There is something holy and ancient in the Calabrian way of eating, the observance of the rules of behaviour which go back for centuries. It could be said that between the Sila and the Stretto (the Straits), the connection between nutritional and spiritual requirements is more strongly felt than in any other part: every religious festival in Calabria had its own devotional food, every event in family life – weddings, bereavements, baptisms – its own gastronomic fulfilment. It was a custom at Christmas to present a meal with thirteen courses, and likewise for Epiphany; the festivities for Carnival required a menu based on macaroni and pork; Easter could not be celebrated without the ritual breads and roast lamb. For Ascension, tagliolini al latte(tagliolini pasta with milk), for San Rocco, cakes portraying the parts of the body which could be healed by the thaumaturgist and so on: unleavened bread for Santa Chiara, lagane and ciceri for the day for commemorating the dead, fried salted codfish for San Martino, la cuccia for Santa Lucia.
The severity of this calendar has weakened over time leaving, though, visible traces in the alimentary repertory of the region. The food eaten by the people of Calabria is substantially what it has always been, determined by customs, beliefs and by history. Stretched out in the middle of the Mediterranean, its coasts lapped by two seas, in its cultivations, Calabria has received and metabolised influences coming from the East, just as those from the West: Greek settlers transplanted some cultivations into the soil of what was called Oenotria, the founders of a civilisation for which pride is still felt.
For example, the Greek origin of laganoi is uncontested, wide fettuccine (a kind of flat spaghetti) pasta, much loved in Sibari, whereas the name ‘mustica’ is certainly Arabic, the extraordinary and very tasty dish which derives from the practice of preserving young anchovies in oil along with chilli pepper. This is a preserved food and is, therefore, a vital resource.
In the villages in the Apennines, in the places where hard toil was given little reward, the availability of non perishable supplies was, until only yesterday, the only wealth really valued. "Amaru chi lu puorco non ammazza", unhappy is the one who does not have pigs to slaughter, so went an old, working class song. The sausages, salamis, the pork fat, the mustica, the cheeses, the aubergines preserved in oil and the dried tomatoes meant for the people of the South, the guarantee of survival in the none too infrequent times of scarcity. The preparation of these foods, following rituals and timings which could not be put off, was accompanied by invocations, omens and counter-charms which are now but a memory.
The Calabrian table is certainly neither a refined one or one which is rich in ingredients, but neither could it be, given the atavistic poverty of a harsh region far away from large centres of culture. In addition, it was oppressed for many centuries by a feudal type of economy which impoverished the land of its resources instead of using them to their full potential. In the areas of recently reclaimed land which today undergo intensive farming, the agricultural products are excellent: the plains of Santa Eufemia, Sibari and Rosarno are extremely fertile; in Sila, there is the production of some excellent cheeses; vine growing is also on the increase. The food is, however, substantial, made of intense flavours, ancient dishes and violent aromas.
The vegetable are, as they always have been, protagonists of the alimentation in Calabria: together with pasta and all the derivatives from the pig, they compose the base of the local cuisine. In coastal areas, fish can be added to the list of these last three ingredients. Fishing has a longer tradition in the Straits and at Reggio where, amongst other things, swordfish is caught; nevertheless, fresh fish and some good fish recipes can be found on the Tyrrheanean coast as well as on the Ionian.
The aubergine is the queen of vegetables; introduced in Europe after the conquest of South America, it took root magnificently in southern Italy. In particular, Calabrian soil, relatively dry, siliceous of type and scarce in calcium, is adapt for this solanaceae because it permits the maturation of a series of aromatic substances which give the pulp a wonderful flavour. It is curious that, whereas the aubergine in the South sustained the alimentation of the population for many years, in the North it did not have very much success until the last century. It was even thought to be damaging: the name in Italian, melanzana, derives from «malum insanum», that is, the fruit which predisposes one to madness! Once this common taboo had been overcome, nowadays, it is eaten all over Italy, even though it is still very much the typical Mediterranean vegetable of the sun. Even its most well known dish, known as «alla parmigiana», was born in the South and not at Parma; the name comes from the large quantity of cheese which the dish requires. In Calabria, pecorino cheese was always used, but someone, one day, decided to use Parmesan cheese, and so thus it has remained.
