The idea was to pop to Palermo for the morning and do the rounds of its three historic markets: Ballarò, il Capo and la Vucciria, eating my way through them, as I sampled the city’s renowned street food. And so it was, half asleep, that I tumbled out of the train after a three-hour journey, to the vibrant buzz of one of my favourite cities. This is Sicily at its most extreme, with breath-taking churches interspersed with neglected, crumbling palazzi, and spotless piazzas emerging from a rabbit warren of rundown, rubbish-littered streets. It’s also home to some of the region’s best food, clearly showing the influence of its Moorish past, with extensive use of pine nuts, saffron and sultanas, also in savoury dishes.
But, as we should perhaps expect from a city of such contrasts, these refined, delicate flavours rub shoulders with real gastronomic bruisers, the sort of food you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Ironic, really, because a dark alley is just where you’re most likely to meet them. An example is stigghiole, sheep’s guts, charcoal grilled on the side of the street, eaten with just a squeeze of lemon. Another is pane ca meusa, literally “bread with spleen”. Which sounds bad enough, but when you learn that the spleen in question is also in the company of lung, with which it is boiled, sliced and then fried in lard, you realise that things are actually much worse. This reticent little delicacy is spooned out from huge bubbling cauldrons on street corners into a soft bun. The roll can be served schettu or maritatu, i.e. single or married, with the other half of the couple represented by ricotta or grated caciocavallo cheese. I’ve only ever tried it “single”, and I’ve done so a couple of times, on each occasion really hoping I would develop a taste for it, like a hardened Sicilian. But it is quite simply inedible, and I’m not laying bets on the married version being much better. A liking for this is clearly something that is bred in the bone.
But not to worry, for there are many other delights to be found in the middle of the food markets, many of which are based on the cheapest cuts of meat, the parts of the animal you’d probably find it hard to get hold of at your average British supermarket, even if you wanted to (and you probably don’t). Anyway, starting at what some may consider the frankly disturbing end of things, we have quarumi, a dish of various cuts of veal tripe and uterus, and mussu e carcagnuolu, cold boiled beef trotters and snout. You will also find vendors hawking boiled octopus. For me, tripe is even less palatable than spleen, but the trotters and snout, served in a salad with olives, celery, carrot and onions, are well worth trying.
And then, at the less adventurous end of the scale we find another local speciality, panelle, which are chickpea flour fritters, served in a soft bun, and crocchè – potato croquettes (freshly made, of course). For those with room to spare, there are also stalls offering boiled and baked vegetables, such as potatoes and onions, not to mention a wonderful kiosk in Ballarò that specialises in melenzane a quaglia, whole aubergines sliced almost down to the stem and deep fried whole.
Carb lovers can feast on one of Sicily’s most famous foods, arancine (elsewhere known as arancini, but the palermitani insist this is the only acceptable spelling. They also insist that they invented them, but then again so do the other major cities on the island). Last but not least, we have the incredibly decadent rizzuola, a soft bun filled with ragù and deep fried, like a turbo-charged savoury jam doughnut, and the baked version, the ravazzata.
Anyway, after setting the scene for some serious eating and probably some pretty serious indigestion too, and after whetting your appetite (or perhaps putting you off lunch altogether), I’m afraid I have to come clean with you – I didn’t actually get to try any of these treats, for the simple reason that on Monday, the day I chose for my trip, I arrived to find the Vucciria closed, the Mercato del Capo practically closed, and Ballarò only running at half power. So, apart from some huge cauliflowers (which in Sicily are broccoli, just to confuse you – see here), bigger than the head of the man selling them, and some beautiful purple garlic, which I decided to take home, much to the delight of my fellow travellers on the train, it was a bit of a washout. But I will be back there again soon, will try the lot, and will give you a blow-by-blow account of the experience. Yes, I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it …