sit out on the huge terrace to the left.

I also wanted to see the castle at the tip of the island.  It was built by Emperor Frederick II, who started his illustrious career at the tender age of three when he was crowned King of Sicily.  He went on to become one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of the Middle Ages, as well as King of Germany, Italy and Burgundy.  All this activity ended up putting him at odds with the Papacy – he was excommunicated an astonishing four times, and labelled the Antichrist by one particularly incensed pope.  I doubt that his decision to name the castle after the Byzantine general who had conquered Syracuse two centuries earlier helped matters.

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Castello Maniace.  Best seen from the sea.

Unfortunately, unless you’re into medieval military architecture, the history of the castle was a lot more interesting than the visit.


There were a couple of interesting plants.


If a plant in my garden started to do something like this, it would topple over the railing for sure.


The Jacaranda Tree is called l’Albero di Paradiso (Tree of Paradise), so why is the ‘Bird of Paradise’ called Strelitzia?


There was also a nice view of the west coast of the island.

I continued along the east side of the island.

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Like so many coastal areas – Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast – the best views are from the water.

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The captain knew how to please his passengers and whenever he could, he would cut the motor and take us right into a cave.

I had a vague recollection that the market was on the east side of the island, close to the mainland.  I was hoping I could find it from memory.  I could have used the map I’d brought from my last trip.  Or I could have asked.  But sometimes it’s the fun of seeing if you can find a place again.  And reassuring – assuming you do find that place – if you’re in that cohort that thinks ‘Alzheimer’s’ every time you wonder if you turned off the stove or locked the car.

On my previous trip I had signed up for a cooking class called ‘Al mercato con Fiora‘.  We met at l’Approdo delle Sirene (love the name – The Sirens’ Landing) where we would have the cooking demo.  But first Fiora took us on a tour of the market.  It’s primarily a fish market, but there were a few vegetable and fruit stalls.  One of the stalls, with a huge mound of Tenerumi, had me stumped.  Tenero is tender and legumi is vegetables.  Tender vegetables?  Those long, thin snake-like things didn’t look all that tender to me.  It turns out tenerumi is not Italian, it’s Sicilian for a rather peculiar squash, the edible part of which is not the long, thin things – the squash – but the leaves.

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Tenerumi aka Sicilian Snake squash.

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Olives, capers and ciliegini di Pachino, a cherry tomato with its very own IGP and price to go with it.

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Carving up  peace spada (swordfish).

At one of the fish stalls, Fiora hesitated.  She knew we would be squeamish at the sight of the neonati.  A newborn baby is a neonato. I don’t know if it was the sight or the thought that made me more squeamish.  I definitely had no desire or intention to eat the poor things.  (And I had no idea that years later, as squeamish as ever, but not willing to appear rude or ungrateful, I would feel compelled to eat a bowl of them.)

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Neonati. Newborns.

Our tour of the market ended at Il Gusto dei Sapori Smarriti (another great name – The Taste of Long-lost Flavours), a family operation run by the Burgio brothers, self-described specialists in the artisanal production of  specialità siciliane gastronomiche.

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For some reason these signore struck me as visitors from Milan.

We gawked for a few minutes while one of the brothers prepared sampler platters Fiora had ordered in advance.

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A sampler of ‘lost flavours’.

Then we headed to Fiora’s kitchen for the cooking demo. She was going to show us how to prepare two typical Sicilian dishes – a fish dish and a dessert.

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We arrived to find all the ingredients beautifully laid out.

Fiora started with the fish dish – Alici a beccafico.  I’d learned about alici, southern Italian for anchovies, on the Amalfi Coast, but beccafico was a new one for me.  Beccare means to peck;  fico is one of those words that can easily get you in trouble, but usually it means ‘fig’.  A ‘fig pecker’?

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These huge alici looked a lot more like sarde (sardines) than anchovies.

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The ripieno. Stuffing.

Beccafico is a European songbird, a warbler. Fiora explained how the fish dish got named after a bird.  There were two schools of thought.  The first came from the bird-like shape of of the alici when split open and flattened. (the tail is the bird’s beak).  I preferred the second, which was all about resourceful home cooks and the art of far sembrare – making things seem other than they are.  Cooks who couldn’t afford birds, would stuff cheap, plentiful anchovies to make them look like the more expensive birds.

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Stuffed fish-birds.

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Fiora took her time, gently dipping the stuffed anchovies in an egg wash and then bread crumbs.

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While the alici settled in the fridge, it was time to start work on the dessert.  Fiora asked us which we would prefer – cassata or cannoli.  At La Mandranova, a lovely agriturismo near Agrigento, I had already seen how Sicily’s traditional ricotta cake was made.

In this highly unflattering photo which catches Silvia looking rather stern and not at all her genial warm self, My apologies to Silvia for this unflattering photo, but it is the only one I have

In this highly unflattering photo which catches Silvia looking rather stern and not at all her genial, warm self – scusi Silvia – she is filling the carefully prepared layer of light white cake with sweetened ricotta.

Silvia's Cassata siciliana. As delicious as it looks.

Silvia’s Cassata siciliana. As delicious as it looks.

The others in the class didn’t mind at all if we went with cannoli.

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Like all ‘simple’ things, the pasta for the cannoli requires a great deal of attention and just the right touch.

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To make a cornucopia or a tubo, the dough is cut into an oval.

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Brushing the edges of the dough with egg yolk helps keep them together.

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There’s no multi-tasking when it comes to frying the cannoli.

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A couple of minutes on a layer of paper towel and then, holding the still hot form with more paper towel, a gentle twist and the cannoli – or cialde as Fiora sometimes called them – slip free.

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If you want your cannoli nice and crisp, wait until l’ultimo momento to fill them.

I kept following the east coast of the island and eventually came to the market.  It was smaller than I remembered, but just as lively and colourful.


If anything, there was an even greater variety of tomatoes.


It was only when I looked at the photos from my first trip that I realized the same fishmonger had caught my eye.  There he was, still carving up the swordfish with a flourish.

By the time I reached the Fratelli Burgio’s haven it was around 1 pm and the place was packed.  The few tables inside the store, as well as those spilling out into the market were taken and between the waitresses flying in and out with orders, and take-out customers crowded around the long counter at the back, I couldn’t figure out how things worked.  (There was of course, no line-up.)  Eventually I just blurted out ‘Una tavola per una persona?’ as one of the waitresses flew by.  She nodded and a few minutes later motioned me over to a small table.


Platter of the day.  Start from the left and make your way across.



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