ORIGINS, Sicily & Pantelleria

Pantelleria – the island of capers

What better way to honor Pantelleria ( with the accent on the last i ) & its capers than to share this amazing article with you. The following has been entirely written by “Great Italian Chefs”  a team of passionate food-lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy.

Capers harvest

When you mention the small island of the Sicilian coast, one cannot but think of its capers. They are simply the best in the world. Read along with me and find out why that is !

Transport of capers
Transport of capers on the island of Pantelleria immediately after harvest

“The remote, windswept island of Pantelleria sits halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. With year-round blazing sunshine, beautiful views and a relaxed, easy-going way of life, it’s easy to see why the island is a favourite getaway for celebrities like Giorgio Armani and Madonna. But for the foodies of the world, it isn’t the peace and quiet that makes it such a magical place – it’s the capers, found growing from every nook and cranny of the island, that make the six-hour boat trip worthwhile.

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La Nicchia is the company responsible for keeping the island’s caper industry (which, along with the vineyards and tourism, form the backbone of Pantelleria’s entire economy) alive. It has been exporting capers grown by local farmers since 1949, and in 2005 began growing its own, taking full control of the whole process from seed to jar.

La Nicchia - capers

Manager Gabriele Lasagni’s extensive research has led to new products such as caper powder, crispy capers and caper leaves in olive oil. He believes no part of the plant should be wasted, and that Pantelleria offers the perfect conditions for growing and harvesting capers.

‘Over the centuries, the island has naturally become home to a specific caper plant (Capparis Spinosa) that, unlike other varieties, has a few more leaves that wrap around the petals of the flower when they’re still buds,’ says Gabriele. ‘These two small leaves protect the bud, meaning the capers are more consistent in quality and flavour.’

The rough coast of Pantelleria

The island is also in the middle of the ocean – 100km away from Sicily – which results in blisteringly hot days and very cold nights. This helps the caper plants develop a stronger aroma, so they’re more fragrant when picked. ‘It’s not easy to live in Pantelleria – there are incredible views and the weather is lovely but there’s not much for young people to do,’ says Gabriele. ‘It’s a small island of 8,000 people and far away from everything – you have to take a plane or ship for six hours to get to Sicily. We call it the ‘Island of the Wind’ because it’s incredibly windy here and things get blown away all the time, but there is a cinema, some restaurants, a library and a hospital.’

Traditionally, there was a severe lack of fresh water on Pantelleria. This meant capers were always stored in sea salt – produced in the Sicilian city of Trapani – instead of brine, which is the most common way of pickling capers. The moisture from the buds eventually created a pickling liquor, making Pantelleria capers stronger in flavour.

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Harvest time

Tagliatelle of squid with dehydrated squid ink
Tagliatelle of squid with dehydrated squid ink

Harvesting the capers is tough work – you can’t use machinery, so the buds have to be hand-picked one at a time. ‘You have to be a true hero to work on Pantelleria,’ says Gabriele. ‘The island has always been an island of farmers, not fishermen, because it was always being invaded. This meant the inhabitants never settled on the coastline, preferring the shelter of the hills instead. We harvest roughly fourteen times every year, taking the same plant’s capers every eight days or so. The plants’ twigs lengthen from May to August and you can find the capers on top.

Freshly picked capers

‘On an average day, I leave the house at 4.30am when it’s still dark and make my way through the countryside to where we grow our capers,’ he continues. ‘The harvest starts at around five and lasts until ten o’clock. It’s too hot after that time and since the plants soften in the heat, I run the risk of breaking the twigs. I then return to the field and continue picking between 5pm and 8pm.’

 6 Amazing Recipes with Capers

The Challenge to Survive

Currently the Pantelleria caper retains its qualitative primacy and is known, appreciated and sought after by gourmets from all over the world. The fact remains that its production levels have significantly decreased, due to both the high production costs and the laboriousness of the harvesting procedure on inaccessible land and under the scorching sun of the island.

Suffice it to say that the 2010 production stood at 1,200-1,300 quintals, while still in 1983 twelve thousand quintals of capers were collected.

La Nicchia Farm

It is in this context that “Il Cappero Società Agricola Pantelleria Srl” was born, which sees Bonomo & Giglio as the sole shareholder and responds to the aim of developing and enhancing caper cultivation on the island, restarting the production of the Pantelleria caper to avoid its disappearance and restore the production levels of the golden years.

For this purpose, Bonomo & Giglio buys or leases land on the island to dedicate it to the production of Pantelleria capers. The landowners’ property rights will stay in tact in exchange of a free loan agreement to use the land to grow capers. 

Watch the whole caper growing & harvesting process

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