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.
Matthew is writing another of his lively, erudite books on Italy, Summer in the Islands (Unbound), and as we set sail yet again, this time for Alicudi, the smallest, most remote island of the group, our boatman Bartolo explained that the young people of the Aeolians have exchanged brutal labour in the fields for the chance of a better life elsewhere. I asked where they had gone. “Sydney,” he replied with great certainty. It takes a certain sort of man to carry off an ensemble of filthy grey bathing shorts and Moroccan cap accessorised with pink plastic jelly shoes and home-inked tattoos. I wasn’t about to argue.
Alicudi retains a population of 200, and after walking down the single street in the only village there wasn’t much to do except have lunch. We ate a pale, frothy parmigiana of zucchini and chopped egg, an octopus salad and a vivid pistachio granita, and headed back to Filicudi. On the way, Bartolo showed us a real pirate’s cave, a hidden cavern with a huge, shadowy stone beach. He described a local version of the mattanza, the famous Sicilian tuna haul, where nets used to be stretched across the cave’s mouth to trap the barracuda who swarmed there at night. Banned now, he added resentfully, due to environmental regulations. With its cashpoint and heartbreaking museum, Filicudi felt like the acme of metropolitan sophistication on our return. Bartolo resumed his primary occupation, sitting on the dock waiting for something to happen. Matthew and I dined at La Sirena, reckoned to be the best restaurant in the islands, trying creamy spaghetti alle mandorle, tartar of sea urchin, a wonderful salad of ferrous tuna with red onion and raisins and tiny swordfish involtini stuffed with pistachio.
Looking over a view which could have been a still from Il Postino, I thought of Marina and Dado, and the perennial tourists’ paradox. We want places like this to continue to exist for our pleasure, yet we know our presence destroys them. We want picturesque Bartolos to haul glistening mussels from the waves, yet back in our cook-chill, shrink-wrapped convenience world, we’re not really prepared to pay the price to make such activities economically viable, while resenting the desires for the very things we have which are causing communities like Bartolo’s to collapse. We nod approvingly at sustainable fishing without thinking much about the fishermen it’s supposed to sustain. Sneering at concrete and satellite dishes feels unnervingly Marie Antoinettish, a spoilt greed for unpasteurised milk splashing into porcelain buckets. Discussing it with Matthew, he recalled Norman Lewis’s book Voices from the Old Sea, a sparsely matter-of-fact prose elegy to Spanish culture centring on a lost village named Benidorm. What to do? Tread lightly, sip the wine, look across the white-walled gardens still busy with limes, breathe the lavender and the wild anis, be grateful that places like Palagruza and Filicudi still, just about, exist.