A Summer in the Islands
By Matthew Fort
A carefree exploration of the culture and cuisines of the Italian islands
Publication date: May 2017Buy
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The scents of tomatoes simmering in hot oil, of salt and iodine, thread the air. A rumpled gold ribbon of sunlight lies in a single broad band across the darkening sea. There is the slip-slip of small waves against the harbour wall. I drain the last dregs of crisp fragrant wine and marvel at present delights and wonder how on earth I made it to...
Who hasn’t dreamed of a summer in the sun, of taking time out, of beachcombing, of drifting without restraint and responsibility from island to island?
When I was in my early twenties, I spent summers traveling around Italy’s Eolian islands, riding the ferries, with their cargoes of passengers and animals, cars and lorries carrying essential supplies. These vessels pottered according through the mauve and azure waters to those ports big enough to take them. The ports, themselves, were less bustling commercial centres than small villages crowded along the shore with a single quay.
Now I want to go back, to travel by ferry and by scooter, for the third of my voyages on a Vespa. Earlier voyages have taken me the length of Italy in Eat Up Italy (2005) and around Sicily in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons (2008).
This time I’ll to travel at my leisure to Elba, where Napoleon was imprisoned before being freed to begin his last hurrah that ended in the Battle of Waterloo; to Sardinia, where you find the finest bottarga, cured mullet roe, Fior di Sardo, a princely cheese and Canto O Tenores, a form of polyvocal singing; to Pianosa, on which particularly dangerous Mafia bosses were kept and which Joseph Heller used as the setting for Catch 22; to Capri where Maxim Gorky ran a school for revolutionaries and was visited by Lenin and Stalin; to Salina, famous for its capers just as Pantelleria is for its dessert wine; to all of Italy’s 52 islands that I have not written about before.
Each island has its own history and food culture to discover and explore and ruminate on. A Summer in the Islands will be the record of one carefree summer voyaging on a Vespa.
Matthew Fort’s food writing career began in 1986 when he started a column about food in the Financial Times Saturday Review. Between 1989 and 2006 he was Food & Drink Editor of The Guardian. He has written for a wide variety of British, American and French publications.
He was Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year and Restaurateurs’ Writer of the Year in 1991, Glenfiddich Restaurant Writer of the Year in 1992, and Glenfiddich Cookery Writer of the Year in 2005. In 1998 he published Rhubarb & Black Pudding, a book about the Michelin-starred chef, Paul Heathcote. His second book, Eating Up Italy, was the Guild of Food Writers’ Book of the Year in 2005. His book, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, a food portrait of Sicily, won the Premio Sicilia Madre Mediterranea in 2009.
Recent television series include Greatest Dishes in the World; The Forager’s Field Guide. He co-presented Market Kitchen with Tom Parker Bowles. Currently he’s a judge on The Great British Menu.
Domenico Buffa drew the cork on a bottle of his family’s Vergine marsala, ten years old, made only with grillo grapes, and poured a generous measure into a wine glass the size of a goldfish bowl. The colour shimmered in the gloom – buttercup yellow, rich and textured. I sniffed it. Layers of scents drifted in on the 18 per cent alcohol, heady and rich. I picked out sweet pea, broom, peach, toffee, primrose and a trace of pipe tobacco. It seemed hardly necessary to drink the liquor at all. A pity not to, though. Domenico Buffa took his nose out of his glass and looked at me.
- 7th April 2017 Zurro at work, Stromboli; June, 20157th April 2017 Ristorante da Zurro, Stromboli. June, 2015
Dinner at the Ristorante da Zurro, just above the beach. Zurro’s real name is Filippo Utano and he looks like an old hippy. His bearded face peers out from a bonfire of wiry grey hair that’s kept out of his eyes by a chef’s toque that looks like a pancake, brilliantly decorated with tomatoes, chillies and flowers. He wears an orange chef’s jacket with the arms ripped off and baggy trousers with…3rd April 2017 Capri: June, 2015
It’s evening and I settle down to a first Campari soda at the Bar Tiberio on the Piazzetta (in reality, the Piazza Umberto), surrounded by a herd of Aperol spritzer drinkers surrounded by a herd of Aperol spritzer drinkers.
