Capers and Zibibbo Grapes: Gastronomic Report from Pantelleria

Capers and Zibibbo Grapes: Gastronomic Report from Pantelleria 150 150 David Rosengarten

Fresh pasta served on Pantelleria with pesto pantesco

Last week I gave you my first impressions of Pantelleria, a scruffy, soulful volcanic rock that floats in the water between Sicily and Tunisia; seven days later, I’m even more in love with the place and its exotic history than before. Most important…approximately 14 meals later…I now know a great deal about what they eat in Pantelleria…where the cuisine is referred to as pantesco in the local dialect. I suppose pantelleriano would just be too cumbersome! In English, folks like me call the local cuisine “pantescan”…and we also call it “fascinating.”

One reason such a short stay has yielded so much knowledge is that this was no vacation for me; I was attending a food and wine conference organized by the Cambridge, Massachusetts think tank Oldways. The week involved panels…

Conference leader Fausto Luchetti being photographed by my video director Daniel Boneville (yes! there will be videos soon!)

…as well as farm visits, winery visits, and lots of wonderful meals.

The dramatic coast near the Mursia Hotel, where the conference was held

The primary focus of the conference was on the two pantescan products that go out to the world: wine and capers. They form the culinary base of the place; I’m sure I’ll never taste either one again without dreamy, detailed Pantelleria flashbacks.

We were there, in fact, at a great time to learn about pantescan wine: Zibibbo grapes (the same grapes called Muscat of Alexandria elsewhere) were being harvested like crazy in early September. Much to see!

At this time of year, if you drive, it’s likely you’ll find yourself behind a truck delivering Zibibbo grapes to wineries (note the sea on the left)

Approximately 50 independent-farmer trucks delivering Zibibbo grapes to Pellregrino Winery in the island’s northwest on Sept. 13, 2012

You cannot believe how delicious these grapes are as they bake in the sun for a few hours…I snuck around, picked my moments, and got my fill!

There are actually many kinds of grapes grown on Pantelleria, and many kinds of wines made–mostly for local consumption. But the game changed in 1971 when the Italian government organized the production (oxymoron?), and granted DOC status to just two of the island’s wines: Moscato di Pantelleria, and Passito di Pantelleria. They are both eye-opening dessert wines, that I now recognize as having the smack of the territory.

To begin with: the rock star local grape, probably because of the rich flavor that volcanic soil imparts, is Muscat of Alexandria…well-known from other sweet-wine-growing parts of the world. It is generally considered not as fine as what the French call Muscat à Petits Grains…but, on Pantelleria, Muscat of Alexandria reaches its zenith. Many believe it came to the island from north Africa (Alexandria IS in Egypt), and on Pantelleria the grape is almost always referred to as “Zibibbo,” which is its Arabic name. So don’t be confused, as I once was: Zibibbo or Muscat of Alexandria…same thing!

As I told you last week, the grape itself in September is incredibly delicious…in my opinion, it’s worth a harvest visit to Pantelleria just to taste these unique sun-drenched orbs!

Zibibbo grapes at the table in September are “remarkable, firm, juicy, meaty, complex”

It’s a small miracle that they grow at all (or that anything grows); the wind is so strong on the island that some plants need protective walls to keep them from blowing away. At most vineyards, the complex network of old Arabic walls and enclosures helps keep the wind down.

Some of the ubiquitous walls and enclosures that help protect the plants on Pantelleria

Extra protection at the Donnafugata winery from slat fences that get unrolled during harvest

Attack of the over-protected Zibibbo grapes

Some of the Zibibbo grapes at the roughly 15 wineries on the island go into a lightly sweet wine called Moscato di Pantelleria; bright straw-yellow, it usually registers at about 10 grams of sugar (sweet but not sticky-sweet), and a low 11-12% alcohol.

A fresh glass of Moscato di Pantelleria right out of the stainless steel tank at Abraxas Vineyards (the barrel behind is used for other things)

I love Moscato di Pantelleria as a summer-garden sipping wine, but it’s also a fine match for savory dishes with a little sweetness (great with mildly sweet Chinese food!). Of course, it kicks ass with cheese, nuts, and very lightly sweet desserts (like simple sugar cookies).

