Wednesday, 7 September 2011

FROM TABARKA TO CARLOFORTE: A MEDITERRANEAN FOOD HISTORY AMONG GENOA, TUNISIA AND SARDINIA – PART 1

Located in Northern Tunisia, Tabarka is a port standing west of ancient Carthage and a few kilometers from the Algerian border. Its international airport and the presence of hotel chains account for its repute as a tour operating destination. Sheltered by a rocky islet, Thabraca (whence Tabarka by effect of metathesis) was a Carthaginian - and then Roman - landing place, archaeological remains still witnessing the vicissitudes of those agitated times. During the Middle Ages, the islet of Tabarka gradually entered the Genoese sphere of influence because of the profitable trade of coral. Sea waters (as well as in the rest of the Mediterranean basin) were troubled by the assaults of Turkish Dragut, who was captured in 1540 by Giannettino Doria, a member of the Genoese family acting in accordance with the Spanish crown. In 1544 the king of Spain endowed the noble Lomellini with rights and privileges in Tabarka, which through time was peopled by 300 families of intrepid fishermen from Pegli, a coastal village near Genoa. The constant target of raids and attacks, Tabarka nevertheless became a thriving free port and a point of contact between the Christian and the Berber/Islamic universes, in a time when Jewish merchants too reached Tunisia. But decline doomed: the hostility of the local governors, the growing scarcity of coral and the overcrowded conditions of the islet caused a little diaspora and explorations towards the island of San Pietro. In 1740 the bey of Tunis enslaved 900something dwellers of pegliese origins: they were redeemed by Carlo Emanuele 3rd of Savoy and moved to San Pietro. The island is situated off the coast of south western Sardinia in front of the Phoenician Punic Sulcis peninsula: there, in its flattest spot rose Carloforte (the toponym celebrating the rescuer – i.e. Charles the strong), “u pàize” (home), the heart of an area where the Genoese dialect is still spoken (and traces from other languages feature as well, e.g. bulanjé – from the French Boulanger – stands for baker). The choice fell on San Pietro – an ancient land of volcanic origins boasting outstanding natural beauties - because of a number of reasons: its geographical position, wealth of coral and red tuna (the tonnare of Portoscuso, Portopaglia and Isola Piana, where the tuna canning process (with olive oil) first appeared in the 1860’s, being at a stone’s throw), not to forget business prospects linked to saltpans. A total 470 people settled – 100 families of refugees and 30 families from Liguria. Though the beginnings were not easy (also because of frequent epidemics), the first mayor was appointed in 1738, a parish church devoted to San Carlo Borromeo was built and other families (under the aegis of the order of the Saints Maurizio and Lazzaro colonized Calasetta, on the opposite island of Sant’Antioco (a wonder of whitewash houses and Mediterranean maquis). Those who remained in Tabarka grouped in a “millet”, a community enjoying a set of rights, which managed to keep up economic relationships with Genoa and whose last descendants now live in France. The Savoy expansion saw the occupation of the island of la Maddalena in 1767, at the same time when Carloforte started to grow (settlement, framing, fishing, channels…) despite the never ending number of invasions and raids that at last urged the building of town walls (complete with wide Porta Leone, the door of the lion, a recurrent feature in local proverbs) and sighting towers. Safety and peace brought along eagerly awaited well being and a economic alacrity, up to the point that Carloforte began trading lobsters (astonishing to say, in the first decades of the 19th century they were the cheapest fish of the local market!) with the main European powers.

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