Palermo & its street food

Palermo & its street food

By
Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
Contains
11 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781784880514

From slices of bright red and green watermelon sold to refresh you in summer, to hot salt-baked chestnuts and the curls of white smoke emanating from their stalls in winter, there is always something to tempt you on the streets of Palermo.

Street food dates back at least to Roman times and possibly before. For centuries people had no ovens at home and fuel was short, so hot food would only have been available on the street. We decided to take a food tour around the capital. It was years since we had been to Palermo and all I remember from the last time is running away from drug dealers I had inadvertently filmed on a small video camera at the edge of Ballarò market. Such was my wonder at the place, the dilapidated buildings, a shadow of their former grandness, the beguiling smiles and cheerful shouting of the market stallholders bragging about their best produce. Palermo is gritty, visceral and edgy. And the produce against this backdrop? Such perfect tomatoes, bumpy skinned, ripe and colourful; huge distorted (bell) peppers; celery with leaves you can smell as you pass, bright freshly caught fish often still alive or in rigor, courgettes (zucchini) in all shapes and sizes – nothing uniform for the supermarket, each piece unique.

Our guide to the street food of Palermo was Salvatore Agusta, who runs tours around his city. Sicily has the right climate for street food and enough poor people and now inquisitive tourists to demand it. He told us there are five key points to street food:

— It is soft – so it is easy to eat with no cutlery (and possibly, in the past, few teeth).

— It has few ingredients – five or six max, so it doesn’t take too much time or money to make.

— It must be cheap and is usually made or coated with filling carbohydrate.

— It has a historical connotation – each type of street food tells a story of the past.

— It is fresh – the food is usually sold very soon after the final step in making it, which might be frying it off or putting the meat in the bun.

‘Fry shops’, or friggitorie, sell panelle – chickpea fritters – as well as hot battered vegetables and potato crocchè. Ready-cooked food such as boiled potatoes, roasted onions in their skins and blackened peppers can be eaten straight away or taken home to make into a salad. Slices of soft, squashy bread topped with tomato and onion sauce known as sfincione are so good, not to mention everyone’s favourite – the arancine, rice balls.

Less tempting perhaps to our palates are the various stalls selling fried and boiled entrails from one animal or another. The Palermitani absolutely love these. Pippo, from the aptly named stall Joie, told me, ‘It’s good what you like, it is no good what is beautiful.’ He has to say this, I feel, as the bowl of boiled entrails, bollito, is probably the least pretty food I have ever seen. Giancarlo was salivating at the thought of tasting spleen again, a food memory from his childhood in Tuscany. I did try it, and actually found it pleasant; each of the organ meats had its own texture and flavour and I agree we should eat all parts of the animal. It was an interesting experience: the brain was soft and had a flavour of corned beef; the milky entrails fought back a little; the foot was chewy; the udder was like a squashy, rough paste and the tongue grainy and soft. I was rewarded by Pippo for my bravery with a cold glass of Nero d’Avola (the best bit) and I was proud of having given it a go. The locals, he told me, take home 1.5 kg (3 lb) bags of boiled organ meat to make salad, which is enough to feed a family of ten.

On another trip around the market our guide Vincenzo insisted I try frittola – scraps of meat, scraped off the bone and fried in lard – stigghiole, the intestines of a young cow, lamb or goat; and pani ca meuza, a soft bun filled with boiled spleen and a squeeze of lemon.

Veal spleen in a bun is famous in Palermo and has a Jewish history. The Jews were allowed to work with metal and kill animals but the Torah prevented them from taking money for it. They did, however, take the interior meat as payment, known as the fifth quarter. They then boiled parts of this in lard and sold it back to the Palermitani. The pan was originally boiled over coals at an angle so that the fat drains to one side. The Jews were expelled by the Spanish following the edict of 1492 and local Palermitani took over running the stands, a tradition carried on by men like Guiseppe Basile, whom we met on our tour, and whose family has been doing it for generations.

There are two main markets in Palermo: Ballarò and Capo. The previously large market of Vucciria (named after the French for butcher’s, boucherie) is a shadow of its former self. Still now, troppo Vucciria means ‘too much noise’, harking back to when it was a thriving butchers’ area.

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