Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Cooking course in Sicily? Eureka – Syracuse!

If the historic architecture in Syracuse doesn’t make your jaw drop, the food certainly will. A Mediterranean hub of commerce and culture for 2700 years, Siracusa – as the Italians call it – has two of Italy’s must-sees: the Greek amphitheatre; and the old town centre, Ortygia (Ortigia in the Italian spelling), with its vibrant fruit, veg and fish market.

Morning is the best time to see both, before the tourist rush. In the magnificent amphitheatre, open from 9am every day except Monday, the letters of the alphabet marking the seat rows – a custom still used in theatres now – are clearly visible. One of the best-preserved in the world, it’s still regularly used for productions today.

It was the centre of Siracusan life in 300-200BC, in the city’s Greek heyday. Local man Archimedes, the great scientist, was a regular – though we presume he came decently clothed. That wasn’t the case when, the legend goes, he got so excited on solving a problem in the bath that he jumped out and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting ‘Eureka’ – ‘I’ve found it!’.

For lovers of Italian cuisine, whether studying cookery lessons or simply on holiday, the discovery of the daily market is their Eureka moment. Ortygia, almost an island over a bridge from the main town, is Syracuse’s historic centre. Left from the entrance is the market: a vibrant, intense, vividly-coloured assault on the senses.

The central part, on and around Via de Benedictis, is devoted to fresh local produce: deep red tomatoes, piles of citrus, strawberries, beans, courgettes, spices, nuts, cheeses, hams, snails... and all kinds of sweet Sicilian specialities such as cassata, an irresistible sponge cake with ricotta and candied fruit.

For a snack, try grilled artichoke eaten out of paper wrapping – for vegans, perhaps the nearest they’ll get to the taste of a fine cheese!

The fish market section bustles too, with everything from prawns to anchovies to tuna to swordfish. Get there before breakfast though – the Italians are canny buyers, and the best bargains soon go. (See YouTube video)

Afterwards, wander Ortygia’s tangle of lanes and streets. The extraordinary historic buildings here range from the 2500-year-old Temple of Apollo to sumptuous Baroque palaces, some splendidly restored, some grandly crumbling, some plain bizarre (such as the Palazzo Impellizzeri, lined with faces). When you’re hungry, an inexpensive and delicious local trattoria or pizzeria is always just round the corner from that picturesque square. (See Flickr photos of Ortygia)

And if you do finally relax with a bath, by all means get inspiration for tomorrow’s meal planning – but try not to emulate Archimedes too closely.

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