Its DOC partner in crime is Passito di Pantelleria…which is darker (like Scotch), richer on the palate (like Tawny Port), sweeter (about 20 grams of sugar), higher in alcohol (about 14%). It gets this way–from the same Zibibbo grapes–through a very Italianate process. There is a first harvest of grapes in late August or so, which get set out in the sun to dry. By the time they’ve raisined, in September, the rest of the vineyard is picked…those second grapes get crushed and the juice begins its fermentation…to which is added the raisined grapes that were picked several weeks before!

A good Passito di Pantelleria is one of the world’s great dessert wines, rather on the elegant side: I expecially appreciate its complexity, as the exotic fruit notes of Zibibbo combine with the treacly notes of Tawny Port and the buttery notes of Madeira. Other essences come along for the ride…like a distinct minerality borne of the volcanic soil.

But it’s not just sweet wine. Most wineries also make a bone-dry white from Zibibbo grapes–now the third DOC wine of the island, called Pantelleria Bianco DOC–which I find to be racily Alsace-like on the nose, but much lighter-crisper-drier on the palate. And it’s not just wine in Zibibbo world! Most bakeries also make desserts based on Zibibbo products. So if you come to this island, don’t miss any manifestation of Zibibbo; on Pantelleria…Zibibbo is king!

 A gorgeous local pastry made with Zibibbo jam

The other great pantescan product that travels the world, of couse, is capers.

At a caper-producing facility on Pantelleria

Ask most of the world’s foodies where the very best capers come from, and the ones in the know will usually say “Pantelleria.” Why are they so good? Volcanic soil, again…plus a special variety (inermes) of a special cultivar (nocellara) of the plant capperi spinosa. No one else has commercial production of this variety. Then…there’s the island preference for salt over brine (a given, really, since water is scarce); the locals claim that you get a much more intense flavor in salt.

Salted capers at production facility

And, lastly, there’s the local skill: Gabriele Lasagni of Bonomo & Giglio, asked about how long the salting takes, etc, told us all that this is “an art, not a science.” He said that during the season the caper producers have to look at every batch of capers, every day, to figure out what to do next.

“The season” is actually very interesting. The caper plant grows everywhere on Pantelleria, both wild and on farms.

 The beautiful wild caper plant, with its coin-shaped leaves, growing on a wall at someone’s Pantelleria house

Starting in May, un-opened flower buds appear on the plant; if you pick an unopened bud…you have a caper!…which then needs salting or brining. (I actually tasted a bud as I picked it off of the plant; it tasted a little bit like a slightly spicy pea, but not like a caper at this stage.)

If you do not pick the buds, the capers, they open into gorgeous, fragile, purple-and-white flowers–which are of no commercial use. Soon, the flowers fall of (as flowers do)…to be replaced with the caper plant’s fruit…which is not a caper (remember: the caper is the pre-flower bud). So what is the fruit? The much much larger caper BERRY, which looks something like a gherkin next to the small buds. And you can compare them in the field–because it is the odd property of the caper plant that during the season you can see buds, flowers and caper berries all at the same time on the same plant!

Here you can see small buds, ready to be picked as capers…next to one whonkin’ caper berry, also ready for harvest

Capers come to the market in three sizes, though not necessarily marked that way: small, medium and large. The small ones bring the highest prices; of them, Lasagni says, the texture is best…tight and snappy. “But they have little aroma,” he concedes. So why the high price? Simple labor analysis: “they are the most labor intensive to pick.”

My connoisseur friends on the island tell me that their favorite size is large. “it’s true,” Fausto Luchetti says, “that the texture of the large caper is a little mushier”–each large caper has a practically full-grown flower in it waiting to break out–“but the aromas and flavors of the big guys are so much better.” This feeling for the superiority of the large caper was echoed by Ishan Gurdal, proprietor of Cambridge, Massachusetts’ fabulous foodie shop Formaggio; “my restaurant customers want large ones,” Ishan said, “though it’s partially economic…they can chop them up and make them go further!”

