Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
November 27, 2022
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Mangia Bene

The most important fishing industry of the medieval Mediterranean was, arguably, in Sicily, and even there fish played a modest albeit constant role in the food of the island. There were two kinds of fish caught in the fifteenth century, the so-called blue fish, mostly sardines and anchovies that had some limited economic importance in Sicily's export trade, and the white fish, such as John Dory, turbot, sea bass, grouper, comber, etc., which were secondary in economic importance. However, fish had no overall importance in either the diet or the economy of medieval Sicily and the total number of fishermen was few. But the fasting prescriptions of the church assured that fish would always be in demand. In data for the vice-regent from 1415 we see that fresh and dried fish were bought ten days out of the month. On Friday and Saturday, fresh fish, eel, salted little tuna, and eggs were eaten instead of meat.

     Messina, Cefal├╣, Termini, Trapani, and Palermo were the five fishing centers of Sicily in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, all fishing sardines for the most part. Fish were in seasonal demand and especially during Lent, when church-mandated fasting requirements limited the amount of meat that could be eaten. During the winter, the fishing industry was involved in salting sardines and, especially, tonnina (little tuna, Euthynnus alletteratus).

     The fishermen encircled the shoals of fish with their seine nets and unloaded their catch directly onto the beach. The fish were processed for salting, a small amount perhaps set aside for local cooks of these coastal villages, while the fishermen victualed their boats with bread and wine. Villages of the interior ate freshwater fish from local rivers and streams or eels from the Simeto River near Paterno. In the twelfth century eels were caught in a complicated device called a tarusi, consisting of a series of chambers whereby the eel is unable to turn around and get out.

     Palermo was the most important of the five fishing towns in medieval Sicily, and in the fourteenth century the fishermen lived in an area of the city near the sea called the Kalsa. A fisherman's life was a poor and hard one. The Kalsa still exists and even today one finds fishermen, smugglers, and mafiosi (so they say) living there. It was in Palermo where the net- makers were and where most of the fishermen could be recruited.

    Fishing zones were well demarcated and the fishing of sardines from Termini was the economically most important fishing activity. The zone off Trapani was rich in fish, and we know that agents for the royal kitchen of the Angevin King in Naples, Charles d'Anjou, came here in 1270 to buy dacteri (flying fish?) and cervige (amberjack?). The zone off Messina was known for its swordfish and it still is.

    Fish were also caught in more rudimentary ways using traditional techniques that go back to the Arab era and earlier. Usually this meant two men in a boat with a net. The Arab influence on Sicilian fishing and nautical affairs in general is attested to by the Sicilian fishing and nautical vocabulary which is thoroughly rooted in the Arabic language. Take, for instance, the Sicilian word xabica, the big fishing net that is attached to shore and moved seaward in a great sweeping swath by a bark, a small sailing ship.

(Illustration by Reiner Musterbuck, about 1200 AD)

The word derives from the Arabic word shabaka, meaning "net." But as some scholars have pointed out, the interplay among Arabo-Berber, Italo-Siculo, Arab, and Turkish cultures was complex enough to find influence a constant two- and even three- way street in the Mediterranean Sea when it comes to nautical matters.

    There were fishermen who used another kind of net called a spiruni which was very thin and expensive to purchase. The archdeacon of Cefal├╣ bought three of these nets in 1431. They had eighteen stitchings and cost as much as a ton of fresh fish. Other kinds of nets were the rizza, a bit bigger and made of plaited grass cording, used for larger fish. The nassa was a complicated device used for catching eels or lobster and those fishermen who used them were called nassaroli.

    The business of fishing in Sicily was already an ancient profession and well organized by the fifteenth century. But fishing comprised a whole ensemble of activities that went far beyond fishing. There were instrument makers, cordage makers, fishing zone administrators, packers, haulers, net makers, and salters, as well as the fishermen. Curiously, at the end of the fourteenth century and into the fifteenth century many fishermen came from the tiny island of Lipari off Sicily's north coast.

Some wonderful illustrations can be found at