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.

The Mediterranean Island Of Pantelleria: Where Italy Meets North Africa

Despite a small handful of attempts, I’ve never had any luck hitchhiking. But when I recently found myself on a desolate stretch of road on an Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean, I decided to give it a go again. On the second attempt, a clunky greenish-blue Fiat Panda slowed to a crawl. I never did get the driver’s name – a bald, gold-chain-clad guy in his 30s, wearing, of course, wrap-around sunglasses – but the first question he asked, in English, was: where are you from?

“New York,” I said.

“New York?” he asked, the tone of his voice incredulous and amazed at the same time, as if I’d said I went on a stroll from my West Village apartment, and somehow randomly ended up here on a one-lane road where sharp, black volcanic rock met the rough post-storm Mediterranean.

I nodded, affirming again where I live. His follow up: “Then what the hell are you doing here?”
We both laughed and then I explained. I was in Pantelleria, an island about the size of the island where I live (Manhattan) but literally and theoretically half a world away. I was there to take part in a food conference for the organization Oldways, a group that attempts to create awareness to culinary cultural preservation. I was done with my conference responsibilities and had walked into the eye-sore eponymous town (it was almost completely razed by British bombs in World War II) and was now on my way back to my hotel.

I have to confess: I’d never heard of Pantelleria. But when I looked at it on a map I was intrigued. Closer to North Africa than it is to Sicily (and further south than Tunis), Pantelleria appears to be the love-child of Italy and North Africa, an interesting hybrid of two cultures. Town names reflect the 500-year, early-medieval Arab occupation of the island (Khamma, Gadir, Khaddiuggia, and Bugeber). And much to my delight, so did the food. Sure, there were plenty of pasta dishes, many of which were sprinkled with pistachios, as is the Sicilian proclivity, and it seemed every restaurant in town served pizza. Nearly every time I sat down to eat, though, I was offered seafood-spiked couscous. Not unlike one would find in, say, Morocco.

It was one dish, in particular, that intrigued me the most: sciaki sciuka. If you’ve ever traveled in North Africa, this dish might sound familiar: shakshouka. I was in Israel the first time I had this wacky-sounding dish. In fact, I discovered it at a place in Jaffa called Doctor Shakshouka. The good doctor was there that day, cooking the tomato and onion-laced, poached egg-topped dish on four burners from a pedestal above the dining room, like some kind of culinary deejay, entertaining the hungry crowd. Once I dipped a piece of bread into the cast iron pan in which it was cooked, scooping up chunks of tomato, garlic and peppers – as is the custom in eating this dish – I was having something of an eating epiphany. The citric and onion flavors melded together in a harmonic and deeply satisfying way. I loved eating hummus and pita and baba ganoush while I was traveling in the area, but this was a real taste of the Middle East to me.

Or so I thought. Here I was in “Italy,” eating a near-ubiquitous dish that had traveled here possibly a millennium ago and is now as Pantescan – the adjective for something from Pantelleria – as it is Middle Eastern and North African. No one is exactly sure where the dish comes from: some have said Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, or Yemen. Libyan Jews (like Dr. Shakshouka) say it originates in Libya.

On Pantelleria, the dish has adapted to local ingredients and at times almost seemed more like a ratatouille. It was filled with capers, one of the most popular products on the island, and eggplant, which seems to be in just about everything there, potatoes and peppers. Sometimes I saw boiled, not poached eggs, sprinkled on top.

I have to admit I like the shakshouka better in North Africa but the presence of the dish on this relatively little-known island in the middle of the Mediterranean filled a hunger inside me in a completely different way.

The gold-chain-clad guy who picked me up wished me well when I got back to my hotel. When he drove away, he was still laughing about the fact that I’d come so far to be in Pantelleria. But I don’t think he realized how well I ate here.