Mackerel and anchovies papyrus parcels with a taste of Sicilian countryside

I love Siracusa and its historical centre: the island of Ortigia. The amazing combination of Greek ruins and Baroque buildings, the narrow little streets of the old Jewish quarter (the Giudecca area), the strong lines of the Norman Maniace Castle and its waters, both the salty waters of the Jonian sea and the fresh spring water of the famous Arethusa Fountain with its papyrus bush, are a continous source of inspiration. My Mediterranean fish in papyrus parcel recipe is a simple tribute to the this wonderful city.

Some historians believe that people in Syracuse made papyrus paper as early as 250 BC, but the first unmistakable evidence of the presence of papyrus plants in Syracuse goes back to 1674 as recorded by botanical expert Paolo Silvio Boccone in his studies. Today, papyrus grows along the banks of the River Cyane, which runs a few miles from Syracuse and in the centre of the Arethusa fountain in Ortigia.

Used by Syracusan artisans in their workshops where they sell interesting paintings on papyrus paper, sold as a special solution for laminate flooring or as material for interesting home design objects, it has even inspired fashion with Sicilian designer Marella Ferrera using papyrus in one of her special 1998 collections.

But my actual inspiration for the dish I created, was not only papyrus paper per se, but also the story I heard in Siracusa explaining that fishermen in Ortigia used papyrus to make ropes to go out fishing while farmers in the Syracusan inland used them to bind sheaves in the fields.
Thinking about these elements together, papyrus, Mediterranean fish and South-Eastern Sicilian countryside, got me the idea for my "Sgombro ed acciughe fresche in fagottini di papiro al profumo di campagna siciliana" (mackerel and anchovies papyrus parcels with a taste of Sicilian countryside).


I placed the papyrus sheets in cold water to soften. Then I cleaned the anchovies, filleted the mackerel and chopped into 1cm cubes, prepared some zucchini flowers, datterini tomatoes from Pachino, wild capers collected in Cava d'Ispica, boiled chickpeas, dry oregano, salt and extra virgin olive oil.

I mixed together the mackerel cubes, with a pinch of salt, tomatoes, chickpeas, oregano, capers, salt and e.v. olive oil. Then, I placed one anchovy and 2-3 capers inside the zucchini flowers and set them aside.
I lined a sheet of wet papyrus paper on my chopping board, placed two tb-spoons of mackerel mixture in the middle and placed a stuffed zucchini flower in the centre, then closed the parcel and placed it in a tray.
Once they were all done, I baked them in a pre-heated oven at 180C° for 15-20 minutes. I served them hot, as they came out of the oven with a sprinkle of e.v. olive oil.

The result was excellent, the papyrus paper kept the fish moist, as if it was half baked and half steamed. It also released a special earthy smell which created an interesting combination with the two kind of oily fish I used. A great balance of taste and nutritional elements that made me proud of the recipe and pushed me, once more, to say: THANK YOU Siracusa and THANK YOU Sicily.

Here is a video explaining how papyrus paper is made in Siracusa. The video is in Italian but it gives you an idea of the process anyway.

Written on
March 9, 2011
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