L'anno scorso, a novembre e dicembre, è andato in onda sul canale televisivo inglese Channel 5 una serie davvero bellissima di quattro puntate, Alex Polizzi's Italian Islands, condotta appunto da Alex Polizzi - popolare presentatrice inglese di origine italiana del programma The Hotel Inspector - in cui la simpaticissima Alex ci conduce in Sardegna, a Capri e Ischia, a Filicudi e Salina, e in Sicilia. Ecco un bell'articolo apparso in The Telegraph Travel il 26 novembre 2015, in cui Alex racconta il suo rapporto con le isole che visita nella serie:
Last year, in November and December, a truly lovely four part series, Alex Polizzi's Italian Islands, was screened on the English television channel Channel 5 . In the series, Alex Polizzi, the popular presenter of the programme The Hotel Inspector , takes us on a visit to the islands of Sardegna, Capri and Ischia, Filicudi and Salina, and Sicily. Here's a lovely article published in The Telegraph Travel on the 26th of November, in which Alex writes about her relationship with the islands she visits in the series:
I am often asked just how Italian I feel. I am inescapably Italian. My heritage, my Roman Catholic upbringing, everything I cook and so many childhood memories underlie my British education, my London upbringing and most of my working life.
After the last series for Channel 5, for which I travelled from north to south of mainland Italy, I could not ignore the islands.
Italy was united only in 1871. Each region still feels unique, keeping individual traditions, food specialities and dialects. Any Italian still now will say that they are Milanese, or Roman, or Venetian, rather than Italian. We are a people forged from our sense of place, and the intervening years of nationhood have done nothing to change that.
What is true on the mainland is exacerbated on the islands. The island character is a very special one. It takes great strength of mind and individualism to live on a rock, in the middle of the sea, cut off from mainland life whenever the weather takes against you.
I find islanders fascinating. My Polizzi grandmother was Sardinian. While I was growing up, my sister and I were never allowed to travel there because of the fears of kidnapping. This meant that I never saw her house in Genoni, a suburb of Cagliari, and I tried very hard to find out more about her and her family at the Cagliari Record Office.
The highlight of my days in Sardinia was my trip to the interior, to the wild and austere National Park at Su Gorropu, part of the chain of mountains called the Supramonte. The park covers hectares of land, and is infamous as the region where the bandits kept their kidnap victims and evaded capture by the police.
I had no immediate affinity with the landscape. It is so different from the Italy that is usually celebrated – the Italy of olive groves and rolling hills, fortified towns, endless coastlines and staggering architectural beauty. Instead, there is a brutal and unforgiving lunarscape; much land and very few people.
I was treated to a lunch of suckling pig by Zio Cicciu, an 80-year-old who is the last remaining full-time shepherd in the park. His solitary life would be anathema to most of us, but he overrides the objections of his family to continue living in the “old way”, milking his goats, with television his only concession to modern life.
Another clinging to the traditions of the past is Chiara, the last person to weave silk from the beard of the clam. She has to make about 100 dives to gather enough beard to make 10 metres of clam silk. She spoke to me of a life of self-sacrifice and hardship, producing objects of shimmering beauty that she never sells, as that would be traducing the compact she has made with the spirits of the sea.
Sardinia is the site of a fascinating project, with a laboratory and researchers who you might expect to be working on a project of this importance in an American facility. In Lanusei, Progenia is tracking the genetic make-up of the largest group of centenarians in Europe by population; its former inaccessibility means that most of its population is genetically related.
Three of my grandparents lived into their late 90s, and my great-grandmother died at 104, so my memories of them are fairly recent and vivid. It was hard not to be emotional when I took part in one centenarian’s birthday party in Sardinia, surrounded by his myriad grandchildren and great-grandchildren, remembering similar celebrations in my past.
When I was a child, I often saw Capri from a distance, usually to the chorus of my aunts begging my grandfather to allow the captain of his boat to moor in the harbour for a night – rather than the quiet coves my grandfather preferred – so that they could go out and enjoy the bella vita, the bars and nightclubs that Capri offered. My aunts were usually denied, as my grandfather’s idea of a perfect holiday did not include participating in – what was already then – an expensive and showy mooring.
