On the top of a volcanic island in the middle of the Mediterranean, Giuseppe Barbera surveyed the strange landscape that had taken root in his life more than 25 years earlier. Rocky scrubland, warming beneath his leather shoes, fell steeply away into a wide valley of terraced vineyards. Rising from its centre, cloaked in pine trees, a perfect crater cupped the sky. “The Sahara is just over there,” Barbera said. Shirt sleeves rolled up, he gestured south towards the orange haze over the horizon. “You know we are closer to Africa than Italy?”
Visitors to Pantelleria hear this fact a lot. The remote Sicilian island, cast adrift between Europe and north Africa, lies just 45 miles east of Tunisia, and 60 miles south of Sicily itself. The islands of Linosa, Lampedusa and Malta are further still to the east. Isolated yet caught between empires and continents, the rugged rock, home to just 7,000 people, has been contested, colonised and exploited for its natural resources, from black obsidian stone in the Bronze Age to grapes and olives today.
For Barbera, it was the Pantescan caper that helped turn a love affair into a serious relationship. He first visited as a curious young Sicilian student of agriculture in the 1970s. Immediately seduced by the island’s rugged beauty, he set about growing a career around it. Now 68, he is a professor of horticulture and landscape at the University of Palermo — and a world-leading caper expert. “There is a pact between me and the caper,” he told me with a wink. “They respect me, and I respect them.”
Like olives and the Zibibbo grape, which is used to make Passito, the island’s renowned dessert wine, capers thrive in Pantelleria’s volcanic soil and bright sunshine. Picked just before blooming, the salted flower buds are renowned among foodies and chefs all over the world. They feature on every menu in the island’s handful of laid-back restaurants: in the Pantescan potato salad and in caponata, the unctuous Sicilian vegetable stew.
But Pantelleria is, on paper at least, among the least inviting Sicilian islands for tourists. It lacks beaches or villages that would trouble the postcard industry. It is almost always buffeted by winds, the hot Saharan sirocco colliding overhead with the colder European mistral. Jellyfish, or medusa in Italian, patrol the jagged coastline. Various conquerors, who have included Turks, Arabs, the Carthaginians and the Romans, have used it as a penal colony.