Water, water, everywhere.
Thursday 01 March 2018
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The Isle of Eriska Voyage
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Cars honk before every corner they approach. The sun, bright against the faded orange-pink buildings, magnifying the gnarly cacti, is warm. The sky is vast, a bank of cumulus clouds making its way over the land, spectacular. At the shore, the wind makes waves crash over midmorning bathers out on the igneous volcanic rocks beyond a deserted building. The dust on my shoes is black.
This is Pantelleria, a dot in the ocean, halfway between mainland Sicily and Tunisia. There are perhaps 7000 permanent residents on its 83 square kilometers, which boasts a summer tourist scene, many abandoned buildings and terrains, and grapevines everywhere. Crucially, there is no natural source of potable water.
This is the island to which Leandro Greco decided to return, thanks to a wedding gift. A bewildered friend didn’t know what to get him, and ended up buying a home brew kit. Today, Leandro is the founder and owner of Italy’s southern-most brewery, La Panteska. We’re sitting in his tidy tasting room, opened in the summer of 2017 – “We launched our brewery on 14 August, Ferragosto, Assumption,” he points out — laughing over the courtesy of fate.
Born and raised on Pantelleria, he was working in IT here before getting transferred to Siena in 2012. At the time of his marriage, in late 2014, he was still working in computer technology in northern Italy. In Siena, he shared a flat with the man who has since become his brother-in-law. Gianni Belvisi, who – along with being an accomplished jazz pianist – is the other half of La Panteska, “didn’t know what had hit him when I told him that we were going to start making beer”.
“My first question was ‘Why?’,” Gianni says. “Until then, I’d only ever drunk industrial beer. It opened up a new world.”
They went from kit to whole grain, buying everything from the internet, and started studying up on techniques. Friends of theirs at a brewpub in Siena, Birrificio La Diana, took them in for an apprenticeship
“From as early as 2014, we got the idea to return to Pantelleria and make beer. It was a combination of two loves: for brewing, and for nostra terra, our homeland,” Leandro says. “When we started to make beer with whole grain, we got the idea to make a beer with zibibbo. The goal is for the beer to reflect the island, and its origins.”
The terraced vineyards across the island are turning yellow-greenorange. Zibibbo, also called muscat d’Alexandria, is the flagship grape here on Pantelleria; its best-known wine is the complexly sweet Passito di Pantelleria. Harvest is in the first half of September. Head-trained low to the ground, to better withstand the massive winds that batter the island, the bushy vines grow in what is called ad alberello, “in a little tree shape”. Unesco recognised this as a heritage practice in 2014. Almost every household outside of the centre of the island’s hamlets has a few acres of vines.
At La Panteska, the zibibbo grapes come from various local farmers. The vineyards that I visit at Gibbiuna are terraced on the slopes of a valley. I’ve stopped here for a specific reason: across from a sign bleached by the sun, there is a copse of oaks that hides four parallel, hexagonal troughs. These are coffins, thought to be from the island’s Byzantine period (6th–9th century AD).
The earliest examples of the traditional house of the island, the dammuso, date to the beginning of that era, says Peppe D’Aietti, perhaps the foremost specialist on Pantelleria’s archaeological history. (He’s also a dedicated trekker.) The slightly domed roof causes rainwater to flow into roof drains that lead to cisterns, from which people can drink. Today, such roofs tend to be a stylistic feature.Traces of human passage dating back to the Neolithic Age can be found on this volcanic Mediterranean island.
Visible to the modern casual observer are remains of the Mursia settlement. Anna Lucia Almanza,a Pantelleria native and sometimes archaeological tourguide, took me to this Bronze Age (1800 BC) village, explaining how stones were arranged to form houses, how the Sesioti people obtained water from brackish springs, how the megalithic tombs – called sesi – had to be built above ground because the ground was solid rock. We stroll through a field of about 70 of them.
Wild olive trees drop ripe fruit onto the ground.
Later, Anna Lucia takes me to the Roman ruins of Acropoli di San Marco e Santa Teresa, where we discuss water collection, cistern plastering techniques and survival here throughout the ages.
Water is a question that I pose again, a few days later, to Peppe. In the past, he says, the brackish springs, locally called buvire, were channelled into cisterns where the heavier salt water would sink, and the drinkable water FERMENT MAGAZINE would rise. People could then fetch water from the upper layer.
In a few places, where fumaroles still pump out damp steam from cracks in the earth, people figured out ways to condense the vapour and used it for livestock.
Nowadays, tap water is freely available, thanks to local desalination plants, and possibly potable – of all the people whom I’ve asked about its potability, each has given a different answer. I’ve been drinking it for the past four weeks and am still thriving. (But don’t let anyone here know.)
The water used at La Panteska is filtered on-site, to assure purity. They brew a total of 4000–5000 litres of their two ales a month: the Weissbierinspired Venere, named for the island’s famous thermal lake, and the amber Zibirra, brewed with those laboriously dried zibibbo grapes. The German Hallertau hops in the Zibirra highlight the subtle perfume of the uva passa di zibibbo. Ninety per cent of their beer is sold at island venues, like Pub del Borgo.
Roberto D’Aietti, who co-owns the Pub del Borgo with his brother Franco, was the best man in Leandro’s wedding August 2016. “La Panteska is different than most beers,” says Marcella D’Aietti, bar manager, explaining that when people come in, given the brewery’s limited distribution, they don’t heed it initially. “We ask them what they want, and tell them about La Panteska. Usually they end up ordering it.”
When La Panteska went live, it already had five accounts lined up. Community is a beautiful thing.
Luca Farina, a northern Italy native and more recent resident of Pantelleria, learnt about the beer through a colleague, Gianni’s father. He’s stopped by the tasting room while Leandro and I are talking to pick up some bottles for dinner. “It was a big surprise,” Luca says, “especially the Zibirra. Zibibbo has a familiar, , intense taste that’s close to my heart.”
Tourists love it because it’s the only local beer, and, for now, can only be found here.
Leandro would like to expand, and is considering participation in a beer festival in Rome in the spring that draws professionals and consumers. Today, it’s Gianni and he who share in doing everything, from recipe development, to bottling, to cleaning, to delivery. “We don’t have a commercial network or or sales staff,” he says. “It’ll go slowly.”
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