Salina: island in the sun

Salina: island in the sun

By
Manuela Darling-Gansser
Contains
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669030
Photographer
Simon Griffiths

Off the northeast coast of Sicily a cluster of old volcanoes poke their heads above the sea. These are the Aeolian Islands, a small world of their own, where Sicily is regarded as a rather foreign place – ‘the mainland’. I wanted to go there to visit the island of Salina, which is famous for capers and wine made from the Malvasia grape.

To reach Salina you travel by hydrofoil from the port of Milazzo, passing first the island of Vulcano, where you can smell the sulphur fumes as they vent from the ground, and the island of Lipari, the largest island in the group. You arrive at Salina at the port of Santa Marina. There is a large breakwater for the ferry, a small piazza and a cluster of houses along the waterfront. It’s all very small-scale, and as I was to discover later, still looks recognisably as it did one hundred and fifty years ago. Salina is an island that has escaped the blight of mass tourism and sub-standard buildings, mainly because it is so isolated that no-one ever goes there. It survives by neglect.

Our hotel was in the village of Malfa, a fifteen-minute taxi ride away on the far side of the island. The village is perched on a terraced hillside that goes down steeply to a small port. The architecture of the single-storey houses is distinctive and has not been changed for hundreds of years. Long, low structures look out onto wide terraces that run the full length of each house. Thick masonry pillars hold up shady pergolas. The houses are white with the window surrounds picked out in blue or yellow. The Hotel Signum, where we were staying, is made up of a number of these houses set together like a small village. It is the project of Michele Caruso and his wife Clara Rametta, who want to encourage a different sort of visitor to the island. Their vision is for a sort of tourism that would respect and appreciate Salina’s history and traditions, would be small-scale and would leave the existing fabric of the island largely intact. The hotel has a terrace where aperitivi are served in the evening. As you sip your drink, you look out over the Tirrenian Sea to Stromboli, about twenty kilometres away. Like the nearby Mount Etna, Stromboli is an active volcano that emits a puff of white smoke every fifteen minutes or so.

In the hotel dining room, Michele, who is the chef, serves food that draws heavily on the local produce. Capers, tomatoes, figs, almonds and peaches all grow there, and being an island, seafood is abundant. Vincenzo, the sommelier, is passionate and knowledgeable about the local wines, which are made from Nero d’avila or Malvasia grapes and are sometimes blended with a little of the rare Corinto Nero, a grape variety said to have been brought to the island by the Greeks.

Salina is famous for its capers, which grow over the island in small, rather straggly bushes on the black lava soils. In the spring they have delicate white flowers with violet middles. Salina capers are renowned for being plump and juicy. They are used to add a sharp flavour to a whole range of dishes. There is even a liqueur made from capers. The centre of caper production is the village of Pollara, a little further around the island from Malfa. Pollara is also famous as the village to which Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize–winning poet, was exiled in the 1930s. The story of his time there is told in the charming Italian film Il Postino (The Postman).

As at Ortigia, we decided to see Salina from the water, so took a boat trip around the island. The trip takes a few hours, particularly if you stop for a swim or to admire the sights. Salina has a rocky shoreline, with high cliffs plunging into clear, dark-blue seas. At one point we passed a collection of buoys that formed a large square in the open sea. Out guide informed us that this was a caponada used to catch lambuca, a local fish that looks a little like a mackerel but with a finer flavour.

The caponada is a light platform covered with a blanket of palm fronds. The fronds are weighted so they float several metres below the surface. Apparently the lambuca are attracted to the shade under the fronds and gather there, making them easy to net. Only lambuca can be caught this way and I have not heard about the technique being used anywhere else.

As you look at Salina from the sea, it is remarkable how high up the sides of the two peaks terraces have been created. In many places the terraces look neglected and with little growing there. This is the story of Salina itself. Apparently there were once vines growing on these slopes and a thriving local population who cultivated them. When the scourge of phyloxera hit Europe in the late nineteenth century, Salina was initially spared. As a result, the island prospered at a time when grapes were scarce and sold for high prices. Inevitably phyloxera arrived, the local vines sickened and died and the people, desperately poor, emigrated to survive. The population of Salina today is a fraction of what it was.

