Pantelleria is a small Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, with a land surface smaller than that of the city of Florence. Visitors go there for the wonderful sea and its deep blue coves, they choose it for the trekking in the mountains overlooking the stretch of water as far as the eye can see, the cliffs and its black lava glimpses.
One of the loveliest definitions with which it has been described is probably ‘Pantelleria è un’isola indecisa” meaning that it is an undecided island. Indeed, it has the rural soul of peasants and a refined style of hidden houses, the food smells of North Africa but with the ingredients of Sicily.
But if you ask anyone what Pantelleria is famous for, the answer will instinctively be unequivocal: capers and passito wine.
On this island, marked by rows of dry-stone walls that look like the lines of a music score and that protect from the force of the wind, low vines and caper plants are cultivated, surviving the dry and always sunny climate typical of this place. Discovering both is a plunge into the ancient and rural history of Pantelleria, where time seems to flow at a different pace from the rest of the world.
Buds, cucunci (caper berry) and leaves: every part of the caper is edible
The origins of the Pantelleria Caper PGI (the Protected Geographical Indication was conferred on it in 1996 to lend value to this product with its unique characteristics) date back to the Greeks and Latins, who were familiar with this plant and used it both for its versatility in cuisine and – it seems – for aphrodisiac properties.
Resistant and combative, the caper plant grows on walls, between crumbling lava rocks and in the most unlikely corners. Harvesting is difficult, carried out exclusively by hand and with such care that it was disappearing over time. Today it is being recovered and valorised thanks to small, tireless, and visionary producers.
It is interesting to learn that what is eaten is only the unopened flower bud, but traditionally its fruit – called cucunci or cucungi – and, unusually, the leaves are also eaten on Pantelleria.
The leaves are small (they are just the tops of the long branches) and often used to garnish, given their delicious heart shape, but pickled they become a tasty ingredient, to add to plain dishes like a potato salad.
The other product is cucunci, the fruits of the caper plant. At one time discarded and now rediscovered and appreciated, they are pickled, especially to accompany aperitifs with wines that well tolerate and enhance their flavour (like a Vermentino of Sardinia).
The Pantelleria residents are also very familiar with how to use their mouth-watering resources: when visiting the island, it is a real pleasure for the senses to indulge in the typical Pantelleria salad (made with potatoes, Pachino tomatoes, onion, olives and, of course, capers) or the Pantelleria ‘ammoghio’, a raw tomato sauce in which capers are often added to give body.
The value of these tasty buds is universally appreciated and their versatility in cuisine is extraordinary (by the way, check out our tutorial on how to make caper powder). Capers are appreciated not only in rustic and traditional cuisine, but also by Michelin star chefs and top pastry chefs: Massimiliano Alajmo (one of Italy’s and the world’s most famous Michelin three-star chefs) uses caper powder with coffee in his signature risotto, while the famous pastry chef Ernst Knam has created a praline with capers: white chocolate, coconut, Pantelleria capers and lemon.
Pantelleria has succeeded in giving new life to this product, and the cuisine has understood how to reinterpret it and give it new life. Now it’s your turn! For example, we suggest starting with a traditional Mediterranean recipe that is easy and eye-catching, Sea bass with potatoes, cherry tomatoes, olives and capers.
If talking about capers has made you want to book your next trip to this Sicilian destination, here is some useful information to organise a perfect trip.
How to get there
In summer, there are many flights from across Europe to Trapani, the best airport to then reach the island. There is also the option of taking the ferry, which also leaves Trapani in the evening and reaches Pantelleria in the early morning.
Renting a car
To move around the island, in its narrow and scenic streets, one needs their own vehicle, be it a car or a scooter.
Accommodation on Pantelleria
The best option to experience nature and the local spirit is to look for a dammuso, one of Pantelleria’s typical houses, the result of a mix of Arab civilisation and local rural labour. These are small houses built considering the peculiarities of the land: the wind, the heat, the low rainfall, and the lava. There are quite a few tastefully renovated constructions that seem like any other on the outside but are true masterpieces of design on the inside.
Also, dammusi are often managed by private owners, locals who are happy to offer advice on every nook and cranny of an island of which they are always, truly, proud.