Konza Kiffi: Sicilian Agricultural Estate

cucunci capers

Well, that was quite a day! After a much-delayed plane ride to Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily (it’s technically Sicily, but — let’s hold off on that discussion for another day…), I was told to be prepared to be seduced by the place. But it didn’t hit me until day #4.

harvesting oregano

We’d spent yesterday morning watching people harvest capers (…more on that in a later post), and tasting wine. Then had a below-average lunch, which was barely mitigated by the restaurant’s setting, just on the edge of the ocean. After a heaping plate of wan pasta, all I wanted to do was head back at the home where I’m staying, where there was a hammock waiting for me.

oregano

But my friend Giovanni said to me, “Daveed – it’s going to be very special.” And when a Sicilian talks with such gravity it’s best to listen.

pantelleria

So we found ourselves after lunch, driving on a winding street, high above a spectacular blue lake with the ocean in the background, with rows of grapes and oregano baking in the hot Sicilian (or Pantellerian) sun.

oregano in sicily

The welcome we had from Giancarlo and Cristian Lo Pinto, the two brothers who own the farm, was as warm as the sun.

oregano harvest

With the wind in our hair — well, in one of my traveling companion’s hair —

anissa

— we found ourselves in a field surrounded by massive bunches of oregano, offering an aroma as strong as the fields of za’atar in Lebanon: a powerful, astringent scent that bordered on medicinal. Although lots of oregano grows in Sicily, locals tend to use it dried. And here was where the best of it came from.

oregano field

I can’t imagine what it’s like to work in the full-on Sicilian sun all day, but a benefit, I suppose, are the tans the two brothers were rockin’.

in the sicilian sun

After being dazzled (and not just by the sun…), they led us to their workshop, where they transform all their lovely ingredients – plus things grown on the surrounding farms – into an astounding selection of products, sold under the name Konza Kiffi.

mulberries

We were greeted by their mother, Rosalba Chiaiesi, who started off by handing us a bowl of gelsi, juicy mulberries that she picked from the garden next to the workshop. I remember the first mulberry I ever had, in California, when I had assumed I was popping just another blackberry into my mouth.

gelsi - mulberry

Then it happened. As I started chewing, an explosion of sweet, inky flavor completely consumed me, and I couldn’t believe a single berry could pack so much flavor. I had another, then another. If you’ve had fresh mulberries, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. If not, well, I’m not sure what to say. But it’s an experience I don’t get to have often, either.

fresh oregano

She made us an offer that was hard to refuse and, as Giovanni told us, nothing gives Sicilians more pleasure than if you tell them that you’ve enjoyed their food. Which we did. The only thing that stopped us from eating them all was Anissa’s white shirt (mulberry juice stains indelibly), and our politeness, as we didn’t want to appear to be greedy gluttons. But Rosalba laughed and said she understood completely because they were so good. So we kept eating.

breaking up oregano

Once we polished off the berries, Giancarlo showed how they transform the sun-dried oregano into a powder. Then, it was on to the tasting.

konza kiffi jars

First we started with Sicilian fruit marmalades, which were so good, it’s hard not to be adjective-heavy. The first taste of lemon marmalade made our eyes widen. It was as if you had concentrated the best of Sicily into one tiny spoonful. Plump, sweet Sicilian lemons were gently cooked with just the right amount of sugar, into a chunky paste, one that encouraged double-dipping. Which we didn’t do, because Giancarlo was kind enough to break out some extra spoons for us.

IMG_4508

The marmalade was one of those things that you just need to go to Sicily to experience as it could only have been made from Sicilian lemons, which are knobbly and dull on the outside, with the entire rind, pith, and all, being used. Even raw, the lemons are sweet enough to eat as-is.

