Ischia's cuisine and recipes

ricette ischitane

ISCHITAN CUISINE (BY CIRO CENATIEMPO)

Ischitan gastronomy owes everything to the mythical formula of cooking free-range rabbit, once bred in pits dug into the tuff or lapilli: ‘alla cacciatora’. A recipe that has entered the annals of haute cuisine. The cheerful Ischian table, perfumed with wild aromas, in an environment rich, moreover, in extraordinary porcini mushrooms, blackberries, strawberry trees and asparagus, has evolved in recent years thanks also to the innovative habits induced by tourism. But it has not forgotten the echoes of ancient Rome, which extolled clams, bream, sea bass, sea bream, gilthead bream, turbot, cod, small tuna, blue fish; and then prawns, squid, octopus, squid and lobster, not forgetting meatballs with exotic spices, sauces…

In a mix of land and sea that are summed up in the most characteristic ritual formula: the Cala-Cala, the bartering of fish with vegetables, of wine with shellfish, and so on. It used to take place on the burnt promontories of Forio, the more tropical ones of San Pancrazio; at Scarrupata, Scannella… On sunny mornings, thirsty fishermen after hours of work on the nets and rowing would ‘give a voice’ on the hillside to the hoe pullers or the trimmers: a wicker basket would be filled and lowered down to the coast. A basket overflowing with darting garfish and ‘retunni’, which would later grace the table of the rural family, would rise. Gestures now engraved in the island genome, at once seafaring and peasant. More generally, it should be strongly emphasised that Ischitan cuisine boasts a close ‘natural’ link with food.


But back to the rabbit. The history and strength of tradition return overbearingly with the recovery of the semi-wild raising of rabbits, in ‘pits’, holes dug in the ground: a system that guarantees organic meat with an extraordinary flavour. Moreover, ‘rabbit alla cacciatora’, recognised as the ‘dish’ par excellence on some of the smaller Mediterranean islands (from Lampedusa to Giglio), is considered on Ischia to be the little prince of peasant culture, also because it lives – multiplying with proverbial prolificacy – in the wild between the south-eastern hills of San Pancrazio and Piano Liguori; and on the other side, at Cannavale and Buceto, at Nitrodi; at Frassitelli and in the thickets of the high area of Lacco Ameno. Rabbit is usually hunted and cooked according to recipes that bear witness to the historical duality of the area. In the west, where the Greek and Middle Eastern imprint resists, rabbit ends up in a pan accompanied by white wine, onion and piperna, an aromatic and perfumed herb; in the east, where the Etruscan and Roman influence is stronger, ‘dressed’ garlic is preferred, i.e., unpeeled. Secrets? Not too many.


However to be discovered. The aromas of garden and wild herbs such as oregano, mint, rosemary, dill, thyme, marjoram, and the many herbs that grow wild: chard, rocket, lemon balm, borage, remain fundamental. Ancient and well-established is the excellent tradition of bread baked in wood-fired ovens, which can be purchased from master bakers almost everywhere.

ricette ischitane

ISCHIAN CUISINE: RABBIT ALL’ISCHITANA

“The rabbit, with a whole head of garlic, is first browned in pieces in the ‘sartana’, the characteristic and traditional copper pan. After browning, it is placed in the ‘tiano’, the terracotta pot, which is particularly suitable because it evens out the heat of the flame and prevents the dispersion of moisture. The white wine is then added, along with the cherry tomatoes and a sprig of thyme. When cooked, everything is flavoured with basil and parsley, while the entrails (in particular ‘mbrugliatelli and liver, considered one of the most valuable pieces), after being thoroughly cleaned and soaked in water with lemon and wine, are cooked (they are added after the browning phase) wrapped in parsley. The sauce obtained at the end of cooking is used to season pasta.

ISCHIAN CUISINE: SQUID AND BEAN SOUP

‘Need: squid cut into rings; cannellini beans; a few cherry tomatoes (one per person); white wine; onion, garlic, black olives, parsley, salt to taste. Start by browning the onion, cut into very thin rings, together with a clove of garlic. Add the squid, black olives and a good splash of wine. About two-thirds of the way through cooking, add the cherry tomatoes (chopped and without exaggerating with the quantity) and the parsley. When everything seems cooked, it is time to incorporate the previously boiled beans and let the soup mix to form. Serve it still steaming hot, if possible, in earthenware bowls with croutons or ‘fresellato’ bread.

