A Summer in the Islands

By Matthew Fort

A carefree exploration of the culture and cuisines of the Italian islands

Wednesday, 1 February 2017


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 from the small harbour; the sides of the hills around crowding in, groups of drab, utilitarian prison buildings sprawling over them. We swing within the arc of the port, slow, subside to a halt. Shouting, ropes thrown and caught and whipped smartly around bollards to hold us steady while we disembark.

‘Would you like a coffee?' asks Commissario Mario Salzano as we walk up the steep, winding lane running from the tiny harbour to the Terrazza Belvedere. He’s wearing a natty blue uniform, baggy with pouches and pockets, a pale blue beret and impenetrable dark glasses. He leads me into a cavernous room that serves as a bar, shop and recreation area for the warders. 

He asks me what I’d like to see. I explain that I’m curious how this  multi-functional island — prison, farm, nature and marine reserve —  works.

‘There're about 80 prisoners here, serious criminals’, explains the commissario. ’Murderers, gangsters, drug barons. They come here towards the end of their sentences, and if they've behaved well.  The great problem in prison is boredom. Prisons are boring places to be. And if prisoners are bored, they make trouble. The more active the prisoners, the better. Here on Gorgona we’re unique in Italy. Here they're active. They look after the animals, grow the vegetables, prepare the food, bake the bread. It gives them some experience of normality. They even learn a skill they can use when they go back into society.'

He takes me to the bakery first, where two well-floured prisoners are sorting out the day's batch ready for the oven. That comforting, homely smell of fresh-baked bread is the same on Gorgona as it is anywhere. 

Accompanied by a small posse of colleagues we make our way up the hill to a building that houses a kitchen with good quality domestic equipment. A prisoner is preparing lunch for twenty people — slices of mortadella and cheese; pasta with freshly-made pesto; and then hamburgers from freshly minced veal. It looks pretty appetising; decent and plain, but good and fresh, and largely made from ingredients produced by the farm.

The cook’s a chatty fellow from Naples, small-framed, sinuous, charming, bright-eyed as a ferret. It seems rude to ask what he’s inside for. Instead, I ask him if he’d been interested in cooking before?

No, he says, he’d never cooked before coming to Gorgona. Other people always cooked for him. His granny, his mother, his aunts. His mother was a very good cook. But now he’s happy cooking for others. He laughs.

It’s difficult to resist his energy and charm. Manipulating people is part of his armoury. He crinkles his eyes, but their quick, wary expression never changes.

Some years ago I spent several illuminating days in the kitchens of Pentonville Prison. It was clear that preparing and serving food was more than simply an activity. It was a form of communication and an instrument of power.  Whether a prisoner had a choice of dishes and whether his food was warm depended on which floor and which wing was served first.

 Of course food is important, says the cook, in the outside world, and here. In Naples food’s a religion. Ah, taralli!. And sfogliatelle!  And coffee’s a cult.

He shows me the menu for the season - sgombro alla fiorentina, spaghetti alla campagnola, scaloppine di bovino, trenette al pesto, frittata alle erbette.  The dishes on Gorgona are a far cry from the carb-heavy meals at Pentonville, although I suspect the part they play in prison politics isn’t much different.


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