So how do they use capers in Pantescan local cooking? And how is that cooking differentiated from the cooking of Sicily, the “mainland,” 65 miles to the northeast?

For one thing, on Pantelleria…they use a lot more capers!

There is no Sicilian dish more famous than caponata, often thought of as Sicily’s ratatouille. But though it shares some elements with ratatouille (like tomatoes and eggplant), and a serving temperature (room)…Sicilian caponata always has a distinct agro-dolce (sweet-and-sour) character.

Half-served tray of sweet-and-sour caponata (it is Pantescan; note the liberal use of capers)

Intriguingly, however, on Pantelleria, one often finds a little less sweetness–maybe yielding the spotlight to the capers?

A very Pantescan caponata

No matter how much time you spend on Pantelleria…you will never escape caponata!

Another very Pantescan dish–which has its own ambiguities and controversies–is pesto pantesco…unlike any Ligurian pesto you’ve ever had.

Label of a jarred pesto pantesco (ready for shipment to Germany!)

The story starts in Trapani (TROPP-uh-knee), on the west side of the Sicilian “mainland.” Like Pantelleria, Trapani has a lot of Arab influence (and BTW…Pantelleria is under the provincial administration of Trapani). One very famous dish from Trapani is pesto trapanese, which, pounded in a mortar , is made from tomatoes, raw garlic, almonds, and a little bit of basil (it is red, unlike Liguria’s green).

Ingredients about to be pounded into pesto pantesco

Now, every book will tell you that there’s also a “pesto pantesco” that differs from “pesto Trapanese;” some folks will go so far as to tell you that the former always contains capers and no almonds, while the latter always contains almonds and no capers.

After asking around for a week, I discovered that this is inaccurate.

The truth is this: if you make tomato-almond-garlic pesto in Trapani, you call it pesto trapanese. If you make it in Pantelleria–same dish!–you call it pesto pantesco.

But here’s the twist: some chefs in Pantelleria like to add capers to it…at which point it becomes pesto pantesco con capperi. But this is only a variation…

 A jar of pesto pantesco WITH capers!

OK…now that we know what it is…how is it used?

The most important use is as a pasta sauce, whether the pasta is fresh or dry.

 Dried pasta with pesto pantesco

Fresh pasta with pesto pantesco

But there are many other uses as well for this staple. It can be spread on toasted bread, served as a side dish/condiment, eaten with a spoon, etc.

Another element (in addition to caper over-drive) that strongly divides Pantescan cuisine from mainland Sicilian…is the love of potatoes! Potatoes? First of all, none of the books discussing Pantescan cuisine even mention potatoes! But there they were, during my first three meals, in many, many dishes. At our conference’s opening-day panel, I asked a Sicilian food expert from Palermo about potatoes in the local cuisine. “There are no potatoes grown on Pantelleria,” she answered…at which point an American living in Pantelleria spoke up: “Sorry,” she said…”but everyone I know in Pantelleria has potatoes in his or her garden!” So if you’re thinking of cooking Pantescan…think spuds!

The leading use I saw is in the surprising insalata pantesco…an unlikely combo of ingredients, but made dutifully all over the island. The principal players are potatoes and tomatoes together, with olive oil and capers.

 Insalata pantesca on the right; sciaki sciuka on the left (discussed below)

But insalate pantesca often serves as a base for other things. I had it topped with canned tuna and string beans (bringing it into Salade Nicoise territory). I also saw it these ways:

Insalata Pentesca garnished with hard-boiled eggs

Insalata Pentesca topped with grilled octopus

You will also find lots of potatoes in another ubiquitous specialty, the Arabically-name sciaki sciuka–potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, onions and other vegetables baked together.

A beautifully made sciaki sciuka at one of the island’s top restaurants

Surprisingly, one of the things that’s NOT huge on Pantelleria is locally caught fish! Oh there’s plenty of fish…but a lot of it comes in from mainland Sicily! As I reported last week, Fausto Luchetti attributes the lack of local passion to a thread running through Arabic culture; “traditionally,” he told me, “they are not enthusiastic fishermen.”