Capri was incredibly sexy in the Fifties and Sixties, with absolutely anybody who was anybody from intellectual life (Jean-Paul Sartre and Graham Greene), the film set (Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Noël Coward), millionaires and the fashion crowd brushing shoulders. Every louche playboy and starlet in Europe landed, drank and partied there.
I can now boast that Jackie Onassis and I have shared one luxury. Like her, I had a pair of sandals made by Canfora, hers by the grandfather of the present owner.
These days, though, on the whole, the day-trippers make the experience of the main drag rather an unpleasant one. The inaccessibility of the narrow paths ensure that most tourists don’t go beyond the beaten tracks, however, so I was able to see a Capri that was usually only enjoyed by the locals.
There is an admirable group, “Capri is mine too”, who have decided to take back the villas and vistas abandoned by the local government as revenues have fallen. They dedicate their spare time to making the historic areas of Capri pristine again and have found an unexpected community spirit. I met them in Villa Lysis, the erstwhile home of Baron Fersen, who found acceptance for his homosexuality, and lived an excessive life on the island. Capri was a byword for inclusion before the term was even coined.
In comparison, Ischia hides its light under a bushel. Oddly for an island, the regional speciality is rabbit. No one I spoke to could explain why. I ate the most astonishing meal at Il Focolare with the owner, Riccardo, who elucidated the particular methodology that dictated the serving of a portion of rabbit. After several glasses of wine, I was in no mood to take up cudgels on behalf of Ischian women, who traditionally got not even a morsel of the least favoured cut of the animal.
La Mortella is the life’s work of an Argentinian, Susana Walton, who created the garden to provide her husband, the composer William Walton, with an inspirational place to work. This was one of the moments on the trip that inspired me most. All these years travelling in Italy, and I had no idea that this place even existed.
Here, I also found the European Institute of Restoration. The headquarters are in a medieval castle, which can be reached only across a castellated stone bridge from the mainland. The only access is via an antiquated lift. To add to its James Bond feel, the Institute is entirely staffed by stunning young women, dressed in white lab coats and working in complete concentrated silence on their various projects. The men in my team were lost for words.
I have been in love with the Aeolian Islands ever since I was first taken to Filicudi by a boyfriend in the Nineties. When you approach Filicudi by sea, she takes the form of a heavily pregnant woman lying on her back. It is one of those special places we all have, that resists too much analysis, and I dreaded returning and being disappointed.
Pecorini Mare and the restaurant there have assumed near mythical status in my memories. The restaurant has changed hands and added bedrooms, but I needn’t have worried. The house wine was still extraordinary and I had probably the best meal of my entire trip, raw tuna and fried baby squid, and the magical feeling that nothing important had changed in the almost two decades since I was there last.
I had no preconceptions of Salina, which I had never visited. It is an unusual success story. It produces the most exquisite sweet wine from the Malvasia grape; a grape that found great favour with the British troops stationed in Messina in the 1800s. The vines were reintroduced after a phylloxera epidemic but they are not the only green gold that the island produces.
I stayed at a luxury hotel, Signum, where the determination to use local produce found me trying caper ice cream – yuck! – and a caper face mask – yum!
I know Sicily better than I know almost any other region of Italy. Twice in my 20s I took road trips that included the coast, more obviously, and then the interior.
Palermo scares many a traveller. It is known as the seat of the Mafia and, rather like New York in the old days, we are warned off going off the beaten track and falling into the badlands. The reality is of a decaying but incredibly vibrant city, with sublime street food, marvellous architecture and a generation of inhabitants who have refused to bow down to the Mafia, shocked into taking a stand by the murder of Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia judge in 1992.
Addiopizzo is a welcome antidote to the legend, providing upright businesses and stalwart shoppers a way to refuse to contribute to the protection money the Mafia used to extract.
