The Island of Oritigia

The Island of Oritigia

Manuela Darling-Gansser
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Simon Griffiths

The city of Syracuse is to the east of Sicily what Palermo is to the west. It is the site of some great events in history. It was founded by Greek settlers in the eighth century BC and grew to become one of the most powerful cities in their Empire, famous throughout the ancient Greek world. Syracuse boasts Archimedes as an early citizen and later it was home to a passing parade of conquerors, who have all left their mark on this World Heritage Site.

Just offshore from Syracuse, separated from the mainland by a hundred metre-long bridge, is the island of Ortigia, famous today for its medieval and baroque buildings. Ortigia is small, no more than a few kilometres in circumference, and it has an atmosphere all of its own. It has many of the elements I love about a town: it is not too large, the buildings are beautiful, there is only limited access for cars, and it has an exceptional produce market and very good restaurants. On top of all that, Ortigia has a great setting on the sea with a working port. Every time I go there I enjoy it immensely.

Ortigia is a very charming city. Its principal buildings, and many others, have been carefully maintained or restored and the fact that it is essentially a pedestrian city gives it a special character that it shares with places like Venice. As we were there in spring, we discovered that the city holds a competition called ‘Ortigia in fiore’ (Ortigia in flower) for the best gardens or floral displays. Everywhere we looked there were window boxes in bloom and balconies and small entrances set out with pots of flowering shrubs or plants – mini gardens that looked wonderful, and also told us that the inhabitants of this city are very proud of it.

The way to see Ortigia, to really get the feel of the place, is to walk. In a few hours you can see most of the island. On our first evening in Ortigia we decided to reacquaint ourselves with some of its delights. We began with a leisurely stroll along the quay that stretches the full length of the port and is lined with grand buildings. A block inland we found ourselves in a maze of streets and medieval buildings. Some laneways are so narrow, particularly in the old Jewish quarter, that you can stand with your arms outstretched and touch the buildings on both sides. In the centre of the island there is a generous piazza, which is where you’ll find the most elaborate buildings on the island – the cathedral, the town hall, a bishop’s palace and another church. The buildings and the flagstones of the piazza are all made from a pale local stone that gives the overall picture a pleasing uniformity. A few citrus trees poke their tips over the wall of a high garden overlooking the piazza.

After our walk, we sat at an outdoor caffé to enjoy the scene, drink a strong espresso and sample a lemon sorbet that was deliciously sharp (white outside and the palest green inside). It was early evening and the passegiata was in full swing. In front of us was a slow parade of people of all ages keen on seeing and being seen. I watched a male pigeon dragging around a huge twig between the tables as it chased a female, as if to say, ‘Look at the nest I could build you!’ In a performance that mirrored the pigeon, a number of the local lads were ‘dragging their own twigs’ around in front of the local girls, who were pretending not to notice.

Walking back from the piazza I stopped in front of a recommended restaurant to read the menu. Noticing that an older man was watching us with interest, I asked him, ‘Do you eat well here?’ He replied, ‘Well the portions are small, the food’s not very good and it’s expensive!’ After that information I asked him where he would choose to eat and he named a restaurant not far away. Outside the second restaurant was another man, so I asked him, ‘Do you eat well here?’ ‘That depends,’ he replied. ‘On what?’ we asked. ‘On me, I’m the owner and the chef.’ Naturally we decided to stay, and enjoyed one of those memorable dinners where you order nothing and the food and wine just arrive. The restaurant was the Pan-ta-rei, and the chef, Donato Tetto.

In fact we ate memorably well a number of times in Ortigia. At one lunch we ordered an insalata caprese (mozzarella and tomatoes) and the plate arrived with three small balls of the freshest and most beautifully made mozzarella, sliced tomatoes still a little green (Sicilians prefer their tomatoes with ‘green shoulders’) and a great local olive oil. The waiter apologised to us heartily, ‘You will have to wait five minutes because the bread is still baking.’ Wonderful bread it was too, made from yellow grano duro flour. The simplest of meals, but perfection of a sort.

On another day, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of various seafood plates. Through the restaurant windows we could see the fishing boats unloading their catch on the quay. In the restaurant the very same produce was then laid out on ice in a grand display. Everyone who came in headed immediately to view the display and made their choices.

In fact one of the great joys of Ortigia is the quality and freshness of its produce. The local market is everything you hope for and we made a point of visiting it during our visit. It is located on a wide street with the ruins of the old Roman forum at one end and the Porto Piccolo with the sea beyond at the other.

We noticed that some of the produce was different from what we had seen in Palermo. There were mounds of local lemons that are eaten green (inland from Syracuse is a great citrus-growing area), mandarins, mini prickly pears, capers and mounds of strattu (tomato concentrate). Another local speciality was dried tomatoes grown in the sand dunes near Pachino in the south – they acquire a naturally salty flavour that is most unusual.