But fear not, pescatores! If you go to Pantelleria, you will see a lot of menu space devoted to fish (perhaps because the tourists expect it?) A place like the lovely La Vela, in Scauri, is a good example of a local restaurat catering to fish desire.

La Vela, on the southwest side of Pantelleria, with its tables right on a swimming spot in the sea.

I saw fish on Pantelleria often being mixed with pasta…

Dried-pasta paccheri, with little shrimp

But there are other options beyond pasta. I must say that some of the greatest anchovies I ever ate were served at a local Pantelleria home:

Killer anchovies on Pantelleria

…and, of course, it ain’t hard to find simply grilled fish everywhere. Now, much of it may come from Sicily…but I was guaranteed at the great restaurant La Nicchia that their swordfish was taken 5 miles off the coast of Pantelleria.

Grilled local swordfish…with tomatoes and capers (natch!)

Lastly, when discussing Pantescan cuisine…one must discuss another seafood target…couscous! Or, in the original Arabic still sometimes used on the island…kus kus! This is a huge favorite on Pantelleria, and a huge element in the exotic appeal of the food here; as you travel around the island, you will see many restaurants with exterior signs advertising “couscous,” or “kus kus.”

However, there is some controversy about authenticity. Very popular today is seafood kus kus…but, according to Peter Lambert, an American who moved to Pantelleria, “The real local kus kus is made from vegetables. There is not a fish tradition on this island.” As with the pesto, current practice often follows the lead of “mainland” Trapani; there, couscous Trapanese with seafood is practically a religion!

Nevertheless, I loved me kus kus on the island with all the critters of the sea. 

Expert local couscous maker blending water into semolina to make the pellets (and note the fish waiting at hand)

When the pellets are finished steaming over stock, vegetables and proteins…they are served with the vegetables and proteins either mixed in or ladled over.

Steamed kus kus with seafood mixed in, ready for service

But, most important…don’t forget the reduced stock, which each diner ladles over his or her kus kus! One uses it to moisten the semolina pellets…but, during my recent Pantelleria visit…the stock had amazing flavor, practically making the dish. For the seafood kus kus, it tasted intensely of the sea. And for all kus kus, there were two versions of stock available: mild and spicy. I always preferred the spicy which, on Pantelleria, was very chile-laden and spicy!

 Kus kus with seafood and lots of spicy broth on my plate

True to Peter Lambert’s words, however, there are many other kinds of kus kus available, with “vegetable kus kus” leading the alternative list. I also took delight, one night, in a “meat kus kus,” that offered three kinds of meat in gravy, two kinds of sausages (including merguez, of course), and two kinds of meatballs. Yum! And don’t forget the very spicy broth…

Meat kus kus ready for service, with lamb at 5PM near the kus kus platter, and spicy broth at 11PM to the platter

Are you feeling full? There’s more good news from Pantelleria…it is a wonderful island for outdoor exercise, earning you even more appetite for upcoming meals! My number one activity of the week was climbing up a mountain to reach a bagno asciutto…a “dry bath,” or…sauna!

My group slowly making its way up to the “sauna”

The crack in the mountains that is the “sauna”…notice the legs inside!

Well, I gotta say…this was the most wonderful “sauna” I’ve ever been in! The air hangs with dense, super-hot steam–all of it natural! No need to pour water on rocks! Because of this, the sauna vapors–which usually have a peculiarly woody smell about them–are clean, clean, clean in the mountain’s crevice. I emerged sensationally energized.

Of course, you may just want to chill, not steam, on Pantelleria. This is the place for that. As I explained last week, there are thousands of dammusi, Arabic-origin domed stone houses, that are still living places, but are now renting places as well.

A classic dammuso

Some of the rental ones are humble, some are quite grand…

A high-end bedroom, in a high-end dammuso

If you want some help on the dammuso rental front, log on to:

Most people who love this experience love it for the intense feeling of isolation. One of the island’s famous residents is Giorgio Armani, who chose Pantelleria as his get-away place.

The Armani complex, near Gadir, set among the stone walls, Pantescan green, and the sea.

If you’re not sold on Pantelleria, just call up Giorgio for confirmation!

Or…perhaps…maybe you’d better leave him alone.


Photos Via: David Rosengarten

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