creative ramblings & reverie

Friday, September 16, 2011


South of Sicily and just thirty miles from Africa is the Italian island of Pantelleria.  The island is most noted for its capers, which thrive on that volcanic terrain, but other elements of its cuisine are notable too.

The Pantescans do wonderful things with fresh tomatoes.  The standard sauce for spaghetti, pesto pantesco, is made from fresh uncooked tomatoes, or tomatoes dried and reconstituted—the tomatoes we'd seen braided and strung on the outside walls of houses to dry in the sun, like ristras of red chili peppers in New Mexico where I grew up.  To these are added basil (basilico), red pepper, a whiff of garlic.

You can have tomatoes in a salad, either misto or by themselves, on a plate, with a little pepper, a little olive oil, a pinch of salt taken from the little dish of it on the table.

We bought a brown bag full of tomatoes from a tiny shop or greengrocer on the main street in town.  He kept tipping more into the scale, couldn't believe we wanted less than a pound, two pounds, a kilo—all for a few hundred lira.

Pantescan bread is wonderful too:  coarse and crusty and fragrant with fennel, freckled with sesame seeds.  The characteristic wine (which you must ask for specifically, because they think you can't really want it) is rather spicy, with a suggestion of papaya or mango.

We'd eat a spaghetti made with prawns, parsley, butter, onions, sweet red peppers, and cayenne to taste, which took its name from a little trattoria on the harbor, above which we rented a house.  Or, a plateful of small shrimps lightly coated, lightly fried.  Or, charred crayfish with lime, and a cold dry Sicilian white wine.

Besides the famous capers that grow on the volcanic island there is yellow fennel, which Lawrence Durrell in Bitter Lemons says "likes old ruins best, growing there more freely than on the natural rock."

I remember the rust-colored oysters they ate on Pantelleria, some Italians we'd met who spent summers there, letting them open by themselves when they had been long enough out of the water, sometimes after many days.  They tasted pungent and rusty, like their color.  We had a dry volcanic wine with them, that we had to drive up steep streets to buy from a man in a dim shop somewhere on the island, though the vendor of fish came past the rented house early each morning, in a three-wheeler, selling the swordfish that would be marinated in lemon juice and olive oil and sea salt.


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