The melon-peach jam managed to balance two seemingly incongruent fruits into a perfect pairing. I was tempted to get down on my hands and knees and worship at the alter of mamma Rosalba, who created the recipes and oversees the jam-making, but I thought better of it. I offered additional gratitude instead. And if I wasn’t traveling with just a carry-on, you can bet my suitcase would be full of her jams and preserves. (Although last time I passed through an airport in Sicily, the security officer took the bottle of water out of my sack, that I forgot I had, unscrewed the top, took a sniff, handed it back to me, and waved me through.)

In a previous post, a few people asked me about the grape syrup that I’d mentioned, which confusingly goes by the name “confettura elisir” (conserved elixir), or “miele d’uva”, or “grape honey.” (I also saw the syrup labeled in places “grape sugar” or “grape preserve”, in English. And there is an actual jam-like confettura, that’s thick with sweetened grapes.)

zibibbo grape syrup

The elixir is made by reducing the juice of spicy Zibibbo (Muscat) grapes with cane sugar, until it’s thick and pourable. It’s particularly delicious with salty pecorino cheese. Since a number of people asked about it, here’s what’s in it:

zibibbo syrup ingredients

After the sweet came the savory, and being Pantelleria, an island known for its capperi (capers), I peered into the barrels of capers being preserved. Curiously, they had the faint smell of chocolate. Soaked only in the brine that they create as they sit with the sea salt from Trapani, after a few weeks, they’re drained, then re-salted, and sold in moist, salty pouches. Four of which, of course, are in my suitcase, as those are okay to travel with.

capers in Pantelleria

At Kona Kiffi, they blend them into an array of caper pastes, to be spread on bread – like the local semolina and sesame loaves – or tossed in pasta.

caper paste

They like to mix them with other local flavors and ingredients, like sun-dried tomatoes, olives, almonds, fennel fronds, and – of course – dried oregano. We agreed, though, that our favorite with the one with peperoncino, flecked with just the right amount of spicy-hot red peppers.

caper berry

Cucunci are the long caperberries, also produced by caper plants. Instead of selling them salted like the other capers, as they and everyone else does, they drain them and wipe the excess salt away, then pack them in jars with Sicilian olive oil. The ones I’m bringing home will be put to good use, in martinis.

We ended our tasting with glasses of passito, a sweet wine made from Zibibbo grapes, which helped digest everything. To be honest, initially I wasn’t all that eager to go to an oregano farm. But I realized that I had, indeed, been seduced by the island — and the fruits (and capers) of this family’s labor.

Konza Kiffi
Via Palazzolo, 6
Tel: 0923.912050

46 comments

  • could this post change peoples’ ideas about sicily? that lemon marmalade sounds dreamy!

  • David these photos are gorgeous. If only I could have a taste of the marmalade and melon-peach jam. They would be perfect on toasted Adventure Bread! By the way, I made the bread last week and have been enjoying each day, toasted until super crunchy. Aloha!

  • Daveed, these pictures are beautiful, and your humor really shines on this post! I’d love to try some of these products!!! Too far!!!

  • Literally a list of all my favorite flavors in life.

    Lemon marmalade – Sounds divine.

    Grape honey/syrup – What.

    Caper paste – Best idea ever.

    Mulberries!! We had a mulberry bush growing up and when I moved to the US I thought mulberries were blackberries and was sad at how tasteless the ‘mulberries’ were here (we just call them ‘amora’ in Portuguese same word for mulberries, blackberries and even raspberries I think?). After moving to California was so pleased to find real mulberries at a farmers market. Best tasting / ugliest berries ever.

  • Granita di gelsi is available in season too; delicious (after granita di mandorla of course).

  • I have never seen cucunci capers before but they look amazing, almost like a cross between a caper and an olive. As for mulberries, I totally get where you are coming from, they pack a punch for sure!

  • Sicily sounds amazing!
    I have never had mulberries that I know of but here on vancouver island the wild blackberries grow everywhere and are amazing. The are also a lot of native berries that are much smaller called trailing blackberries and very tasty as well. We are lucky to have so many native berries to eat all summer and i feel like i find new ones each year although thimbleberries are my very favorite. Blackberries from the supermarket are horrible though I won’t eat them.

