The great Italian caper
August 10, 2017
We sailed through the Straits of Messina last night, from the protected channel between Sicily and the rest of Italy, into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Straits, the closest land distance (about 2 ½ miles) between the mainland and the island, have been of historic importance for at least a part of this trip; the reinforcements for the Knights at Malta gathered at Messina, where the Spanish governor had his headquarters.
The area has also given rise to (not unexpectedly) Greek and Roman mythology. The Scylla who lured sailors for example, was located near the Straits. Apparently, too, Cyclops lives near here, the result of Greeks finding an elephant skull with a hole (where the trunk was), or so the story goes.
We were heading to the Aeolian islands, seven volcanic topped islands north of Sicily, where in Greek mythology Aeolis trapped the winds in a cave.
Aeolis is not there, and the winds were arriving later today (which led to a hasty departure from Lipari, the largest of the islands, to give us a smoother trip to Salerno and the Amalfi Coast, where we’ll be the next few days.
The islands are known as resort havens, which was pretty obvious from the yachts in the harbor, some of which were the size of our ship, but there’s no real port, so we had to take a small tender to Lipari. I was hoping to see the archaeology museum (naturally, there were Greek and Roman relics in it), but we were on that island long enough to board another ferry for our destination, the island of Salina. Lipari is a UNESCO heritage site, and in applying to become one, had to close its major employer—a factory that quarried pumice, one of the possible products of volcanic activity.
Salina was important in the ancient world because it had a salt pan (no more), which was important in preserving food, and its scarcity led the Romans to pay soldiers in salt (“salary” comes from it). Today it’s a vacation spot, with some interesting agriculture, the purpose of our visit. I was really envious when we stopped at an overlook and I was as close to scuba diving—900 feet below me, in pristine waters, I could see the flags of the divers.
The purpose of our visit, though, was to learn about capers, by going to a caper farm. Something like a million tons of the product come from the Aeolian islands, so it’s something of a local treat. Capers, we learned, come in four varieties, depending partly on size (small, medium, and large), and on maturity; the previous ones are buds, but you can also eat the fruit. What surprised me was the production process. Those fresh from the plant are inedible, but must be put in salt water for at least 40 days, but the farmer said the best ones are soaked for at least a year. They’re hand-picked in many small farms by the women, soaked, and then sorted (by a machine that has holes to separate small, medium, and large). There’s also a mechanized bottling set up. We sampled a variety, and were offered the chance to buy capers for different uses, including pesto, which I’m eager to try.
As I said, the winds have been unleashed, so we cut short our visit and set sail for Salerno, where guess what—there are Greek/Roman ruins (think Pompeii) and volcanoes (think Vesuvius). It was awesome to travel around the Aeolian Islands and circle Stromboli, a volcanic island that seems fuming, with a face that is all lava. And so our caper ends.