I was recently given the opportunity to explore the island of Pantelleria and it’s cuisine. Since 1994 I’ve been on several trips organized by Oldways, the Boston non-profit that investigates naturally healthy traditional diets. Oldways is responsible for the original research on the Mediterranean Diet. Their trips combine the food junkie’s dream of entering into an unknown culinary culture and having everything laid out before you from which to sup (literally) with a high level food journalist camp. The all expense paid trips are offered to food writers, chefs and food importers as a way to open up an unexplored area to a group of naturally curious eaters who write, cook, or share ingredients with an audience. I can easily say that my food education of the past twenty years would have been infinitely poorer without the Oldways experience. And I have to say that sharing eating ones way through a culinary culture for a few days with really smart colleagues is pretty great.
The experience of Pantelleria was pretty fascinating. Take a very small island in the Mediterranean, closer to Tunisia (only 37 miles away) than Sicily, add incessant wind and a mix of Italian and North African food cultures and you have Pantelleria. The island belongs to the Sicilian province of Trapani.
Although it’s a noted summer hideaway for wealthy celebrities, the stable population of the island is barely 8,000. Many I met who live on the island full time also seem to work in Palermo.
Despite the fact that we were served fish at every meal except breakfast, we were told often “we are not a fisher people”. My working hypothesis is that there weren’t enough trees on the island to make boats. I welcome other information on this subject. So despite being an island in the middle of the Sicilian Straights the people of Pantelleria have historically relied on agriculture rather than fishing for their sustenance. The two most important factors that inform agriculture on the island are the lack of fresh water and the incessant North African winds. The incredibly fertile volcanic soil is irrigated only by rain.
Driving around the perimeter of the island is reminiscent of Kona with a touch of California Coast. There are walls and terraces everywhere created from blocks of pumice and obsidian. These volcanic walls line the roads and hold back terraces filled with caper plants and grapevines whose lush green leaves occasionally spill over the stone. But it is the manner in which olive trees are cultivated that really got me. They are kept deliberately tiny, two to three feet tall, planted in small sunken fields that are dug down below ground level. In this way the trees are protected from the tremendous wind. Olive branches are weighed down by stones in order to force them to grow close to the ground. This gives the older trees a bonsai like appearance. Despite their size the trees were loaded with olives.
The interior of the island has three stunning agricultural valleys. Driving down into them is like entering small edens of perfectly human scale. The primary crop of the valleys is the Zibbibo grape which is used to make white wine, Passito, raisins and derived products like the luscious “ambrosia” syrup of concentrated fresh grape juice and grape “jam” which is more a while grape marmelade. Coming soon, The Caper and The Food of Pantelleria.