  • All of my uncles on my mother’s side (12 of them) were full blooded Sicilians.

    And the were involved in quite a few capers. But none of the sort that you have mentioned here.

    Un ada oda…

  • I think what I know as mulberries must be something completely different. In Brooklyn we have mulberry trees that produce a similar looking fruit, but way less flavorful that what you’re describing. Really they’re just watery and sweet with very little flavor, and just make a mess of sidewalks and back yards. Wish they tasted anything like what you had! Anyway, beautiful pictures. Sounds like there’s yet another place I need to make time to visit one day.

  • I’m loving these posts…my Sicilian ancestors are calling!

  • I love your Sicily stories, they remind me of my Sicilian childhood holidays when we went to visit my mother’s family in the mountains near Messina. Everthing tastes better in Sicily, the mulberries, the wild strawberries, the almonds, the pommegranates, the tiny basil. The combination of climate and soil is just phenomenal! We would never go back to Umbria without a few bags of salted capers and bunches of oregano for the whole year. I so miss it, thank you for these wonderful immages!

  • I have picking mulberries (from an actual tree) on my bucket list of stuff I’d like to do.
    The climate where I live doesn’t permit mulberries to grow, what one can find is marmelade and dried ones.

  • If you are still in Sicily be sure to try cedra (several spellings of it I have found – and it looks like a huge lemon gone mad). Our Rick Steves guide (a Sicilian) fixed it for us. Remove the skin in thin strips (good for candy-ing) and cut all the rest into bite-size pieces (the pith is part of it) – dress with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and chill. This is a summer salad. Now if only I could find the fruit in Seattle.

  • My mulberries are just now getting ripe. I make jelly every year, but sometimes it’s hard to collect enough berries because I’m so busy stuffing my face. The taste cannot be described, but I think it’s the best berry there is.

    Lemon marmalade! I am so jealous! I haven’t found a decent recipe yet, maybe if I had some of those lovely Sicilian (Pantellerian) lemons I would have better luck.

  • It is sad that most mulberries tend to be flavorless; least the one in my yard was.
    According to Euell Gibbons, it sees to vary widely from tree to tree.

  • My nerves! The photos look so good I want to book ticket. My neigbor has house in
    Scilicy…..Why do you not carry nylon zipperbag in your carry on for the goodies to take home. Check bag stuff carry-on next weeks feasts….Think of poor hungry Romaine at home awaiting souvneir samples of your travels….

  • We have a giant mulberry tree outside our house. We harvest mulberries from it every summer to make jam. Last year I threw a few handfuls into freshly churned vanilla ice cream (your recipe of course!) and I think that is my favorite way to eat them now!

  • A lot more generous;y spirited than Anthony Bourdain’s visit the the caper farms, for sure!

    We’ve got a jar of the grape syrup, it is amazing thinned out as a sugar soak for more adult cakes. We made a prune semi freddo that was lovely with it swirled through too.

  • I’m so glad to be experiencing Sicily vicariously through your posts. What a glorious way to travel…none of the jet lag…though I’d love to do it in person some day too!

  • I’m all for “explosions of sweet, inky flavor”… love it. Had no luck googling “cedra” mentioned by sillygirl above…sounds interesting. Wondering if it’s a variety of pommelo? Hoo well…Always wanted to try making nasturtium pods…this is inspiring me.

  • Signor, You have the best life ever!!!!!!!!!!!!! Jelly, man; jelly.

  • I Sicilianni sonno corretti! It is counter-intuitive, but, for some reason, dried oregano has a different and better flavor in cooking than fresh oregano. Make a comparison and you will see (taste) that this is true.

    • It is interesting the dried oregano is used almost exclusively in Sicily. My preference is for fresh because I prefer the flavor over dried, especially on fresh tomatoes, fish dishes, and so forth. But I hear in other places, like Greece, dried is used almost exclusively as well.