In Calabria, there are an infinite number of ways of cooking aubergines (sweet and sour, in scapece, stuffed, fried with tomatoes and eggs, etc.): sometimes, by the time they are served at the table, they are unrecognisable. For example, first cut in half and blanched in boiling water, they are then sandwiched back to together again with a layer of pecorino cheese, pepper and basil. They are then covered in flour, dipped in beaten egg, floured a second time and covered with a layer of breadcrumbs and then fried. The result is a little bundle which reigns over the plate in a mysterious kind of way.
Other vegetables which are almost always present are tomatoes, sweet peppers and the characteristic onions with red-purple skins. They ornament the table, prepared in various dishes with their sweet and fleshy pulp, full of colour.
Bread has a central position in Calabrian eating: it is eaten with every dish and much care is taken over its preparation, especially in the farming world; it is full of flavour and there are a number of variations: we recall the focacce (flat breads), known as «pitte», open to imaginative variations and different aromas, because various flavours are added to the risen dough, be it tomatoes or sardines, onions or ricotta cheese, sausage or caciocavallo cheese.
These substantial «pitte» have remote origins; in all probability they were ritual foods, but today, unfortunately, they can hardly be found outside the family walls.
Pasta, an unfailing presence, is traditionally home made. «A fimmina 'mpasta e spasta, u furnu cunza e guasta», says the proverb. It is the woman who kneads and works the dough, the oven which cooks and spoils. And so the woman is given the merit of cooking well: it is not so much the cooking itself which counts to get a good result, but the ability of the housewife who, as tradition goes, is not worthy for marriage if she does not know at least fifteen ways of working flour into a dough. And amongst these, the first and most well known is the one which produces «fusilli»: they are made by wrapping the pasta around a metal rod, called a «firrittu» and are the shape of a thick, short piece of spaghetti, with the solid and rough taste of wheat. They are dressed with tomato, ham, garlic, oil and chilli pepper. As well as «fusilli», there are also «sagne», which involve lengthy preparation, being filled with artichokes, pork, mushrooms and cheese. Other types of pasta are «maccaruni», «sciliatelli», «schiaffettoni», «filatieddi», «canneroni», «ricci di donna»: all made with durum wheat or bran flour, and dressed with thick and tasty sauces which cover them in a slippery layer, making the dish rich, colourful and inviting. Today, however, commercially made pasta is used more and more.
Perhaps the most typical, traditional vegetable soup is the «maccu di fave», a purée of broad beans cooked without seasoning but then given flavour by the addition of uncooked olive oil, grated pecorino cheese and plenty of pepper. An old dish of which an identical version can be found in Sicily: the quality of the raw materials used are at the base of its sublime essentiality. It is useless to even think of trying to reproduce such a dish if one does not have available, for example, a thick and robust oil of the type found in the south.
The whole chapter concerning the pig is rich in «colour». Given the economy of the region, the meat from cattle is practically inexistent and, still today, «lu puorcu» (the pig) is king of the table. At one time, the slaughtering of the pig was a popular feast, entailing a precise and complex ritual; today, it has all taken on a much speedier pace. The grand, traditional banquet which unified family and friends and which had its greatest moment when, before cooking, the entrails were brought to the table for reading the future, has now been substituted by a more concentrated lunch. The various parts are still boiled up in the copper cauldron - feet, rind, head, belly and all the other fatty parts which go to produce lard, freeing the meaty residuals, called «frisali», which are served together with pickled vegetables which mitigate the fat..
