Pantelleria, the wind swept isle - Maria's Caponata Pantesca

Last June Maria and I, were invited to spend a week in Pantelleria an island off Sicily and about 83 km from the coast of Cap Bon in Tunisia. This wind-swept and fertile land boasts large expanses of vineyards, caper plants and prickly pear bushes.  As you drive along the green landscape, you come across vineyards, oak and olive trees and rows of prickly pear bushes. The fruit trees however seemed rare and I then found out that they often grew from within a giardino pantesco; a perfectly crafted round wall built to protect the delicate fruit trees from incessant winds. I also noticed that the olive trees grew close to the ground and wondered if they were a different variety but my friend told me that the branches were deliberately weighed down to protect them from constant winds.

On this isolated shore, capers grow on every rock, in every crevice and sometimes choose to disrupt  the perfect alignment of vine rows. Capers add tanginess to caponata -a typical Sicilian dish- and add flavour to pizza, pasta sauces and fish. Pantelleria capers are very special  and have an intensely aromatic flavour which earned them  their IGP or Protected Geographical Indication. From June to July, seasonal workers come to the island to help with the harvest; they pick the buds first and then sort them by size, the smallest and most desirable are nonpareil.  If the bud is left on the branch, it blossoms into a flower, which in turn is fertilised to make a berry. In some other parts of the Mediterranean people pick the peppery coin-shaped leaves and much like nasturtiums they add them to salads. The bud, the berry and the leaves of the caper bush are used in cooking. 

The Pantescans have long struggled between two cultures. They became Christians around the 12th century but have retained in their dialect many words of Arab origins such as zibbibo which comes from zbib or raisin. Imported first by the Phoenicians, this Muscat grape - Muscat of Alexandria which grows in Pantelleria is as ancient as its myth: the goddess Tanit used its nectar to seduce Apollo. The actress Carole Bouquet grows zibbibo to produce her own passito, the Sangue D’Oro . We were irrevocably seduced when we tasted it. 

Our host lives in a restored dammuso, the island’s cubic shaped house with arched ceiling and volcanic stonewalls. Its domed roof channels rain water into an underground cistern and its thick double-layered walls insure a confortable temperature in all seasons.  In our quest for good food, we met Grazia who lives in a home consisting of a series of adjoining dammusi with niches carved in thick walls that serve as closets and sometimes as bedrooms. Bred and born in Pantelleria, Grazia  takes us int her kitchen to teach us ravioli panteschi (ravioli filled with ricotta and mint). She skilfully makes and works her dough on an old pine board which she proudly admits to have used for the last 50 years having belonged to her mother in law before her. Later she shows us the delicate process of making bacci - crusty and light flower shaped fritters which are often made to celebrate the feast of San Giuseppe.  When the fritters are all done and ready, she sandwiches tow together and fills them with  a mixture of sweetened ricotta and chocolate before dusting them with icing sugar. 

Early mornings were spent swimming in the turquoise blue waters of Lago di Venere. A vestige from the island’s volcanic past, the lake boasts sulphuric springs; locals and holidaymakers, smear the clay over their body and walk in the sun until it dries. A quick dip in the lake and the skin is detoxed and rid of its impurities.

On some afternoons we took boat rides around the island's rugged shore.  Past the port of Scauri, we swam to find a grotto with thermal springs. The hot water came out from the rocks into the sea. As we sat  in the warm natural pools, we enjoyed the peaceful silence and the magnificent beauty around us. Back on the boat it was time for lunch, Gigi the skipper, cooked pasta with tomato, caper and anchovy sauce and we finished off the meal with a bowl of fresh fruits and local cheese: ricotta which was unsalted with hints of sweetness,and tuma a salted and firmer cheese. Both reminded me of Lebanese arishe and jebne khadra two young cheeses made with unpasteurised milk. 

On our last night, Maria and I cooked a Libaliano feast for neighbours and friends. Ravioli panteschi of course, but also roast chicken with pomegranate molasses, kibbe and pistachio rolls, fattoush (without purslane; I was surprised not to find it growing wild in the garden…) and aubergine fatte.  As the evening progressed and food but a lovely memory, we sat chatting and enjoyed the magic of the Pantescan night.
Back in London and in a bid to keep those sunny memories alive,  I cooked Maria's caponata. 
Scroll down for the full recipe. 

Low-level olive trees behind the walls of a large Pantescan garden

An unrestored dammuso

The rugged shore of Pantelleria

A Pantescan Garden

The blue waters of Lago di Venere

Mud-covered ladies

A caper bush

A caper flower

Capers buds in salt

Baci filled with ricotta and chocolate chips

Grazia'a Ravioli

Gigi's Paata
Tuma on the right and Ricotta on the left

Maria's Caponata Pantesca

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, peeled and sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
12 green and black olives, pitted
1 tablespoon capers in salt, rinsed
1 tablespoon large capers in brine
250 g chopped tinned tomatoes
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 medium aubergines, diced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons caster sugar
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
5 basil leaves
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking times: 40 minutes
Serves 4

  1. In a pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sauté the onion for 10 minutes.
  2. Stir in celery, olives, capers, and cook for 2 minutes.
  3. Add tomatoes, stir to mix and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Cook the aubergines separately.
  5. Slice the top off the aubergines and peel the aubergines in strips, leaving some of the skin on.
  6. Dice into 2 cm pieces.
  7. In a frying pan, heat the remaining oil and sauté the garlic for 1 minute. Add the aubergines, sprinkle with salt and oregano. Cook for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently. 
  8. Add to the tomato sauce.
  9. Cook caponata for another 10 minutes over low heat, adding a little boiling water, if it's too thick and runs the risk of drying.
  10. Place the vinegar in a pan over low heat; add sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and to the caponata mix.
  11. Add basil and extra virgin oil and leave to rest for few minutes before serving.
Caponata is even better the next day.

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