  • That grape elixir may possibly be made with no added cane sugar? It doesn’t mention it on the label….and grape juice is so sweet that in other places where a similar thing is made eg the pekmez of a Turkey, as far as I know it’s just grape juice.

  • What a beautiful place. I tried mulberries for the first time last year and it was a delectable experience. I’m looking forward to growing my own so I can experience the joy of eating them again.

  • Hi again briefly!
    Researching cedra, it seems it is probably citrus medica = citron, that David loves.
    I have just ordered a tree so watch this space in a year or 2!!
    ‘CITRON Citrus medica
    The fragrant fruits of the citron are highly variable in shape and texture. They can be oblong, ovoid, oval, rough or smooth. The candied peel is used in the food industry and is a common ingredient in fruit cakes, plum pudding, sweet rolls and candies. If fully ripen on the tree the fruits are very aromatic and yellow, they can be placed in a bowl to scent a room. Sensitive to frost, the foliage and fruit can also be damaged by intense heat and drought.’

  • Loved reading the article about Pantelleria! My sister and I are going there in September. Is it possible to go there? Would so enjoy it as well as being able to go to Donafugata.

  • Jane: You can contact them at the link, at the end of the post, and inquire directly with them about visits. Donafugata is on the other side of Pantelleria and am not sure if they do visits, but it’s likely that they do. (My friend Giovanni offers small food/wine tours, and he’s terrific, so you might want to connect with him if you’re looking for something guided.)

    tunie and Judy: Yes, it’s a citron in English, different than a lemon. I’ve posted about making glazed citron and how to make candied citron.

    madonnadelpiato: You’re right that a lot of things do taste better in Sicily, mostly the tomatoes and the lemons, among other things. A few places in Paris import tomatoes from Sicily and while it’s not very locavore, they’re so much better than the others, I don’t think I will be able to resist after eating the delicious specimens in Sicily!

    • Hi again David, I also meant to ask why you had a much-delayed plane trip to Pantelleria. When my sister and I go in September, we will only have two days–
      Thanks so much for your earlier response!

      • We flew Palermo-Pantelleria, and there are just a few flights a week. My flight there left, inexplicably, 2 1/2 hours late (for a 40mn plane ride) – and the sign kept flashing “Boarding”, then “Closed”, then “Catania” (another city), then “Closed” again, etc… At one point, they announced they were ready for us to get on the bus/shuttle that would take us to the plane. And when we got to the plane, instead of letting us out and boarding, it headed back to the terminal. On the return, the flight left about 45mn late. So avoid tight connections! (My friends there said the airline is changing that flies that route, so things may change.)

  • Great article but you left out about the actual caper plants. What are they? What do they look like? People are always asking me where capers come from and when I read your lead-in I thought…at last something to refer them to…but no didn’t happen. Can you say something about the plants which I’m sure are not called caper plants but something else.

    • At the beginning of the second paragraph, I mentioned that I would be talking about/showing more on capers and how they are harvested in the future. Since I was in a remote place, internet access was poor (and I was on vacation) so it was a challenge to get posts and pictures uploaded to the site. But I will be putting them up, and writing more, as soon as I can get to them. In the meantime, you can read a little more about them here.

  • The idea of lemon marmalade and caper paste is almost enough to make me get on-line looking for travel arrangements. And you mention of mulberries takes me back to my childhood years and summers spent visiting my grandparents in Southern Kansas, where mulberries grow like weeds. My cousins, , my brother and I would be turned out into the yard and would return with mouths and fingers and hands (and yes, sometime clothes) stained with the dark sticky juice. Now, I don’t remember the flavor being as spectacular as you describe, but we might have been eating them too early. Thanks for triggering such a wonderful memory, David– and for giving me yet one MORE place to add to my travel list.

  • Thank you for taking the adventure you did not feel like taking…I learned so much from this post. Your pictures showed me I harvested my oregano too early…that my grocery store capers are like Wonder Bread . . .don’t judge a lemon by its appearance.

  • So don’t we all agree that someone (PBS/BBC?) should be filming the world through David’s view?

