AGGHIOTTA DI BACCALA` IN BIANCO La Trobe in the City – Ancient Mediterranean Lecture Series, Christmas

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Food And Culture in Sicily: Christmas Cookery Workshop, 7 December 2013

Presented by Dr Gillian Shepherd and Marisa Raniolo Wilkins

Gillian began the presentation with short history of food and feasting in Sicily.  Gillian focused on the literary and archaeological evidence for food production and consumption in the ancient world of Sicily with particular emphasis on festivals, sacrifice and feasting (i.e. pagan “versions’ of Xmas). She described how in ancient times the ordinary people only got to eat meat as the result of sacrificial offerings to the gods (the gods  inhaled the smoke and aromas as the sheep and goats, and less often cattle, were roasted).

Using our dining room wall as a screen, Gillian projected images of temples and townships, altars and cooking implemenents and a map of Sicily to clarify and enrich the presentation. She also showed the guests examples of formelle from her personal collection. Formelle are special, handmade ceramic moulds that were traditionally used to make decorative mostarda (must and ash paste) and cotognata (quince paste, I provided the recipe). Gillian is a compulsive collector of formelle and was able to tell me about a formella that I have inherited from my paternal Sicilian grandmother.


For my presentation, I talked about the similarities and differences between the ancient recipes recorded by  Archestratus and Apicius and what are now traditional Sicilian recipes. The menu I selected for this event reflected the development of the recipes and methods used from the ancient world into the Sicilian recipes, the influences of the seasons, religion and culture of Sicily, which in the course of 3,000 years has layered Christianity over Islam and Roman, Greek and more ancient religions.

As the theme of the presentation was Christmas cookery, I focussed on fish and vegetables since Sicilians observe the Catholic rituals of Advent, which involves a month of fasting. The Christmas meal for Sicilians happens on Christmas eve, when they traditionally eat fish. Gillian helped explain the connection between fish and Christ, referencing the Greek word for fish, icthos, which in the early christian era was the symbol most more closely identified with Christ than the cross and whose letters were used as an acrostic, to spell out in Greek, Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour.

Snapper dressed - ready to cook @ 300 above

This is my third Workshop organised by The Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University.

The Menu:

  • Baked ricotta and marinaded black olives
  • Lentils and chicory soup with a soffritto of garlic and parsley (chili optional)
  • Soused fish with vinegar, garlic and mint
  • Baccalà cooked in bianco with olives and capers, parsley, garlic and potatoes
  • Baked fish inserted with anchovies and marinaded in red onion, lemon, vinegar and extra virgin olive oil
  • Fish balls with pine nuts and dried grapes (muscatels)
  • Asparagus dressed with oil and vinegar
  • Green salad; endive, chicory, frisse,  batavia /roman lettuce and cos lettuce
  • Cuccia (to honour Saint Lucy, patron Saint of Syracuse, mid December)
  • Buccello (bucciddatu in Sicilian), a round ciambella (ring-shaped cake) eaten at Christmas with a stuffing of dried fruits and nuts enclosed in crumbly, short pastry. This was made by pastrychef Marianna from Dolcetti.

We drank Sicilian Wine: Marsala fino, Grillo, Nero d’Avola and Zibbibo,


Some guests did not eat fish and they were presented: Zucchini in agro-dolce (pinenuts and currants, vinegar and sugar), Tomato salad with feta, Potatoes alla pizzaiola (black olives, oregano, garlic and tomato). These vegetables were unknown before the discovery of the American continent (Christopher Columbus in 1492)

Marisa discusses polenta spoons

Baccalà is traditionally eaten on Christmas eve in Sicily. The ingredients are sufficient for a main meal for 4 people.

A common Sicilian  method of cooking food is ‘alla ghiotta’and it usually contains green olives, capers and celery. Stockfish or Baccalà alla ghiotta in bianco is cooked without tomato and is more commonly cooked in the winter months –culinary term, white — with little seasoning and definitely without tomato.

The cod can usually be bought from Italian or Spanish supermarkets. You need to begin preparations at least two day before. Some salt cod is pre-soaked by the vendors beforehand, so it is best to ask about this when you buy it.

AGGHIOTTA DI BACCALA` IN BIANCO (Baccalà ALLA GHIOTTA and IN BIANCO) Recipe from Sicilian Seafood Cooking

Soak the fish to remove the salt.
Rinse any excess salt off the cod, then put it into a large bowl and cover with cold water.
Leave to soak in the fridge for 3 days, changing the water three to four times a day.
Cut any fins or tails off the cod pieces and remove any obvious bones.

Baccala while soaking


stock fish or baccalà , 1.2kg
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
celery heart, 2-3 pale green stalks and leaves, chopped
onion, 1 large, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
parsley, 4 tablespoons, cut finely
green olives, 1 cup, pitted, chopped
capers, ½ cup salted variety, soaked and washed
potatoes, 500g peeled and cut into large chunks


