The Aeolian Islands are a sprawling cluster of seven isles, each created from a separate volcanic eruption. These beautiful isles have long enchanted travelers as far back as the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians. Set out in the shape of a star, off the northern coast of Sicily, each of the “seven sisters” has its own individual character and ambiance, casting a unique, quasi-mythical contour above the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea. Culture and cuisine unite these seven sisters, including a slew of recipes with capers. This floral berry comes from a voracious plant that sprawls wildly all over the islands.
Capers are used as a seasoning instead of the more expensive anchovy (more common in mainland Sicily). It adds tremendous flavor and aroma to the simplest dishes. Renowned for its intoxicating scent, highly savory taste, and lingering tang, it features prominently in most island salads. These salads are often made with potatoes, red onions, and oregano, or sometimes with tomatoes, olives, and stale bread. Capers and almonds in particular are an extraordinary combination. Pestled together in a mortar, they make an unusually flavorful and endlessly memorable pesto.
Aeolian cuisine is only partly characterized by its Sicilian heritage. It’s actually largely descended from the historically rich mainland province of Messina, to which the islands belong. The islands are situated on the historical navigation route from Naples to Sicily. As a result, they share similarities with dishes of the Amalfi Coast and Campania such as zucchini scapece and parmigiana di melanzane.
The most prominent influence, however, is that of the island kitchen. Aeolian recipes are devoid of pretension, charming in their simplicity and sincerity. This is wear-all-weather food, based on limited produce and frugal cooking methods. In short, a little goes a long way, and anything it lacks in ceremony it makes up for with integrity. Aeolian cuisine is genuine and pure: confident in its combination of fresh, decisive flavors. It provides robust, uncomplicated textures that only an unspoiled island can wholeheartedly deliver.
The best commercially found capers are from Salina. If you’re lucky enough to disembark on the Island of Alicudi, walk up for about 8 minutes from the port to meet Silvio. This fisherman with an open kitchen grills his daily catch for visitors. Make sure to purchase a large glass jarful of his priceless, wild capers, as natural and punchy as they come. Otherwise, try Caravaglio in Salina (who also produces some good wines), known as some of the best capers in Italy. Below are three Aeolian recipes that make good use of them.
Aeolian Caper Pesto Pasta
This is an exquisite pasta dish. Beloved for its rarity and extraordinary and indecipherable taste and texture, due to the combination of ground capers and almonds. The quality and typology of the capers is everything here—the entire dish depends on it. The herbs can be varied to taste, as can the spiciness. Almonds are important in adding texture as well as sweetness and creaminess to the dish. A good amount of olive oil also contributes seasoning, and creaminess to the pesto.
Cooking pesto pasta with potato is the traditional method for the Genovese pesto from Liguria. The potato ensures the results are creamy and the pesto sticks beautifully to the pasta. Remember, never cook pesto over heat! Pesto is always mixed in a bowl to ensure the flavors of the delicate herbs are not compromised. This pairs well with wholegrain pasta and can be served hot or cold.
For the pesto
- 250g salted capers
- 80g almonds
- 2 garlic cloves
- bunch of basil
- olive oil
- freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta
- 360g, ideally a short pasta
- 1 large potato
- pecorino, grated
Put all of the ingredients for the pesto (except olive oil) in a blender and pulse together. Once combined, add the olive oil. You can also do this in a pestle and mortar, and the results will be better. For the best results, make the pesto at least 6 hours before using so the flavors have time to infuse. You can store the pesto in a tight jar, covered with extra olive oil on the surface.
Bring a large pot of water to boil and peel and dice the potato. Calculate about 15 minutes for the cooking of the potato – add to the pasta water and start to cook. Then add the pasta.
Place the pesto at the bottom of a large serving bowl – calculate 2- 3 generous tablespoons per person, or 10 for 4 people. Towards the end of the pasta cooking time, scoop half of a small mug of cooking water from the top of the pan and add to the pesto to warm it up. Drain the pasta when cooked to al dente, reserving an extra mug of cooking water, and add to the pesto. Mix thoroughly into the pesto, for a good minute. Some of the potato will melt, and the pesto should cling to the pasta nicely.
Mix in a couple of spoons of grated Pecorino and add lots of extra black pepper. Taste and regulate for extra olive oil, salt or cooking water, if needed. The final mixture should be delicately creamy. Serve warm with extra cheese if you'd like, or cold with extra olive oil and fresh tomatoes.
Egg Frittata with Capers
This is a fantastic way to add some summer and style to a simple egg dish. Frittatas are hugely popular in Italy and can be made with any seasonal vegetable all year round. They make a great lunch served with a simple green salad, or as part of a spread in a bigger meal. They go with almost anything and are excellent for picnics.
It’s customary to drizzle olive oil over the frittata in Italy when serving. Some will even add extra grated Parmesan on top. This particular recipe is dairy-free (without any cheese inside). But it is common for frittatas to contain a couple of spoons of grated Parmesan inside. Serve warm, or cooled to room temperature. The frittata can be covered and kept out for a day or two—but never store in the fridge.
- 4 eggs
- 2 ripe tomatoes
- 1 zucchini
- 1 red onion
- 1 handful of salted capers
- basil leaves
- dried oregano
- olive oil
Wash the capers and leave to soak in cold water for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Meanwhile, thinly slice the onions and slice the zucchini into rounds.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Cook until translucent, then add the zucchini. Cook for 15 minutes on a medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then add the capers and diced tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together and lightly salt (remember the capers will be salty). Add the mixture from the pan into the bowl and stir gently, then add the basil broken up into small pieces.
Add additional olive oil to the pan if needed, and pour in the egg mixture. Cook on low heat for 7-8 minutes with a lid (until lightly browned) then flip with the help of a plate and cook on the other side for a further 5 minutes. Serve sprinkled with oregano and serve.
Aeolian Caper Eggplant Balls
Balls and fritters are popular throughout southern Italy. They are typically made with seasonal vegetables or fish such as salted cod, sardines, tuna, swordfish, or even squid. These vegetarian polpette made with eggplant, capers, green olives, and mint are extra fresh and summery. There are various ways of preparing eggplants. This is a light recipe that involves boiling (rather than frying them), before shaping them into balls and cooking them in a small amount of oil, as opposed to deep-frying.
These are delicious hot but even better cooled to room temperature—a couple of hours after cooking, when they still retain their crispiness. They can be refrigerated and kept for a few days, but sadly, covering them will reduce their crispiness on the outside. This is a great snack or an antipasto. Alternatively, serve with tomato sauce and grated cheese, accompanied with rice for a bigger meal.
- 4 medium eggplants (or 2 large)
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 cup of capers, washed and de-salted
- 1 egg
- 4 garlic cloves
- 10 green olives
- sprig of mint
- olive oil and flour, for coating and frying
- sea salt and black pepper
Peel each eggplant and cut into four chunks. Immerse the eggplant in a pan of water of salted water and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Drain, cover in water again, salt and bring the pan to boil. Cook for 10 minutes, then leave to drain in a colander for 30-45 minutes.
Chop the eggplant into smaller chunks. Finely slice the olives, capers, mint and crush the garlic. Add all of the ingredients to a bowl and mix together with the breadcrumbs. Separately, whisk an egg until frothy, then add to the bowl. The mixture should not be too dense nor too runny. Salt and pepper to taste.
Make small shapes with the help of two spoons or with your hands. Coat the balls in flour, and fry in a small pan in an abundant amount of olive oil. Serve hot, straight away, on their own or accompanied by a tomato sauce or cold, sprinkled with fresh mint.