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Unspoilt, for now: The lighthouse on Palagruza (photo: Adam Sporka, via Flickr)

Palagruza (population: 1) is maybe the nearest the Mediterranean has to a desert island. Equidistant between Croatia and Italy, a crook-backed rock in the middle of the Adriatic, it’s not the most obvious of gourmet destinations, unless you’re a mongoose. Snakes are prolific, colourful and mostly harmless; remaining local fauna consists of a lighthouse keeper on month-long shifts, his Rottweiler and a camera-shy donkey. Arriving after six hours of sailing, we took the dinghy across honey-green waters to go foraging. Our Croatian friend Marina filled a bag with motar, a dense green succulent which grows in the crevices of the white rocks. It has a squelchy crunch like samphire and a flavour somewhere between basil and mint. Coarsely chopped with almonds, olive oil, goat cheese and garlic, it became a pesto for supper, alongside tiny, sweet tomatoes roasted with salt and wild rosemary. Next morning, we tried toasted bread with smooth feta cheese and dripping watermelon, a simple but extraordinary combination of hot and cold, salt and sweet, then our skipper Dado swam down with lobster lines, emerging triumphantly with two magenta and gold langoustes, which lurked in a bucket on deck as we explored the island. I wondered if they might collaborate on a break for freedom, but that night they went solemnly to their doom broiled in “stone broth”, a stock made from boiling up, well, a rock, the tiny sea-creatures within emerging in the steam to lend their savour.

The next day, anchored outside a 14th century Venetian monastery on the island of Korcula, we found ourselves attending High Mass in German in a ruined cloister while a group of tame deer grazed under the oleander trees. Afterwards Marina served wild cherries baked in cream with more almonds and sage honey, and later a lentil stew with a little smoked pork, courgette flowers and orange tomatoes, accompanied by wild greens similar to Swiss chard, mixed with garlic and boiled potatoes. The clarity of the vegetables, the smoke and depth of the stew, were both light and luxurious. When we praised it, she laughed and said: “Now you are ready to become Croatian peasants.” We tried to explain that in London this would be rich people’s food, that wild ingredients are a fashion, not a necessity, and that home-grown, organic vegetables are served in restaurants at extortionate prices, to satisfy some atavistic craving for a long-lost rural past. Marina and Dado, both in their thirties, the last of Tito’s children, observed that this was a load of crap.

Because who would actually want to be a peasant in the 21st century? Palagruza used to belong to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, remaining Italian on and off until Yugoslavia swapped it for a bit of Trieste in 1947, but its marbled wildness has much in common with the Aeolian archipelago, reached by a five-hour ferry ride from Naples. I took the traghetto to Salina, then a smaller boat for an hour’s wine-dark bounce to Filicudi, where I was joining the food writer Matthew Fort. The sun was setting over high tumbles of abandoned terraces studded with ligneous, neglected olive trees. The islands still specialise in capers and datterini, the Sicilian tomatoes which are dried in inverted pyramids on white porches, but most of the vines and the figs and the livestock are gone, and many of the ingredients for traditional Aeolian dishes — aubergine, raisins, swordfish — are shipped from the mainland, along with batik throws and wasabi for tourist sushi on the chic resort island of Panarea.

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