Savouring a typical dish means entering the world of culture, history, customs and traditions of a certain country. The typical Elba cuisine tells us not just about the miners, the farmers, the sailors and the beloved, but also about the Etruscans, the Romans, the Spanish, the Saracens, the soldiers and the emperors.
Although Elba cuisine is made from simple, basic ingredients, the past generation, using skill and imagination, well knows how to turn these dishes into mouthwatering delicacies.
The dishes that require a long, complicated preparation are also the most popular: at the top of the list we have the Rio style stockfish, an exquisite stockfish soup of Iberian-Moorish origin made with salted anchovies, onions, tomatoes, basil, parsely, green peppers, black olives, pine nuts, capers, and , of course, oil, chilli and salt. This dish, along with the cod "burrita" and the gurguglione - a stew made from vegetables, peppers and aubergines, that, due to the Spanish domain, is called gaspaccio in Porto Azzurro, and for centuries was the meal that the miners and farmers took with them to work.
At the top of the cake list we have the schiaccia briaca of oriental origins, that in August 2010 won the first prize in the "Taste Olympics". Made from sultanas, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazel nuts, oil, aleatico wine and alkermes, no yeast or eggs, it used to be given to the sailors in Rio when they needed something nourishing and filling to eat. Another similar speciality was the "Sailor's Bread" or "Fig Bread", made from dried figs grapes, tomatoes, almonds and walnuts spread out on the walls ("murelle") along the streets and left to dry in the sun.
Another typical dish from Rio is the "sportella". It is a cicular shaped type of bread with anise whose two ends meet and cross over, and was exchanged by lovers during the easter period: on Palm Sunday the lovesick men had a basket with"ceremito" (or cerimito) inside brought to the girl they loved; if the girl accepted the gift, which meant she accepted his love, she had a blessed "sportella" sent to him on Easter Sunday. On the following day, during the traditional picnic at the Santa Caterina Hermitage, the two lovers got together to consume their pledge of love. Today this "sportella" celebration is still held every year on Easter Monday at the Santa Caterina Hermitage, now a a place for loving glances.
The corollo is equal in symbolic tradition to the "sportella" from Rio,and is a ring shaped risen cake baked in the oven once the bread has been taken out. The origins of this typical cake with its "hole in the middle" seem to date back to the May feast in Campo, when the young men "who didn't have a girlfriend" went under the girls' windows and sang serenatas. The following morning the girls gave the singers a present: the typical cake with the hole in the middle which was slipped onto a pole covered in ribbons stuck on a special cart.
Another typical cake from the western side of the Island is the schiacciunta decorated with small circles on the top made by pressing a wedding ring or a thimble. Then there are the frangette, a typical Mardi Gras cake made from thin dough shaped like a bow that is then fried and covered in sugar; the potato bread is typical of San Piero, as is also the bread cut with an iron slicer, an Eastertime bread made by very skilled hands in the shape of a nest with birds on top; and finally the Easter schiaccia, that in the past was left to rise for 100 hours and flavoured with aniseeds, Vin santo and orange blossom water.
Before tourism arrived, goat farming was very common here (the many granite goat huts on the hills are proof of this), so the milk was used for making cheese and cottage cheese, eaten mainly by the family or used for exchange; needless to say the meat was eaten too. Another typical dish, the "ventrazzino", or stuffed goats' belly, was usually prepared by the men who ate it as a snack and no doubt downed it with red wine.
Fish dishes are typical of coastal towns like Marciana Marina and Portoferraio, where the numerous recipes made from plain fish, or even just the heads and tails, become "richer" when products of the land are added, and vice versa. This is how the following dishes came about: tattler with Swiss chard,stuffed tattler or simply alla diavola (fried with garlic, oil, rosemary, white wine and lots of chilli), stockfish with chickpeas and stockfish with potatoes (typical "eve" dishes), octopus with potatoes , or simply boiled and eaten using "only a fork", a recipe known as Elba style octopus a typical Portoferraio custom. (Those older than twenty will no doubt remember the "octopus seller" in Portoferraio who stood at the corner of Via del Mercato Vecchio, selling boiled octopus "tentacles" on a fork from a big pot he carried with him, to be downed with a small glass of wine from the nearby "Castagnacciaio"). And we mustn't forget the more elegant spaghetti alla margherita (the common name for the giant crab), or the stuffed sardines or the cabbage with anchovies.
The cacciucco, a fish soup made from the leftovers in the fishermen's baskets at the fish market (they say Napoleon absolutely adored it), is another typical dish, as is the squid ink risotto, or the panzanella, made from hard bread dipped in water (which originally came from Portoferraio where there was the only biscuit factory on the Island, now the Town Council Building), then onions, green peppers, tomatoes, keftovers of tunafish and anchovies are added to it.