Elizabeth Minchilli Talks Mediterranean Travel and Culinary Capers
Even though I live in Rome, a lot of what I cook is inspired by my travels. Not only do I learn about diﬀerent traditions and cooking methods while on the road, I inevitably bring back ingredients to play around with.
I’ve been lucky enough to go on quite a few learning trips with Oldways in a variety of locations in the Mediterranean where journalists, chefs, nutritionists, scientists, and vendors get a chance to learn more about diﬀerent aspects of traditional ways of growing, preparing, and eating meals.
While each trip is very diﬀerent, certain elements repeat themselves. Foods like olive oil, and olives for instance are pretty much a given. And even if each trip itself is full of a widely varied list of local things to eat and drink, there is usually one item that keeps getting repeated at each meal on each trip.
By the end of trip to the Amalﬁ coast I think I must have eaten my own weight in baba’. Puglia of course was all about the orecchiette. On Lesbos I grew quite familiar with ouzo. After the trip to Emilia-Romagna it was quite a while before I could drink another glass of Lambrusco.
My recent Oldways trip to Pantelleria, an island oﬀ the south coast of Sicily, was no diﬀerent. It was pretty much capers 24/7. I think that I can honestly say that I ate the caper-based dishes Insalata Pantesca, Caponata and Ciaki Ciuka at least twice a day, every day, for the entire trip.
Which was actually ok with me. And, if you want to know the truth, I’ve made them all since I’ve been back home.
Insalata Pantesca is more or less a slightly diﬀerent version of a Greek Salad. Basically take out the feta and add potatoes, and you’ve got yourself a Pantescan Salad. Pantesca Caponata is diﬀerent than regular caponata because it is eaten warm. Also, it’s topped by toasted almonds which make all the diﬀerence.
And, of course, the main seasoning in both these dishes is — since we are in Pantelleria - capers. Ciaki Ciuka is the oddly named dish that is pretty much the Pantescan version of ratatouille, and was one of the few dishes that didn’t employ capers.
Did you know that capers from Pantelleria are the only capers in Italy to have an I.G.P. (protected geographic denomination)? While capers have always been grown in Pantelleria, the 80’s were the real boom years. But when cheaper imports from Africa began to ﬂood the market, local farmers ripped out their caper ﬁelds and began planting grapes instead.
Flash forward to today, when the quality of the capers from Pantelleria have been widely recognized and farmers have begun planting ﬁelds of the plants again. What makes the capers from Pantelleria so diﬀerent is actually the soil they grow in. Pantelleria is a volcanic island, and the chemical and mineral balance of the soil results in higher levels of glucos caperina ( I didn’t make that up.) What that really means is a tastier, and slightly sweeter, variety of caper.
While the capers from Pantelleria are considered to be among the best in the world, don’t be discouraged if you can’t ﬁnd them. But do make the eﬀort to seek out capers preserved in salt, rather than brine. They have a much truer taste, and work fantastically well in the following recipes.
Since I brought back about 3 kilos of capers from Pantelleria, I ﬁgure we’ll be eating both these dishes on a regular basis. Maybe you will too.
3 boiled potatoes
5 ripe red tomatoes
1 red onion, sliced
30 grams capers
Slice potatoes into chunks. Add sliced tomatoes, onion, olive and capers.
Season with oregano and salt and dress with olive oil.