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The complete foodie guide to Calabria

The complete foodie guide to Calabria

by Great Italian Chefs 23 April 2019

The toe of the Italian boot, Calabria is southern Italy at its very best. Blazing sunshine, dramatic mountains, stunning coastlines and a particularly strong food culture makes it one of the best places to eat in the country. Here are some of the ingredients, flavours and dishes that have turned it a world-class culinary destination (plus some recipes so you can recreate them at home).

Calabria ticks a lot of boxes. It’s got incredible beaches, dramatic landscapes, bountiful museums and – especially in the rural areas – a relaxed way of life we all wish we had. So why isn’t it at the top of the list of Italian destinations? Perhaps it’s because this is historically one of the poorest regions of Italy – in years past things like a lack of modern infrastructure and regular earthquakes gave it bit of an unfairly inaccessible reputation. However, for sun-seekers after a beautiful place to relax or gastronomes looking to eat their way through some of the finest examples of la cucina povera Italy has to offer, it’s a must-visit.

Most visitors to Calabria don’t tend to head for the cities – instead, they flock to the beautiful coastal villages, striking old towns and serene countryside. This is where you’ll find some of the finest food the region has to offer, too. The vast coastline means there are plenty of opportunities to feast on seafood (particularly swordfish, the local favourite), while inland pork is always on the menu, either simply cooked or turned into a vast array of cured meats. Vegetables such as aubergines, tomatoes and famous Tropea onions are abundant, as are chilli peppers – Calabria is one of the only regions in Italy where chillies are an integral part of the local cuisine. The smell of bergamot fills the air thanks to the many citrus groves, and there’s nothing nicer than tucking into a pitta (filled bread) as you walk the streets in search of new things to try.

Whether you’re planning to visit this under-appreciated part of Italy or simply want to know more about its food, take a look at what makes Calabrian food so good. Italy is famed for its cucina povera, where humble ingredients are transformed into incredible dishes, and Calabria is where you’ll find it has touched every aspect of the local culture.

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Catanzaro is the capital city of Calabria, but Reggio Calabria is the largest and most populous
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Outside the cities the countryside is dramatic, offering a mix of craggy mountains, sun-baked coastlines and rich, fertile fields

No single ingredient represents Calabria better than ‘nduja. This spreadable salumi has deep roots in the local cuisine – there’s even a huge annual festival dedicated to it – and it’s achieved international popularity in recent years. Comprised of finely minced pork fat and meat, chillies, salt and sometimes red peppers, it’s like a fiery pâté not too dissimilar to Spanish sobrassada and French andouille. The very best ‘nduja comes from the Calabrian village of Spilinga, where the mixture is packed into casings, strung up and smoked then left to cure in the Tyrrhenian coastal breeze. There’s no need to cook it – one of the best ways to enjoy ‘nduja is simply spread on bread – but it’s also an important ingredient in cooking, as it will melt into sauces and stews, infusing the whole dish with its addictively hot and rich flavour.

Meat

More often than not, meat in Calabria means pork. During poorer times, families would slaughter their own pigs only once or a few times a year, ensuring every single part of the animal was utilised. Everything from the ribs to the trachea were used (traditionally the trimmings and offal were set aside for ‘nduja production) and meat in general was regarded as a luxury rather than a staple, often turned into cured meats and used sparingly. This means many of Calabria’s traditional meat dishes are made with pork, but today you’ll also find goat and veal on the menu.

Fish and seafood

Having 500 miles of beautiful coastline means Calabrians love to eat fish and seafood. Swordfish is arguably the most popular item on the menu, but you’ll find plenty of anchovies, sardines, tuna, red mullet, scorpionfish and turbot too. When it comes to shellfish, you’ll see lots of squid and octopus, alongside lobsters and various species of prawn. They’re usually simply fried, cooked in stews or used to flavour soups. One of the most interesting products made from seafood in the area is sardella (also known as Calabrian caviar). It’s similar to ‘nduja and made from whitebait (tiny juvenile fish), chilli peppers, salt and wild fennel seeds. However, it’s becoming harder to find as fishing for newborn whitebait is banned by the EU.

Vegetables

Being a poor region means many of Calabria’s traditional dishes eschew meat and fish in favour of vegetables. The hot summers and mild winters (although there’s plenty of snow up in the region’s ski resorts) means things like tomatoes and peppers grow very well, and you’ll find aubergines absolutely everywhere. What Calabria is particularly famous for, however, are Tropea onions. Incredibly sweet and light, these bright purple onions are eaten both raw and cooked, and they take pride of place in markets throughout Calabria (and the rest of Italy) when in season.

Chilli peppers are also ubiquitous throughout Calabria. They became popular not only because of their taste, but because they helped to preserve food for longer (hence their inclusion in ‘nduja). They tend to be hotter than other chillies grown across Italy, and are often dried in the sun before being used as a seasoning.

Preserving vegetables is particularly important to the local cuisine, and jars of sott’oli grace many a Calabrian shop shelf. This method of preserving vegetables in olive oil is found throughout southern Italy, but in Calabria it was a vital way of ensuring there was food to eat throughout the year.

Fruits

Citrus fruits grow particularly well in Calabria’s climate, but the region is most famous for its bergamots, growing an incredible ninety percent of the world’s crop. These large, knobbly fruits are usually associated with perfumes, as the oil is so fragrant, but locally it’s used in cooking too. Bergamot granita is a popular choice in the sweltering heat of summer, and it’s preserved in marmalades and used to flavour alcoholic drinks and liqueurs. It’s also a popular gelato flavour, and is used to flavour local pastries and desserts.