At the end of our boat trip we landed at the port of Lingua. Nearby, on the local football field, is a flat area where salt used to be dried and which gave the island its name (from the Italian word ‘sale’, for salt). Lingua has a small quay and boasts an exceptional bar–gelateria called Bar Alfredo. Out on the piazza down by the water’s edge were a number of tables serviced by a shopfront and we sat ourselves down to enjoy the atmosphere. The Bar Alfredo has two specialties – home-made ice creams and sorbets, and a dish they call pane cunzatu – seasoned bread – but which is of their own invention. To describe it as something between a pizza and focaccia bread does not do it justice. Their pane cunzatu was originally created by Alfredo to get around a Euro regulation that restricted him to serving snacks with drinks and not full meals. And this, technically, is what they do. But what arrives at the table is a giant open sandwich of bread, fresh from the oven, split in half, then drizzled in oil and covered with various toppings. Over the years Alfredo and his son, Angelo, who now runs the bar with his brother, have experimented with the toppings. We tried a number and liked them all. To follow I had a sorbetto di gelso, mulberry sorbet, which had a striking purple colour and strong fruity flavour. The Bar Alfredo will continue doing what they have always done despite their success. As Angelo says, ‘Una squadra che vince non si cambia,’ (You don’t change a winning team).

Towards the end of our stay we went to see one of the island’s wineries, the Hauner Winery, named after its founder, Carlo Hauner. Carlo arrived on the island in 1962 and set out to restart wine production that had totally collapsed. There were one or two old-timers still making wine for their own use but commercially made Salina wine was non-existent and unknown in the market place. In the 1970s, Hauner wine made from the Malvasia grape began to get noticed in wine shows and in the 1980s Carlo went into full-scale production. Making wine on Salina is something of a challenge. Because of the island location everything costs more and the climate is difficult. The day we visited the winery there was a hot sirocco wind blowing in from Africa and temperatures reached 40°C. But there are areas which have a micro-climate that support the Malvasia vines.

Now that Carlo Hauner has mastered the production of Malvasia grapes on Salina, he is looking for new challenges. He recently established a three-hectare vineyard on lava soil on the island of Vulcano, where vines have never been grown before. It is called Hiera and has a striking label of a slash of glowing red lava flowing across a black background, designed by his father who is an artist.

As we tasted a number of the Hauner wines, Carlo explained them to us: ‘This one should be drunk with fish … this with pasta or meat … and this one’ (referring to a splendid reserve Malvasia) ‘should be drunk with a beautiful girl!’

Salina is a small world of its own. The local people like visitors to come and appreciate it, but not to change it. Their attitude is like the Slow Food movement when it encourages an individual producer. In the case of Salina, however, they want to apply the Slow Food principal to a whole community and already they are succeeding in making the experience for the visitor a special one. My hope is that this approach also works well for the people who live on the island and that young people will be able to continue the traditions and not feel they have to move elsewhere to make a career.

We ate many delicious things on Salina and following is a selection of recipes that remind me of my time there.

Firstly there are two recipes using local seafood that are ideal as starters. Tartar di acciughe fresche is a tartare of fresh raw anchovies, and insalata di polipini e seppioline is a salad of baby octopus and baby calamari.

Swordfish is one of the high points of Sicilian cooking and I have included another lovely recipe for involtini di pesce spada, this one with citrus flavours.

Croquette di cipolla are small potato croquettes made with onions and salty capers. They are baked rather than fried and come out of the oven an enticing golden colour.

I have included a recipe for the famous pane cunzato from Bar Alfredo with your choice of three different toppings.

At the Hotel Signum we enjoyed a memorable light ravioli stuffed with zucchini flowers, ricotta and mint. I have named this ravioli di michele after its creator, who showed me how to make it. My version is slightly different from Michele’s – he does not use eggs in the pasta mix, but I prefer them.

For dessert I have included crostata alla marmellata di arance, an orange marmalade tart. Sicily is a great producer of citrus and to me, the bitter-sweet flavour of the marmalade is symbolic of the island as a whole.

Recipes in this Chapter

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