“He seems a little nervous today,” observed my taxi driver on the Aeolian island of Salina, pointing at the black smoke belching from Stromboli a few miles away. Not half as nervous as any tourist approaching the crater of this magnificent blister on the earth’s crust.
Salina’s six volcanoes settled their nerves many millennia ago, leaving a green, mountainous island on which the scent of wild blossoms caught on a gentle sea breeze acts as a serene counterpoint to the brooding monster across the cobalt water.
There is no better place to enjoy Salina’s unique tranquillity than at Hotel Signum (pictured), a beautiful family-run hotel in Malfa, in the north of the island. The terrace is fragrant with the aromas of wild fennel and jasmine; lemon trees, weighed down with fruit, brush against palm trees and cacti; and wiry little caper bushes are just beginning to bud. There are lemons, capers and wild fennel in the kitchen too. The owners’ daughter, 25-year-old Martina Caruso, is in charge, and her menu perfectly distils the island’s flavours.
There is bagna cauda, made not with anchovy but fresh sea urchin, sublimely smooth and heady with ozone; fillets of local bream, sandwiched with almond cream, perched in a perfumed fish broth; fresh bucatini with carrot, anchovy and wild fennel; crudo of red mullet, red prawn and cod; and tender, slow‑cooked stuffed squid agrodolce. There may be other good restaurants in Malfa, but my dinners in Signum’s elegant, relaxed, wood-beamed dining room gave me no reason to find out.
I strayed from Signum for lunch, though. Visitors from Sicily arrive by hydrofoil at Santa Marina di Salina, in front of a smart, whitewashed restaurant called Porto Bello. The fish is superb here too – involtini di pesce spada (swordfish rolls) are stuffed with cheese, skewered and lightly crumbed – as is the pasta: spaghetti al fuoco, sauced with briefly cooked cherry tomatoes, leaves of vibrantly flavoured basil, a spark of red chilli and a generous grating of aged ricotta. Its fried potatoes – golden, crisp and slightly puffed – are things of beauty.
And capers – Salina’s most famous crop, although the island’s Malvasia wines are close – were judiciously scattered on almost everything I ate. As its name implies, the island was once famous for its salt, harvested from huge pans by the ocean’s edge, some of it used to preserve the tiny buds of the prolific Capparis spinosa.
The salt now comes from elsewhere, but the capers are still from Salina, and are a revelation – lurking on the plate, dormant until they explode on the palate. For a gourmet in the Aeolian Islands, some eruptions are more welcome than others.
For more sumptuous Italian dishes, discover London’s Frescobaldiand these two Italian hotspots in Soho,or do as the Sicilians do and have an apertivo at new Sicilian café and wine bar Idduin South Kensington.