Liquorice

The best liquorice in the world is grown in Calabria, where huge swathes of the countryside are covered with the plant’s bright yellow flowers. The roots are perfectly suited to the local soils and climate, which are then harvested and turned into sweets and liqueurs. Despite its purity and superior flavour, production is tiny, meaning most Calabrian liquorice rarely makes it out of the region.

Cheeses

With such a rich tradition of preserving foods, it’s no wonder that Calabria is home to some seriously good cheeses. The majority of them are firm and smooth stretched-curd cheeses, made from cow’s milk and particularly good for melting or cooking with. Provola is arguably the most famous (similar to scamorza), which is either smoked or unsmoked and like a firmer, more mature mozzarella, but you’ll also find particularly good examples of caciocavallo (keep an eye out for Caciocavallo di Ciminà, which is proected by Slow Food)and sheep’s milk pecorino. One of the most interesting cheeses has to be butirro, which is made in the same way as provola and caciocavallo, but contains a core of butter in the centre.

Ice cream

In the baking heat of the Calabrian sun, ice cream is an obvious choice. Luckily for the locals and visitors to the region, there are some incredibly good varieties on offer that can give the much more famous Neapolitan gelatos a run for their money. Tartufo was only invented in the 1950s, but has quickly become the dessert of choice across Calabria. Two different flavours of ice cream are formed around a centre of either chocolate sauce or a fruit syrup, before being wrapped in sugar paper or enrobed in another sauce and frozen solid. The result is an impressive gelato dish with multiple layers and flavours.

Famous dishes

Pasta

Pasta is an important staple in Calabria, ranging from the incredibly simple and humble to more luxurious and indulgent. A staple dish is lagane e cicciari – wide ribbons of pasta cooked with chickpeas and rosemary – but you’ll also find the local ravioli Calabrese, which contains a mix of Provola cheese, soppressata salumi and pecorino, dressed in a spicy tomato sauce.

For a celebratory family lunch, many Calabrian cooks will prepare pasta o’ fùrnu (known as pasta ‘ncasciàta in the south of the region). This sees rigatoni stirred through a rich meat ragù, which is then layered with sliced aubergines, meatballs, cheese, cured meats and hard-boiled eggs.

Pitta

Alongside pasta, bread is another key component of Calabrian cuisine, known locally as pitta. This bread dough is often assembled like a pie, with all manner of different fillings going into the middle. The savoury pitta are treated in a similar way to calzone, often stuffed with a range of local meats, cheeses and vegetables before being encased in dough and baked. The name of the pitta will change depending on what it’s filled with, but the shape can also differ; some come with a hole the centre, while others are left unfilled as a simple loaf of bread.

Pitta can also refer to sweet pastries, as the pitta ‘mpigliata above shows. Originally only baked for weddings and large celebrations, they’re now found in bakeries across the region, full of dried fruits, spices and liqueurs.

Licurdia

Licurdia is one of the finest examples of Calabria’s cucina povera. A simple soup that can include whatever vegetables are in season, what makes it stand out is the key ingredient – the region’s famed Tropea onions. Chilli peppers are also thrown in, satiating the local appetite for heat, while potatoes help thicken it into a heartier meal (as do the slices of stale bread).

Pesce spada alla ghiotta

Calabria’s coastline means there’s a strong local fishing industry, but the one fish that’s prized above all others is swordfish. One of the most popular ways is to serve it in both Calabria and Sicily is ‘alla ghiotta’, which sees thick meaty steaks of swordfish served on a bed of tomato sauce that’s flavoured with capers, anchovies, garlic, olives, pine nuts and raisins. The result is a fragrant, sweet, light and sunny dish that transports you to the southern Italian coast.

Polpette

Polpette is the Italian name for meatballs, although they don’t always actually include meat. In Calabria, two of the most popular varieties are polpette di melenzane, made with a combination of aubergines, pecorino and stale bread, and polpette alla mammolese, which sees pork mince mixed with goat’s cheese and cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. Both are delicious yet serve different purposes – the aubergine variety are eaten like snacks, whereas the pork polpette are more extravagant and hail from the mountains of Mammola.

Melanzane ripiene

Calabrians love aubergines, preparing them in all manner of ways in the kitchen. Perhaps the most common and simple way of serving them, however, is ripiene (stuffed). A simple combination of pecorino, bread, eggs, parsley and garlic are placed into hollowed-out aubergine halves, before being doused in passata and baked. This dish is served hot or at room temperature, on its own or alongside others, for lunch or dinner – it’s incredibly versatile. Stuffing ingredients vary too – in the south of the area, meat is added.

Crema reggina

Tartufo is Calabria’s most famous form of ice cream, but in the province of Reggio Calabria crema reggina rules supreme. This bright pink frozen custard is flavoured with rum, studded with chocolate and candied fruit and coloured with Alchermes liqueur (although most modern recipes simply call for natural food colouring). The result is a delicious dessert packed with different flavours that looks as good as it tastes.

Susumelle

The colder months in Calabria (which aren’t actually that cold – it drops to around 11°C) see susumelle (also known as pitte di San Martino) displayed in bakery windows across the region. Typically baked for Christmas, these little biscuits are dry and hard, so they’re eaten with a sweet wine or coffee for dipping. Flavoured with plenty of honey, cocoa powder and cinnamon, they’re finished with a layer of melted chocolate on top.

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The complete foodie guide to Calabria

 
 

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