About an hour out to sea from Palermo on the hydrofoil, you’ll start to see the undulating profile of Ustica emerge on the horizon. The island is green from the pine forests that cover its three mountains, and hemmed along the sea by steep black rocks that turn violet in the evening. From the port, you can climb up to the only village, which fans out around the church. A few low houses, the oldest built in a reddish stone, dot the rest of the island, surrounded by prickly pears, bougainvillea, hibiscus, capers, myrtle, vegetable gardens and fields of lentils. Only the braying of donkeys tied up in the shade and the noise of a scooter or one of the island’s few cars disturbs the quiet.
In the houses or the village’s small osterias, you can eat incredibly fresh seafood (shrimp, dentex, dusky grouper), caught by the local fishermen, a rich array of vegetables (zucchini, tomatoes and the ubiquitous caponata) and soups perfumed with basil and wild fennel. Tourists only arrive during the high season, but Ustica is beautiful and mild all year round, and at its best in spring and fall, when only the local residents remain: the elderly, who can still recall the days when Ustica housed over a thousand internees (like Antonio Gramsci, Antonio Bordiga and Carlo and Nello Rosselli), but also many young people, who have chosen to stay or to return after university. They run holiday farms and cultivate the land, producing fruit and vegetables, and Ustica lentils. A Slow Food Presidium since 2000, the lentils are the smallest in Italy. The Presidium was founded with just three elderly producers, but now it has a healthy-sized group of producers in their 30s, coordinated by the very active Margherita Longo.
A classic food of the poor, Ustica’s lentils are very small, dark brown in color, tender and flavorful. They feature heavily in the local cuisine, especially in two typical dishes: lentil soup with vegetables, flavored with basil or wild fennel, and pasta with lentils, prepared with broken spaghetti.
To enquire about purchasing Ustica lentils or to book a stay in one of the island’s holiday farms, contact:
tel. +39 091 8449543 – +39 339 5212822
Ustica Lentil Soup Recipe
500 g (1 lb) Ustica lentils
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 bunch of tenerume (zucchini shoots and leaves)*
1 bunch of basil, stems removed
ground chili powder
extra-virgin olive oil
8 slices of stale bread, toasted
* the tenerume can be replaced with another leafy vegetable like chard
Preparation and cooking time: 40 minutes
Wash the lentils and place them in a large saucepan. Cover with abundant cold water. Add the sliced onions, garlic cloves, tomatoes and tenerume. Bring to the boil and continue cooking over medium heat for around 20 minutes.
Adjust the salt, add the basil leaves and a pinch of chili and leave for a few more minutes.
Drizzle with olive oil and serve with slices of toasted bread.
Instead of basil, the soup can also be flavored with wild fennel, one of the most common herbs used in Sicilian cuisine.
For more information on Slow Food’s Presidia, visit:
Photo: Grazia Neri