ISCHIAN CUISINE: FRESHLY CAUGHT OCTOPUS… WITH SPAGHETTI

“Recipe for 6 persons with about 500 grams of octopus. Ingredients: oil, one clove of garlic, salt, pepper, cherry tomatoes, parsley. In a high-sided frying pan, sauté the clove of garlic, then drop in the octopuses (freshly caught and cleaned of guts) and let them ‘curl’; at this point, add the chopped cherry tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and finish cooking. On the second cooker, boil the water for the spaghetti and drain them al dente. Add the sauce with the chopped octopus. Add a handful of chopped parsley.

ISCHIAN CUISINE: COOKING AMONG THE VAPOURS OF NATURE

The beach of Fumarole, on the western side of Maronti Bay, is world famous for the so-called secondary volcanic phenomena: water and vapours at 100 degrees reach the surface. Here, the tradition of cooking food directly in holes dug in the sand, real natural ovens, is preserved. Potatoes, fish, chicken, eggs are prepared, wrapped in foil tied to a rope, carefully threaded through the ‘fumarole mouth’ and covered with boiling sand. A sprig of rosemary is added to the potatoes, unpeeled. Similarly, eggs become almost hard-boiled, with a slight sulphurous taste, in a few tens of minutes. The chicken is very popular: cut into pieces, combined with herbs, in a silver paper wrap, it is placed 70 centimetres deep. After about an hour it is ready: the rope is slowly withdrawn with the bundle hidden under the sand and the HISTORY OF THE RABBIT ALL’ISCHITANA is eaten.

Rabbit all’ischitana is, par excellence, the culinary speciality of the island, traditionally cooked for Sunday lunch. It may seem strange to the reader that, on Ischia, an island, the typical dish is not seafood, but rabbit all’ischitana, a land dish. In reality, this apparent anomaly is easily explained if one considers that, before the development of tourism, the island was a purely agricultural land. As Ischia became a well-known travel destination, the restaurant industry explored new culinary areas, more typically associated with seafaring lands. However, the tradition of breeding animals, especially rabbits ‘di fossa’, once mainly for family use, nowadays to offer rabbit all’ischitana to everyone, tourists and residents alike, remains active.

The particularity of the Ischian rabbit lies in the place where it is bred: natural pits of about two metres that are created by farmers to regenerate the soil. The pits, reinforced at the edges with dry stone walls, are perfect natural burrows for the rabbits, confined in predetermined spaces, with no possibility of escaping outside.

These rabbits, known for this reason as ‘pit’ rabbits, feed exclusively on natural food. Grass, straw, leaves, legumes and tree pruning residues are the food ingested by these animals. This diet gives Ischian rabbits gastronomic qualities that are different from those of the same industrially bred animals, and makes their meat unique in flavour and genuineness.

RECIPE FOR RABBIT ALL’ISCHITANA

INGREDIENTI NECESSARI PER CUCINARE IL CONIGLIO ALL’ISCHITANINGREDIENTS NEEDED TO COOK RABBIT ALL’ISCHITANA

a not too big rabbit (max. 1.2 kg)

  • 6 cherry tomatoes – two glasses of white wine (the one from Crateca is particularly good for adding flavour to meat)
  • parsley, chilli and four sprigs of thyme
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 whole head of garlic
  • salt (as much as needed)

PROCEDURE FOR COOKING RABBIT ALL’ISCHITANA

  • Cut the rabbit into pieces and wash it under cold running water. Take a bowl and let it sit in water and white wine for a few minutes while you prepare the sauce.
  • Take an earthenware pan, pour in some oil and sauté the unpeeled garlic over medium heat.
  • Place the rabbit pieces in the pan, after blotting them with kitchen paper, and turn up the heat so that the fire is high. Brown the rabbit well on all sides, turning it thoroughly. A pinch of salt is definitely necessary.
  • When the rabbit pieces brown, add the cherry tomatoes, some whole and some slightly crushed, and two sprigs of thyme.
    Cook the rabbit, sprinkling it, a little at a time, with a little Crateca white wine.
  • When it cooked, add 2 more sprigs of finely chopped thyme and a small tuft of chopped parsley.

An earthenware pan is recommended for cooking.

Following this recipe results in an exquisite rabbit all’ischitana, worthy of the island’s tradition.

The expert cooks of this historical recipe suggest seasoning bucatini with rabbit all’ischitana sauce, resulting in a first course with a certainly intense and pleasant flavour.

To use the sauce with bucatini, more cherry tomatoes should be added and cooked among the ingredients.

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