  • Another lovely post. The description of the oregano reminds me of a visit to Wasatch in Utah where the fields of sage were quite an aromatic experience. And wishing I had your experiences with the mulberries. Here in Ann Arbor, MI, there is a large mulberry tree in the backyard that is fruiting for the first time in many years (after a long hard winter). Previous harvests were the less flavorful variety, but maybe worth another taste… Oh and the picture of the spoon in the grape honey is so very beautiful and groovy.

  • This amazing article struck so much home to me, not from Sicily but from my own childhood in South Africa!

    I was immediately reminded of the commonalities in some of the food items we have at home, handed down from generation to generation. South Africa has a rich cultural history laced with many different cultures and the Italian prisoners of world war I certainly left their mark as well.

    Growing up in suburbian Johannesburg our summer holidays were spent on the family farm in a region called the Little Karoo, near the town of Montagu. This area is known for its fruit, both fresh and dried- peaches, apricots, pears and of course for its fermented wines – muskats and ports.

    My grandmother used to make “‘Moskonfyt” a jamlike syrup made from grape must – the mixture of pressed grape juice, skins, seeds and pulp. This mixture is reduced down until it has the consistency of an amber syrup, which is very similar to the grape honey, this is eaten over almost anything – sweet and savory, but is the best on freshly baked bread with melted farm butter.

    The mulberry tree in the yard was always full of climbing children, who each tried to get to the best fruit high up and usually ended in every child being purple from head to toe.

    We ate the rough skinned lemons right from the tree, no peeling, they were like a special treat of the most exotic fruit in the world.

    Thank you for bringing back these precious and favorite memories.

  • I was curious about the capers. They looked like the smallest size capers available in jars. Is that the typical size that Sicilians prefer or do they Also use larger sizes for some dishes? It seems to me, for example, that the pastes of ground caper buds could be made with larger caper buds. Are the caper berries, the fruit of the caper, ever used for dips, ground into pastes? Aside from a garnish for a cocktail, how else do the Sicilians use caper berries?
    Thanks!

  • BTW, the caper plant in Israel grows wild everywhere, even from tiny nooks and crannies. It is much more beautiful than the botanic picture at the link posted. Also, at least in Israel, the leaves are oval and not pointed. They have some thorns; the blossoms are gorgeous and the purple of the blossoms brighter than in the link. People pick the buds, which grow larger as they mature toward blossoming. And then later they pick the berries.

  • I’d love to get back to Sicily; both of my thesis advisers were from there. They loved it intensely, but couldn’t live there for reasons that are easy to understand. However, more and more Sicilians are standing up to omertà and striving to change that pervasive culture, while wanting to preserve all that is good in their heritage.

    I have hair like Anissa’s and have also let it go grey; it is good that this has become not only socially acceptable but even admirable in some circles.

    And yes, those brothers are as pleasant to look at as the food and landscapes you show.

  • Wow, I wish that I could instantly transport myself there! Can Konza Kiffi ship products to the US?

  • Ciao Daveed ;-)
    for those who wish to arrive in Pantelleria from Sicily, the departure airports are Palermo and Trapani and from July 1st flights are operated by Alitalia – http://www.alitalia.com
    Miss you already
    G

    • Yes, there is a ferry from Trapani that takes about 6 hours, I’m told. And during high season, there is a hydrofoil.

  • Well David, you’ve done it …. I’m supposedly reading the emails that interest me and then intended to delete. I mean how much stuff can one keep in email boxes. I can’t delete your post on arriving in Sicily. It’s not too far from where I live, and yes I will just have to go there. Only since it isn’t too far, I shall wait until off-tourist season – yummy.

    We have wild capers – that’s the only way they grow – very thorny; and … tons of za’atar/oregano – can you post how they sun dry and powder it? Please……

    Thank you for the lovely description of your trip. Yummy again, and I can just see the sea.

  • Forgive me David, but now the link to email Giancarlo and Cristian seems to have disappeared from me.