Cut the soaked cod into pieces about 10cm in length.
For la ghiotta:
Add the celery and onion to hot, extra virgin olive oil. Use a pan large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients, and cook until softened (about 5 minutes). Stir frequently to cook evenly.
Reduce the heat to medium; add the capers, olives, parsley and stir well.
Add freshly ground pepper, stir, and cook for about 10 minutes to blend the flavours.
Place the fish in the vegetables (preferably in a single layer) and spoon some of the vegetables over it. Add about ½ cup of water (or wine, optional).
Reduce the heat to very low – the fish should not be stirred or it will flake. Cover, and cook for about 35 minutes before adding chunks of potatoes.
Add 1–2 cups of water and leave undisturbed to cook, but occasionally adding a little more water to keep the ingredients moist and until the fish and potatoes are cooked to your liking.
This dish is always served hot, but can easily be reheated; the flavours improve if cooked beforehand.
Marisa shows salad to Gillian & American

Gillian Shepherd
Dr Gillian Shepherd is Lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Director of the A.D. Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University.Gillian studied Classics and Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne before going on to complete a PhD in Classical Archaeology at Trinity College, Cambridge, followed by a research fellowship at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

Until her recent return to Australia to take up her position at La Trobe University, Gillian was Lecturer in Classical Archaeology at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research interests are the ancient Greek colonisation of Sicily and Italy, burial customs, and the archaeology and art of Greece and Magna Graecia.


VESPERS and a celebration of chickpeas in BACCALÀ CON CECI alla fiorentina (Salt Cod with Chickpeas as cooked in Florence)

Both my grandmothers always added baking soda (bicarbonato) to the soaking water when cooking chickpeas (ceci in Italian). Mind you, they also dissolved bicarbonato in water to help their digestion.


Old habits die hard: just because her mother had done this, my mother also did this, but by the time I was old enough to cook chickpeas these unnecessary habits stopped.

Evidence found in archaeological sites all around the Mediterranean indicate that chickpeas have been around for a very long time – since Neolithic times and in the early Bronze Age. These legumes were important food sources in countries like in Cyprus, Iraq, India Turkey, Egypt, Crete and Southern Italy – they were grown in Pompeii to feed the Roman empire.

Chickpeas are mentioned in the Iliad by Homer and by Pliny, and continued to be a popular food source in all of these countries.

In more recent times ceci  have a prominent place in Sicilian history. On Easter Monday, March 30, 1282 in Palermo, Sicilians were waiting to attend Vespers (church service). Here occurred the beginning of a rebellion which had been brewing for a long time – Sicilians were against the rule of Charles I of Anjou, ruler of Sicily and they took the opportunity to use a trivial event to massacre the Frenchmen who were identified by their inability to pronounce the word for chickpeas without their inevitable lisp.

Below, the Arno River. Featured image, the Arno in the snow.


On the anniversary of this Sicilian Vespers event it is time to celebrate another recipe for chickpeas, this time not with a Sicilian recipe, but one from Florence – baccalà e ceci.

This dish of course of is also be suitable for Good Friday – a day of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church.

And why a recipe from Florence? This came about because my brother and sister in law visited Spain last year; we recently discussed how they particularly had enjoyed eating bacalao in Spain with chickpeas and how many of the Spanish recipes seem very similar to the Italian ones.

I was in Florence a couple of years ago and ate baccalà in a small trattoria; it was not the usual baccalà alla fiorentina which is made with tomatoes, parsley and garlic and of which different variations exist and with different names, all over Italy and not just in Tuscany.

There are a number of particularly similar Catalan and Florentine recipes of salt cod and chickpeas; the following recipe is from Florence and although there are many variations in the cooking of baccalà con ceci, the following has the flavours that work for me. It is also a complete course and pretty balanced.


Thick pieces of salt cod (cut from the centre) are best. Leave the skin, but cut away fins and obvious bones. Cut into pieces (7- 10cm). Rinse well in running water before soaking for 36-48 hours (over soaking will not spoil the fish, especially if the pieces of baccalà are thick). Keep it covered in a bowl in the fridge. Change the water at least 4-5 times.

Baccala while soaking

1 k of baccalà serves 4-6 people.
Soak the chickpeas in water overnight for 8 – 12 hours. Cover the chickpeas with fresh water, cover and bring them to the boil, Cook until tender.

baccalà ,1k  pre-soaked
chickpeas, 500g, cooked
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
freshly ground, black pepper and maybe a little salt
leeks, 3, sliced into rings
sage, rosemary,  (use fresh if possible), a few sprigs
chillies 1-2, chopped
garlic, 2 cloves
white wine, 1 cup
red tomatoes, 400 g, peeled and chopped
silver beet (chard) or spinach, 500g, pre-cooked
Drain the cod and squeeze out excess water. Skin the fish and pat dry. Cut it into serving pieces (5cm each).
Add some oil to the pan and lightly fry the cod on both sides. Remove from the pan and discard the oil.
Soften the leeks and the herbs in the rest of the oil – use a thick bottom pan that will hold all of the ingredients.
Add the tomatoes, chillies, garlic, and wine and stir these ingredients to incorporate the flavours.
Add the cod and pepper and cook slowly for about 20 mins.
Add chickpeas, taste for salt and add it if necessary.  Cook slowly for another 20mins. At this stage the cod should be cooked and the sauce and chickpeas should have a creamy consistency. Cook for longer and add more liquid if necessary.
Add cooked and drained silver beet (chard) or spinach or serve the baccalà and chickpeas with a separate contorno of spinach (first blanched and then tossed in some hot oil and garlic or hot oil, toasted pine nuts and a few pre-soaked sultanas).

See also:
Sicilian Vespers and Minestra di ceci (chickpea soup)

Panelle (chickpea fritters)

Chickpeas soup with wild fennel