The Great Italian Island Caper

The island of Pantelleria sits 58 miles southwest of Sicily, which doesn’t seem very significant until you realize it also sits 45 miles from Tunisia, making this Italian island closer to North Africa than to Italy.

The island has been shaped by many occupiers and visitors; the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Bourbons, and Genovese have all stopped here and somehow left their mark. But it’s the Arabs who really engraved, “We were here” the deepest into the island’s ubiquitous dark-hued volcanic rock. They brought with them dishes like couscous and shakshouka. They also planted olive and citrus trees, as well as something that has given the island its main reputation: capers.

Whenever I told someone I was headed to Pantelleria, they’d either give me a blank stare, which told me they had no idea what I was talking about, or they’d say, “Oh, capers!” Yes, capers from Pantelleria are the capers to consume, apparently.

Capers are everywhere on the island, particularly, of course, in restaurant dishes. There were capers in pasta, in pesto, on spreads over crostini, topped on fish, in caponata. It was starting to seem like a caper version of Monty Python’s famous skit about Spam.
I wanted to get to the center of caper production on Pantelleria. And so one day I wandered into the middle of a caper field and began chatting with a farmer named Lorenzo “Until the ’70s,” he told me, “the island’s economy was based solely on capers and grapes.” In fact, every farmer had a field that was a mix of both. But in the ’80s, he told me, the caper-eating world became aware of the high-quality capers Pantelleria was producing and soon enough, many farmers just switched to capers. “Thanks to the volcanic soil,” the farmer said, “as well as things like culture and wind and moisture from the morning dew, the capers here have a distinct taste.” It’s true: they’re bolder and slightly sweet and the smaller capers have a crunchy-ness you just can’t find elsewhere.

The fertility of the soil is, in some cases, buttressed by the wind. This has led to some interesting innovations by the island’s farmers. They built walls out of volcanic rock around lemon and orange trees; they cultivated olive trees so that they would grow more like shrubs, spreading, tentacle like, their branches along the ground, too low for the wind to dry out its leaves. And the same goes for capers.

He knelt down on one knee and showed me how capers are picked. “Like praying,” he said. “It’s very difficult work.” So difficult, in fact, that the next generation or two might see the end of caper production on the island. “The next generation won’t want to do this work,” he said. “And then what will we do?” he asked, and then shrugged.

Until then, we should enjoy the capers of Pantellieria. As the farmer would say, they go well with everything, proven by pretty much anything you eat while on the island.