‘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.
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.
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.
Another must-see site, and the social hub of the island, is Piazza Duomo.
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.
This visit I wanted to focus on Ortigia’s side streets.
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.
Unfortunately, unless you’re into medieval military architecture, the history of the castle was a lot more interesting than the visit.
I continued along the east side of the island.
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.
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.)
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.
We gawked for a few minutes while one of the brothers prepared sampler platters Fiora had ordered in advance.
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.
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’?
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.
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.
The others in the class didn’t mind at all if we went with cannoli.
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.
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.