l i m p e t s

[ 22:00 sunday 4 may – casa schuldes, isola di stromboli ]

sergio and i spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon in snorkels and masks scouring the coast below the house for limpets. armed with blunt knives we hunted out the biggest juiciest specimens in every nook and cranny, trying to catch them by surprise before they could fix themselves immovably to the rock. all the while we kept a lookout for the purple jellyfish currently swarming around stromboli’s shores, which have tentacles several feet long and give a nasty sting. we came up the steps to the house with a good harvest and left them in fresh water to purge themselves of sand particles.

in the evening, joined by maria, we made a cous cous in the manner traditional to trapani (sergio’s home town at the western tip of sicily). starting with semola flour and hands dipped in olive oil we painstakingly rolled little pellets between our fingers. when these were fine enough we boiled a pan of water with bay leaves and steamed the cous cous above it for what seemed like an eternity. in the meantime we steamed the limpets vigorously for 15 minutes, during which time they obligingly shed their conical shells, then put the rubbery little chaps into the water in which they’d been steamed, added tomatoes, dried chilli pepper and garlic, and boiled the sauce gently for about half an hour. a little scorpion emerged from the chimney above the stove to investigate what was cooking. i took his photo then squashed him with a stone without much scruple. they’re not very friendly creatures. it was getting on for midnight when we finally transported everything up to the table on the roof and tucked in with the waves lapping the beach below us on one side and the volcano brooding above us on the other side. it was absolutely delicious.

i’m a big fan of wild food, as readers of this journal will know. but until recently i regarded limpets as somehow beyond the pale. they are plentiful and grow very big in cornwall and the isles of scilly, yet the people hold them in a disdain which exceeds any other shellfish. i never met a single person who likes them. they are described as tough, tasteless and inedible. in the isles of scilly there is a sort of folk-memory that during periods of starvation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century limpets were the “last resort” source of sustenance, and consequently they have particularly unpleasant associations. yet here in the south of italy “patelli” are highly regarded. last month i had a revelatory experience with them during a magnificent dinner cooked by giuseppe and emanuele. this meal also included sauro, ugly deep-water fish hauled up that morning by emanuele, which we ate raw with lemon juice, olive oil and wild fennel.

whilst we were gobbling up our cous cous last night dad, mum, anna and adam were at rick stein’s fish restaurant in padstow, cornwall, for a surprise dinner to celebrate dad’s 60th birthday and anna’s 30th. i had a romantic notion that i would fly from palermo to stansted, then fly on from there to newquay in cornwall and get to padstow in time for dinner. but none of the connections connected properly and it would have taken two days, so i had to be content telephoning my congratulations when they’d finished dinner. dad still acts younger than many of my contemporaries (he and mum are just back from skiing in the canadian rockies) so i presume he’ll be wearing this decade as lightly as the previous ones.

it’s three months since i wrote my last despatch, describing my illicit return to stromboli in the middle of a force 8 gale. during this period my attention has been obsessively focused on building up the intelligence i will need for the next stage of my trampoline project. it feels as if i have retreated into a sort of cocoon, continuing frenzied activity connected with the venture at the expense of almost everything else in my life, including communications with family and close friends. possibly this despatch marks my reemergence.

being in stromboli through these months has been a remarkable experience. but i’ll write about that later.

: c*

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