Ischia is the largest of the Parthenopean islands and it encloses the Gulf of Naples on the west. It is part of the Phlegraean volcanic region, to which it is genetically tied.
The volcanic eruptions, which come from a large central crater, long ago used to take place under water. Later, the erupted materials underwent a general folding which led to other eruptions from peripheral mouths. The last eruption was in 1301. The island has been subject to various earthquakes, the most serious of which took place in 1883. This earthquake destroyed a place called Casamicciola, leading to the expression “fare casamicciola” (to have a Casamicciola), meaning to have a complete disaster.
Evident traces of volcanic activity can be seen today in the fumaroles and in the numerous mineral springs which pour forth in many places. The most populous centre is Ischia. Other notable centres include Casamicciola, Lacco Ameno, Foro, Barano and Serrara Fontana. The population avoids the central area, not suitable for human habitation due to its impassable nature, as well as the strips along the southern and south-western coasts, and inhabits the remaining areas densely.
The island is a vacation resort and a health spa. Its volcanic nature makes Ischia one of the major thermal spas in Europe. Hot springs, fumaroles and mud can be found over almost all of the territory, with well-equipped and highly qualified spas attached. The practice of using the hot springs dates back to the Roman era. The current Nitre hot spring is just the one which the Romans dedicated to the Nitrdi nymphs, the protectors of spring water.
The soil is fertile and so allows for various types of cultivation: grapevines (the wines are highly considered), olives, citrus fruits in the coastal areas, cereals, chestnuts, fruit trees, vegetables, fruits… A large part of the available resources are given to fishing.
The history of Ischia begins with the colonisation by the Greeks (8th century B.C.) which began at a time the background of which is difficult to pinpoint. The Greek colony, called Pithecussai, sprang up on the current site of Monte Vico: an “emporium” visited by the Phoenicians, Etruscans, and anyone else that had to buy or sell worked metal and vases.
It belonged to Gerone of Syracuse from 474 B.C., a year in which he came to aid of the Cumaeans with a fleet of ships. The Cumaeans were being threatened by the Etruscans, and his great victory over them in the waters of Cumae was documented by the poet Pindar. Later, the Neapolitans took control of Ischia and they held it until 82 B.C. when it fell into the hands of the Romans through the work of Silla. It returned definitively to the hands of Naples in 29 B.C., ceded by Augustus in exchange for Capri, with which he had fallen in love.
From then on, the history of the island is joined to that of Naples, with which it shared its fortunes and splendour.
The influence of Naples is evident even in culinary terms. It shares many characteristics with Neapolitan cuisine, even though it does have some typical dishes. Among recipes for meat is the recipe to prepare ‘beccafichi’, otherwise known as “fucetetele a’ ischitani,” which calls for lard, capers, pitted olives, pancetta (Italian spiced bacon), pork fat and parsley; they are cooked in the oven in a pan. Also the “Coniglio all’ischitana” (Ischia style rabbit) is dressed with oil and lard, a small amount of tomato sauce and some peeled tomatoes, a few cloves of garlic (whole, to be removed before serving), white wine, and chopped parsley, chilli peppers and spring onions. As far as fish, which is such a large part of the cuisine of Ischia, is concerned, the dishes offered are similar to those of Naples. Some variation of interest, on the other hand, may be found in the use of vegetables. “Mulignane a’ischitana” (Ischia style aubergines) is a typical dish from this land and it requires the following ingredients: 1 kilogram (2 lbs 4 oz) of aubergine, 3 cloves of garlic, basil, parsley, 70 grams (2 oz) of capers, 100 grams (3 oz) of pancetta, 70 grams (2 oz) of cooked ham, 70 grams (2 oz) of prosciutto and 4 peeled tomatoes. The preparation is labour-intensive. One ancient recipe gives the following instructions: “Carefully wash and dry the aubergine. Make cuts on the surface of the aubergine with a knife and put salt on it. Let it rest for a few hours, then wash and dry it again. Make a mixture of chopped garlic, parsley, capers, basil and the cooked ham and prosciutto cut into cubes. Fill the cuts with this mixture. Cook it with the tomatoes over low heat.”
Turnip greens are cooked with orecchiette pasta in a particularly tasty dish, flavoured with anchovies, garlic, chilli pepper and Parmesan and pecorino (sheep’s) cheeses.
The cuisine of this island is based essentially on the products of a very fertile land, of a sea full of fish, and dishes rich with flavours; it is the fruit of patient hard work more than of luxurious spices from across the seas.
The ancient wines are excellent. According to some historical sources the grapevines were imported by the Eubi, the first Greek colonisers of the island.
The presence of grapevines on Ischia since ancient times is confirmed by Roman historical documents and vast medieval literature, which record the cultivation and document the exportation of the wine to the continent.
The wines of Ischia were already notable and appreciated by the 1500’s. Vine cultivation on the island today produces seven excellent products.
Ischia white has a straw yellow colour tending towards golden. It has a vinous, delicate, pleasing aroma and a dry flavour, full-bodied and harmonious. It has a minimum alcohol content of 10.5 percent and is also produced in a “superiore” variety.
The white spumante has a delicate, persistent foam and a lightly golden, straw yellow colour. It has a delicate, pleasing aroma and a fresh, dry, distinctive flavour. It has a minimum alcohol content of 11.5 percent.
The Biancolella has a straw yellow colour with greenish reflections. It has a vinous, pleasing aroma and a dry, harmonious flavour. It has a minimum alcohol content of 10.5 percent.
The Forastera wine has the same minimum alcohol content. It has a more or less intense straw yellow colour, a delicate aroma and a dry flavour.
The red type has a more or less intense ruby red colour. It has a vinous aroma, a dry flavour, of medium body, with the right tannic element. It has a minimum alcohol content of 11 percent.
The Piedirosso, or Per’e palumno, has a ruby red colour, a vinous, distinctive aroma and a dry flavour, of medium body, with the right tannic element. It has a minimum alcohol content of 11 percent, and this rises to 14.5 percent in the “passito” (raisin wine) variety. The latter has a ruby red colour tending toward brick red with a distinctive aroma and a dry, fresh flavour.