An italian island close to Africa?
Couscous as part of the staple diet, rather than pasta?
Does that exist? Yes, it does actually exist.
Here are some fast facts: it’s located about 80 km from the Tunisian coast and on clear days you can see Capo Mustafà and even Capo Bon on the Kelibia penisula of Tunisia, it’s about 85 sq. km big , 836 m high, mostly green, rocky bays, very little beaches, lots of wind, rather dry and hot in summer, regular power black outs, expensive car hire, hardly any good hotels … so what’s the attraction here?
Well lots really.
You reach the island after a 45 minute plane trip from Palermo with a rather basic propeller plane and about 20 other passengers. And flying over nothing else but water, you then realise that Pantelleria is actually rather isolated. It’s literally in the middle of the Sicilian strait that forces deep currents between the south of Sicily and the Tunisian coast.
Buffeted by winds, even in August, the island is characterised by jagged lava stone, low-slung caper bushes, dwarf vines, steaming fumaroles and the famous azure blue lake with ‘therapeutic’ mud for a good body scrub.
The exotic and remote atmosphere of Pantelleria has long made it a favourite with celebrities, Giorgio Armani owns a large and fabulous dammuso on the eastern part of the island.
The thing to do here is to rent a dammuso. It’s a construction with big blocks of black lava stone with a smooth and sparkling white clay domed roof. Very arabian and obviously one of the remnants of previous invaders.
So food-wise there’s everything you could want.
Firstly the arid but fertile black volcanic soil produces sun drenched vegetables and fruit, with a pure and intense taste. Try and find the local small stalls that are dotted all over the island.
Secondly the island produces one of the finest desert wines on the planet: Passito.
It’s an outstanding wine without the over-sweetness of syropy consistency of other desert wines. It has a exotically fruity, sometimes spicy tone and is refreshing as an aperitif or after dinner drink.
Passito is made from the Zibibbo grape, a variety of the ancient muscat grape. The first description of the production of a passito wine comes from Columella in the first century AD, writing about the Passum wine made in ancient Carthage. The modern Italian name for these wines, passito, echoes this ancient word. Perhaps the closest thing to passum is the Passito di Pantelleria.
The ripe bunches of grapes are hand-picked and placed on a ‘cannizza’ and exposed to the sun, covering them at night from the dew. Once the bunches become dry, the grapes are placed in jars and covered in must. After six days they are pressed, and the liquid is gathered. After this, the pressed liquid is mixed with some juice which had been kept in the sun for 3 days. All this is placed in clay containers, closed tightly and opened after 20 or 30 days of fermentation. Because of this very labour intensive cultivation, Passito wines to be rather expensive. We tasted about 7 – 8 different ones and they varied in price from 12 euro to 45 euro. We also visited the Cantina Valenza in Monastero after a rather wild and dusty 25 minutes drive with our rusty Fiat Panda. It has (but doesn’t always sell) the infamous Gerard Depardieu Passito wine which is produced on vineyards just adjacent to theirs. The price of the bottle was rumored to be around 10 euro per centiliter! So we didn’t indulge. However their own production ranks amongst the best at a fraction of the price. We did manage to get our hands on a bottle of Carole Bouquet’s (his ex-wife) ‘Sangue d’Oro’. Who also took up the hobby at some point in her life. The bottle remains unopened until present, however as soon as we have tasted it, it will be reported back on this blog of course.
The Donnafugata Passito; Ben Rye is probably the top ranking Passito in international wine tasting competitions and at around 40 euro, a must buy for those who want to try a top Passito.
Anyway, the third food ingredient which is grown on the pantellerian soil is capers. The plant grows all over the island, wild as much as in ‘cultivated’ patches. again manual picking is necessary here so the small morsels go for high prices. Especially the smaller one are most expensive and highly sought after. A D.O.C. for the capers has been put in place because of the essential link between the island and the caper.
So if you mix the wine, the capers and the fabulous vegetables, you get a very interesting Italian-Moorish combination of flavours in local dishes. Pasta is obviously present, however the couscous with roasted fish and powerful fish stock is the top dish on the menu all over the island. Our favourite restaurant is La Vela, just a couple of meters from the water in the tiny harbour of Scauri. It’s all open air and no frills, just the ingredients that do the talking. Make sure you call ahead to book a table because it’s not prepared every day.
So if you mix the wine, the capers and the fabulous produce from Pantellaria, you get a very interesting Italian-Moorish combination of flavours in local dishes.
Of course apart from this, you also have the sicilian pastries; cassata siciliana (the cake not the ice cream), or the almond based biscuits that are omnipresent in the bakeries in the port town of Pantelleria. We recommend ‘Katia’ for its outstanding cakes and ice creams. You can also get freshly made pastas here and we especially liked the ravioli filled with ricotta and sage. Irresistable with just some melted butter on top!
So all in all Pantelleria is not a bad place to be, at all.
It is far away from anything, difficult to reach and actually, that’s the beauty of it. So make sure you don’t go during august, when half of northern italy has emigrated to either Sardinia, Panarea or Pantelleria for their holidays, but try to go end of June when the rental prices are still sometimes 50% lower than after 15th of July, or even in September.
Before you leave, we recommend that you read ‘Il Libro dell’Isola di Pantelleria’ by Angelo D’Aietti, Editore Il Pettirosso. It’s the one and only reference book for Pantelleria lovers (albeit in Italian).
So please don’t go and leave it all to ourselves!
If you DO decide to go, contact the great team of Il Dammuso. http://www.ildammuso.com/
They have the best portfolio of houses available on the island, prices range from 300€ a week (depending on the season).
And if you feel like spending just a little bit more, then they also have an exclusive list of dammusos: http://www.pantelleriacollection.com/it/home/
They will also organise the car rental for you and recommend the best foodie addresses on the island.
Contact Giovanni on firstname.lastname@example.org or via their website.