At a table just down from mine, a goaty man of middle years, with a face the colour of putty and mycelium hair, is holding court. He’s wearing a canary-yellow…24th March 2017 Before The Fall; Barana, Ischia, 201417th March 2017 Coniglio all'ischitana in excelsis; Ischia; July 201413th March 2017 One fabled cave rabbit13th March 2017 The fabled cave rabbit; Ischia; July 2014
Silvia d’Ambra, Riccardo d’Ambra’s daughter, and I crouch above a pit about 2 metres deep, which is topped by a wire fence. Silvia is even more dedicated to the cause of Ischian food than her father, if that’s possible. A hole — the cave — in the hillside opens into it. Actually, the cave is less of a cave than a hillside burrow, in part man-made and in part rabbit-made. Silvia throws a branch with…28th February 2017 Siniscola, Sardinia, June 2014
Unfortunately, Il Talismano is shut that day, but a young man cleaning the dining room suggests I try the Trattoria da Bovore on the other side of the road. It’s nondescript to the point of invisibility. Without the young man’s advice, I’m not sure I’d go in.
It turns out to be one of a disappearing breed; a modest, family-run trattoria. The walls are white, dotted with photos and pictures in…23rd February 2017 The beach, Porto Istana, Sardinia, June 201417th February 2017 Dinner with Francesco, Giglio
Before he starts cooking in the smallest kitchen in the world, Francesco brings up a couple of 2-litre bottles of his wine, Ansonaco. It’s the colour of winter sunshine. We drink it at cellar temperature, as he prefers. Chilling it, he says, reduces its distinctive flavours.
’It’s from the bottom of the container,’ says Francesco. ‘It's — how do you say? — better than the clear wine. It has…17th February 2017 Francesco's Fish Stew. Giglio17th February 2017 Francesco Carfagna at Altura, his vineyard at the end of the world, Giglio14th February 2017 Pianosa, ghost town13th February 2017 Stefano Farkas, winemaker, Elba1st February 2017 Gorgona
Suddenly there’s Gorgona, a smudge, a shape, a 3-D isosceles triangle rising abruptly from the cobalt sea. The precision of its shape is blurred by trees around the slopes. Little by little it takes on greater definition: the 17th-century Medici castle keep jutting out from a cliff; the silhouette of the old abbey on the apex of the triangle; the village of Gorgona shovelled up a V-shaped incline…20th January 2017 Mercato Centrale, Livorno, May 201416th January 2017 The Pattern of Islands
'There’s something particular and fascinating about islands; about the very notion of islands. They lie scattered like crumbs across a vast blue tablecloth. It’s easy to hold each in the mind’s eye and in the imagination. Each is a discrete entity, identifiable and comprehensible and filled with possibility, each a world in itself, and yet connected by history, trade, inter-migration and by sea.…10th April 2015 Return to the Islands
Well, dear, patient subscribers, on 15th June I’ll be heading back to Ischia to reclaim Nicoletta and start off once again on my island odyssey. One Summer in the Islands will become Two Summers in the the Islands, and, while this might not be in keeping with my original dream, perhaps it may make for a more interesting journey in the round.
When he picked me up from Gatwick Airport, my brother…13th August 2014 The story so far
Dear Supporters, Subscribers, Friends & Family,
‘Sometimes I have thought it would have been better to have made this journey when I was 27 or 37 rather than 67. Now I am profoundly glad, not that I didn’t do it then, but that I’m doing it at this age. Every ripple, on the sea, every flicker of sunlight on the waves sparks another memory, another sense of sweetness, of pleasure of gladness of the…4th August 2014 Ulysses putting on a brave face
These people are helping to fund A Summer in the Islands.
J H Allen
Tom Parker Bowles