I spent the best part of last week on the island of Stromboli—I’m leaving tonight on the overnight ferry to Naples—visiting my friend Beatrice Ughi, the director-in-chief of that wonderful website gustiamo.com (great resource for fine Italian food products, including some of the best olive oils available).
There’s not a lot to see and do on this northernmost of the Aeolian archipelago since the “civilized” part of the island consists of four tiny settlements, three of them on the northeast corner of the island, linked by roads that function mostly as walking paths, and the fourth, on the western side, accessible only by boat. Over it all hovers the volcano that gives the island its name—in fact, that is the island. Nearly a thousand meters high and extending more than another thousand meters down to the seabed, Stromboli is an active volcano, with an eruption every five to 20 minutes according to vulcanologists, belching columns of black smoke throughout the day and spitting out fountains of molten lava that seldom threaten the villages at its feet. The most recent eruption, I’m told, began in 1932 “and has continued essentially uninterrupted since then.”
The Strombolani, however, are easy with the volcano, as are the thousands of tourists who flock here every summer. I’m not sure what the attraction for tourists is since few of them venture to climb the volcano, which is accessible only with a guide. (I too, with persistent acrophobia, failed to climb to the top to get a close look at the various cones and apertures.) But the island lives on tourism, it’s the sole economic activity, and I have to assume that tourists are attracted by those old Mediterranean magnets, the sun and the sea.
So the food, as in most heavily touristed places, is not very interesting although locally harvested fish is a delight.
But one has to dig very deep to find authentic local traditions, most of which center around the island’s most brilliant product, the caper. Few are the recipes for any kind of savory preparation from soup to salad to main course that don’t include “una cuchiaia di capperi,” or “un pugno di capperi,” or perhaps “50 grammi di capperi.”
Caper plants climb over walls and black volcanic rocks, especially on the edge above the sea. They’re gathered in May and June, cured under salt, then bagged or bottled and kept for family use throughout the year—or sold to visitors and tourists.
These Aeolian capers have a peculiar taste resonance, though I think you’d be hard put to tell the difference between them and capers from the island of Pantelleria, far to the south of Sicily, or from several Greek islands, where they are also an icon in the kitchen. But, whether Greek, Pantelesca, or Aeolian, salt-cured Mediterranean capers are certainly worth seeking out for their penetrating flavor and the pleasant sharp bite they give to many dishes. Once you have rinsed the capers thoroughly to get ride of the excess salt, there are two easy ways to use them—in a pasta sauce, one with a tomato-onion base and perhaps some chopped green olives added along with the capers; or in a salad, like the potato salad I had last year on Pantelleria but that turns out to be quite ubiquitous in these islands too—diced boiled potatoes, perhaps a bit of celery, cucumber, and or red or yellow peppers for the crunch, maybe a little oil-packed tuna or chopped hard-boiled eggs for the protein, and a handful of small sweet tomatoes, cut in two, then the rinsed capers, some chopped green or black olives, a healthy dollop of good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice (or vinegar—but just a few drops, not to overdo it), and you have a salad that makes a terrific main course for lunch or first course for dinner.