There were lots of local cheeses including some unusual lightly cooked mozzarella and some tricotta (twice-baked ricotta). The cheese vendor was full of local wisdom: ‘It’s easier to make cheese than children,’ he said. ‘With cheese you can see right away whether it’s turned out well.’

Maybe it’s the view of the Porto Piccolo down the street or the awareness that Ortigia is an island, but for me the stars of the market were the fishmongers.

In Palermo in springtime the pride of place on the marble counters are great red slabs of tuna. In Ortigia the swordfish reigns supreme. The pale flesh of the swordfish does not have the impact of tuna, so it marks its presence with a long sword jutting from its head towards the sky. Swordfish are caught just out to sea from Ortigia, in the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the mainland, and spring is the season for the catch. Around the swordfish were arranged the lesser creatures of the sea (all delicious) – baby calamari, baby octopus, mussels, sea urchins and lots of local fish.

Chatting to the vendor at one fish stall he told me a classic migrant’s tale (markets are all about the chat as well as the produce) of his cousin, who had gone to Australia to start a small sheep farm outside Melbourne. ‘It didn’t work out,’ he said. ‘The sheep all died because they were poisoned by the gold under the soil.’ It has been one hundred and fifty years since the gold-rush days in Melbourne but the legend lives on in Ortigia!

The Ortigia market has the best spice and herb store I saw in the whole of Sicily. On a corner site in the middle of the market, Antonio Drago presides over an Aladdin’s cave of sacks, boxes, jars and tins that give off the most extraordinary aromas. He claims to have every spice you can think of and is full of stories about all the good things he sells. From Antonio we learnt that carob nuts were used to weigh gold because they were of uniform weight. In fact the carat, the old unit of measurement for gold, comes from the word carob. He is a one-man encyclopedia of local food knowledge.

I have always believed that the best way to see island cities is from the water. In some, the buildings and houses face out to the sea to maximise the views. But in many older island cities you find the buildings turn inwards for protection, and Ortigia is one of these. The guide books tell you it has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times, so you can understand why the inhabitants felt they needed protection.

Ortigia is a marvellous sight from the sea. The main quay is lined by a row of pleached fig trees and rising behind them, the classical stone facades. In the centre of the foreshore is a famous freshwater spring, surrounded by papyrus. A place of beauty and mystery, it was also strategically important in times when the island was under siege. On the headland stands the fortress of Miniace, built by Frederick Barbarossa, the same king who was the ancestor of the Conte Federico in Palermo.

From the water you can see a small low gate in the wall that leads to a rock shelf and a shallow pool, obviously man-made. Local legend has it that this is where Frederick would come to bathe with his ‘ancelle’ (girlfriends). In those days people couldn’t swim, so it must have been considered the height of luxury for him to have his own private wading pool.

On our last evening in Ortigia we ate at a restaurant on a long, high promenade looking back over the water towards the setting sun. Often in places like this you are disappointed – they are too touristy or the splendid view means the restaurant thinks it can get away with serving ordinary food at high prices. Neither was true in this case and the whole experience encapsulated Ortigia at its best.

In thinking about recipes that best capture the spirit of Ortigia, my first choice is caponatina, a vegetable dish of capsicums, eggplants, tomatoes and onions. There is a local saying that every Sicilian woman knows how to make caponatina – it is passed on to her ‘con il latte della mamma’ (from her mother’s milk). The classic caponatina is an agro–dolce dish that uses both vinegar and sugar. Every restaurant (and every family) seems to make it differently, but they all make it. It is one of the signature dishes of Sicilian cooking. If you taste it, I think you will see what all the fuss is about.

Fave con pecorino are baby broad beans drizzled with oil and served with shavings of pecorino. They are often served as a stuzzichino – a delectable nibble to accompany your aperitivi.

Another vegetable dish, radicchio alla griglia, is simplicity itself but really delicious. The brightly coloured and rather bitter radicchio leaves are grilled and dressed with nothing but oil and salt.

Porri e patate al forno (leek and potato gratin) is a dish I think you will really enjoy. Layers of leeks and potatoes are dressed with cream, rosemary and garlic and then baked. It is eaten on its own or as an accompaniment to fish or meat.

I have to include a recipe for Ortigia’s famous swordfish and I have chosen a simple dish of swordfish grilled with a salmoriglio sauce. This is an oil and lemon emulsion, flavoured with oregano thought to date from the time of the Greeks, and it goes wonderfully well with the fish.

For dessert I’ve chosen torta di noci (walnut cake), which is made using ricotta, walnuts and breadcrumbs, a very Sicilian combination.

Recipes in this Chapter

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