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In Sicily's Pescheria, the catch is never more than a few hours old

Suzanne Hancock for The Globe and Mail/suzanne hancock The Globe and Mail

It's too early on a Sunday morning and I'm wandering Catania's Baroque streets looking for the fish market. I finally admit I'm lost and stop a woman - one of only a dozen or so people I've seen - but my ineffective hand gestures and laughable fish imitation lead her to think I'm looking for the beach rather than the market. I had read that the market was "open every day," but when she finally understands what I want she turns an air key in an air lock and says, "Chiuso." Closed.

My morning in Catania hasn't gone as planned, and I leave for a 17th-century castle 40 kilometres up the coast near Calatabiano for the wedding of a friend. But I can't resist returning to Catania on a day when the fish market is open, partly because of the incredible seafood dishes I've enjoyed at a beachside trattoria and partly because I had learned that the Pescheria is as old as the city itself, and therefore one of the oldest markets still in operation in Europe. Catania was founded as a Greek colony in about 700 BC, so the Pescheria is considerably older than Omega-3 research, debates about mercury contamination and fears of collapsing fish stocks.

I can't see Mount Etna's 3,300-metre bulk from where I stand, but I know it's just over there, northwest of this seaside city, churning and sputtering. Etna has been both a destructive and nurturing feature in Catania's history - the city has been destroyed by lava and rebuilt seven different times. Many of the buildings surrounding the Pescheria are made from volcanic stone and their soot-covered façades reveal one obvious consequence of living in the shadow of an active volcano. It's a city clearly defined by its location; a city of grit and grandeur that relies heavily on the volcano and the ocean for its identity.

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This area of Sicily has long done its best with whatever nature has thrown at it - lava, Greeks, Romans, drought or earthquakes. And the volcano. It's a place where people make the most of what is available and take their luck where they find it. The Pescheria is at the centre of this self-sufficiency.

Located just a few steps from the Piazza del Duomo (the central cathedral in Catania dedicated to the martyred St. Agatha), the fish market spreads over several courtyards and along a number of adjoining narrow streets. It's more labyrinthine than I imagined, and more varied. Walking into one of the squares covered with red umbrellas feels like entering a pink-tinged cavern: Amid all the fish, I'm standing in the belly of a very satisfied whale.

Each stall boasts a number of employees - all male, ranging in age from about 15 to 70 - and the gruff, operatic announcements of the freshness and beauty of their wares constantly fill the air. A rumbling assertion involving "fresca" (fresh) and "migliore" (the best) will be answered by another boastful declaration of the same from across the courtyard. A wiry man in white rubber boots drags a bucket full of sea water and small floating fish onto a square of empty pavement. He announces his arrival with an impressive "sar-din-é" and is quickly surrounded by men and women trying to determine if this new addition is worth buying.

Knowledge of the benefits of eating seafood is nothing new, of course, but the Mediterranean has changed dramatically since the Pescheria's inception. Intensive fishing using unsustainable methods (such as bottom trawling and drift netting), pollution and biological invaders have combined to decimate the quantity and size of a large number of aquatic species. Because of declining stocks (swordfish and tuna being two of the most conspicuous), catch restrictions have been placed on Sicilian and other fishermen throughout the Mediterranean and some more destructive fishing methods have been limited or banned. Franco Caruso, a long-time fisherman in Catania thinks that regulations are insufficient - despite his colleagues' complaints about loss of income. All that said, if there can be a sustainable fishery (and many believe that there can and has to be), this is it: small, local boats run by crews with intimate knowledge of the area and a strong incentive to keep the fishery viable.

Catania's fishermen spend nights on the water fishing the best spots for their specialties, which they unload just before 5 a.m. at the walls of the market. Until it closes at 11 a.m., the catch is never more than a few hours old.

This exotic, abundant place in the shadow of a volcano might be easy to romanticize, except for its predominant practicality - this was food for lunch and dinner. Cigarette ash sometimes dangled precariously over the fish, the sounds of bartering among the Catanesi were sometimes overwhelming. Only the occasional, short-lived conga line of bus tourists reminded me that all this local bounty was remarkable.

Unfortunately, I was not as self-sufficient as the locals, and my hotel room wasn't equipped with a stove. When it started to rain, I left the ancient market empty-handed and walked down to the sea. Between the plundered ocean and threatening volcano, Catania may seem like a fragile place, but over the centuries it has thrived on skirting destruction.

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