These days, Sicily is so much more than Mafia. The Baroque Palazzo Gangi is still in private hands, and has managed all its restorations over the years without a penny of government money. Behind an unassuming façade lies a Versailles on a domestic scale; there are only five private residences like this in Europe, where all the furniture and objects are perfectly preserved. Entering the ballroom setting for the filming of The Leopard, starring Claudia Cardinale, gave me my first experience of room envy.
Gangi is a hilltop town set amid the rolling wheat fields and wooded valleys of central Sicily, a tangle of ancient streets and narrow dwellings about an hour’s drive south of the picturesque holiday resort of Cefalù.
Gangi was unknown to the world until Mayor Giuseppe Ferrarello was elected, eight years ago. Ferrarello tackled this tiny town’s problems by promoting its natural and cultural beauty. He decided on an unusual route to tackle the depopulation Gangi was experiencing in its historical centre. He offered houses at €1 to anyone who would commit to refurbishing them, and in doing so, has transformed the town’s economies.
Of course, I had to visit the wellhead from which, allegedly, all Polizzis spring – Polizzi Generosa – despite being unable to trace any direct antecedents in the town. I was lucky, because it gave me the opportunity of staying in an extraordinary guesthouse, owned by Australians, who have restored it in a mad labour of love.
A similar commitment ensures the survival of the carretto Siciliano – the Sicilian cart.
I spent a mad, mad day on a cart, drawn by a be-feathered, bejewelled and caparisoned horse, accompanied by a four-piece band and an overwhelming enthusiasm to keep the tradition alive. Once upon a time, the appearance of these colourful carts on the horizon, carrying goods from one rural location to another, would have been a break in the monotony of life and a cause for celebration.
This, ultimately, is the common theme of my discoveries; I found a thriving, thrusting modern Italy and ancient ways that coexist in harmony.
The highlights of my island journey were meeting the people who ensure the survival of ways of life and traditions that seem barely relevant to our society and how we live today. And I was amazed and grateful that after so many years and so many visits, Italy still managed to beguile and surprise me as much as ever.
A brief clarification regarding the coniglio all'ischitana, the rabbit stew which is Ischia's signature dish, and apologies to those who are squeamish at the idea of eating rabbit. (Giacomo's wife, despite having married an ischitano and having visited the island on countless occasions, after twenty years, to the great puzzlement of family and friends, steadfastly refuses to eat it!). Alex is told, by the ischitano owner of the restaurant she visits to sample the dish, that "Ischian women... traditionally got not even a morsel of the least favoured cut of the animal". Our own local ischitano here at Italia 500 has never come across this tradition. What normally happens, to this day, according to Giacomo, is that the meatiest parts of the rabbit are reserved for the children - the hind legs (la coscia di dietro) and the lower part of the back (la sella), the most sought after, to older children and teenagers, as they are growing (devono crescere) and need to eat more; the forelegs (la coscetta), to the youngest children as they are little and have little stomachs - and the less meaty parts, like the ribs and occasionally even the head (which is cut in half), are generally reserved for mamma and papà, nonno and nonna, or any other adult at the table, who will all insist that the less meaty parts are the most saporiti (flavoursome), and that picking and sucking at the pieces to extract the meat and the sauce is actually part of the fun. The intestines (gli intestini) - which are cut to a manageable size, then thoroughly washed, then placed in water together with lemon wedges for two hours, then wrapped around stalks of basil or parsley and secured with a toothpick, and then obviously cooked - and the liver (il fegato) are apportioned to those who like these - Italians also can be quite squeamish when it comes to food. No need to point out that bisogna usare le dita (fingers are de rigueur ). Ultimately however, when calculating the portions, one serves one rabbit for every four to five people so there's always plenty to go around and no one is ever "stuck" simply with the neck! A final note: switching from the meatiest parts to the less meaty parts is almost like a rite of passage into adulthood! To learn more about Ischia and il coniglio all'ischitana visit our series of blog articles dedicated to the island of Ischia.
Enough about rabbit stew, here is Alex Polizzi's Italian Islands (as soon as the series becomes available on DVD we will let you know):
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.