“We sailed from island to island discovering what lay in waiting for culinary voyagers like us, discovering the likes of great gelato, fresh fish with capers and wild island fennel on Panerea, and sweet Malvasia wine from the slopes of Salina.” That was Peggy Markel’s first trip to the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily, and after that she was hooked. We are too, and that’s why we checked in with the adventurer—she runs Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures—to tell us more about these magical, mythical islands, and why you should consider going.
Tell us about your first time in the Aeolian Islands.
I was traveling with my son and another family, and our boat captain Antonio. It was a voyage of myth, mystery, and privilege to tread the waters of the ancients. We sailed out to Filicudi, one of the farthest islands with a population of 235, just to experience La Serena, a great fish restaurant that sits right on the beach on a giant rock that seems to be in the middle of nowhere.
With the boat tethered to the pier, we spent an entire day swimming. I have a lasting image of my son, Graham, who was snorkeling around the bay and caught a baby octopus with his bare hands. All I could see was a fist full of tentacles coming heroically out of the sea. We made an octopus-potato salad for lunch and dined on just-caught tuna from a passing fisherman’s boat. It was a magical trip full of unexpected good fortune and delight.
Where do the islands get their name?
Aeolus, who was king of the Aeolian Islands, was appointed by Zeus to be the Ruler of the Winds, both to calm them and to arouse them. It’s very windy on the islands.
What’s a can’t-miss experience there?
There are two volcanos, Stromboli being one of them, and there is nothing like sitting on your boat at night, right at the foot of the volcano, watching it spew fire into the dark.
What are the Aeolian people like?
The Aeolians have a culture of their own, on an archipelago of 8 islands clustered in the Mediterranean just north of Sicily. I like to explore how each island expresses itself, each with a rich sea life to draw from and the ingredients at hand that have given us the Mediterranean diet—fennel, oregano, rosemary, citrus, olives, and hot-weather vegetables. Their gardens are often protected by rock walls to guard against the wind and insure a good harvest to put up for the winter. Islanders can be suspicious, and at the same time they can be incredibly curious and open. They all have stories to tell, as their ancestors were potent enough to withstand the trade-winds of time.
What makes them different than Italians on the Mainland?
Mainland Italians are rooted to the earth. They stick very close to home, but have access to culture and choice and can get anything they need. The Islanders have to exist with what they have. They are, needless to say, independent and care little about what others think of them. Therefore, be ready to meet some real characters. Everyone keeps their eye on the sea to see who’s coming over the horizon. It’s in their blood to be on the lookout.
Why do you find this destination so compelling?
It fulfills the dream of what we all want in an island getaway: it’s picturesque, authentic, delicious, and away from it all.
Tell us about your upcoming group trip to Salina next fall. What can people expect?
I’ve been going to Sicily for 16 years and developed culinary programs around the mainland, taking full advantage of what this incredible southern province has to offer in produce, fruit, wine, and history. My relationship has been strong and long with Anna Tasca Lanza and her cooking school at the Regaleali wine estate. After Anna died, her daughter, Fabrizia, author of Coming home to Sicily, took over and we have continued the tradition. But the two of us thought it would be fun to do something different. A close tie with her family’s property in Salina, Capo Faro, offers a great opportunity to spend a few days with Fabrizia on the island and expanding a few other routes, not unlike what I have done in the past.
So it’s a unique, off-the-beaten-path trip?
Because our workshops are not during peak tourist season, you’ll get to witness another side of paradise. Peaceful and quiet, it’s a step back in time to the Italy of the 1950s. Guests will experience the lifestyle of the island in a farm-to-table way. We’ll learn about caper production and the cultivation of grapes, and then we’ll bring these ingredients to the kitchen and onto the table. It’s happening in September 2015.
Photos by Antonio Pistillo.