The consumption of meat taken from the pig, both fresh and cured, is still considerable: capocolli and other hams, soppressate salamis and sausages are foods much loved by the Calabrians. Amongst the most typical salamis is the «soppressata», bright in colour (due to the presence of chilli pepper and pig’s blood) and sometimes the «lagrimusa», that is, flavoursome dripping fat, and the «ndugghia», sausage made with a tongue base, tripe and other pig’s meat used for the so called «minestra maritata» with home grown herbs and wild vegetables. Pork and pasta meet up again in the «morseddu», a «pitta» which is cut in half and filled with a sauce made from a base of pig’s entrails cooked with tomato and chilli pepper. A speciality of Catanzaro, it is an extraordinarily energetica and “fiery” dish.
The «morseddu» is found again with the name of «suffritto», in Cosenza and in Reggio. Many Calabrian dishes are specific to just one of the provinces, although the basic characteristics are common to the whole region. Geography, in fact, explains why, before the construction of the present extensive road network, due to the natural obstructions, or, more precisely, the mountains, the provinces were left closed within themselves. In the South, however, the alimentary and culinary customs are much more localised than in Central and Northern Italy: every city, every town and every area has its own practices, every family has its own secrets which have been passed down from generation to generation.
One of the few dishes of the “rich” cuisine, the one which was elaborated by the middle class between the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, is certainly a dish which was recorded by Vincenzo Agnoletti (who lived between the end of the XVIII and the beginning of the XIX centuries) in his book Nuovissima cucina economica, called «Polpette involtate alla catanzarese» (‘Meatball roulades Catanzaro style’), a very elaborate and rich dish, but respectful enough of the mixture of the flavours and destined, with the necessary modifications, to a long life even in other places.
«Take a piece of lean meat, be it beef or veal, remove all the skin and tendons, cut into fine slices and flatten them a little. Lay on the top of each slice a little farsa made from softened lard, fine herbs, crushed pepper and nutmeg; add to this farsa some washed, dried, seeded grapes and some provatura marzolina (= fresh cheese, mostly produced in the month of March) cut into small cubes; fold up the meatballs all in the same way and tie them up with a string. Put some thin slices of lard and ham into a casserole dish, arrange the meatballs on top of them with a ‘studded’ onion (= an onion pierced with cloves and cinnamon, used for flavouring drinks), a little salt, a bunch of herbs and a piece of butter, cover and cook with the flame above and below. When they are browned all over, pour in half a glass of boiling hot wine and allow it to be absorbed; add a pinch of flour and wet with beef gravy or with white broth or with half broth and half well squeezed tomato sauce and cook gently. When they are cooked, drain them, remove the string and put on the plates. Pass the sauce through a sieve, remove all the fat and serve poured over the meatballs. If you wish to serve them with a sauce or culì of your invention, then this is for you to judge».
The Sila area is also particularly interesting from the gastronomic point of view because the connotation of this plateau is extraordinary, appearing like a piece of Canada transferred by a whim of nature into the middle of the Mediterranean. Fir and pine trees, lakes and pastureland, thick forests and a climate as in the highest mountains a few kilometres from the dazzling, calcined beaches of the Tyrrheanian and Ionian seas: a geographical “paradox”. Those who love looking for and eating mushrooms should take a holiday in the Sila area, considered by experts to be the most plentiful area in Italy. Often, in the mushroom “boutiques” in Milan and Turin, the products displayed are from the forests of the Sila, while it is not easy to find them on sale in Calabria. Favoured by the climate, which at an average altitude of one thousand three hundred metres benefits from the sea air and from the abundant summer and autumn rains, the Sila offers mushrooms almost all year round: in May, we have the appearance of the fragrant “spugnole” (here known as «marroccu»), which are cooked in a stew with goat meat or in a meat ‘bolognese’ sauce for pasta. Then there are the “sillu” or porcini, perfect, especially with rice timbales and meat sauces. Towards the end of the summer, the “vavusi” arrive, used for sautéing with sweet peppers and excellent also preserved in oil. The most typical of the mushrooms from the Sila is, however, the Lactarius deliciosus, known as the "rossito", pinkish in colour, and good grilled on the barbecue with garlic and pancetta. It can be preserved and used in every way.
A particuliarity, concerning this subject, is the ‘mushroom stone’. A gastronomical rarity which can be found in the area from Sant'Eufemia d'Aspromonte to Serra San Bruno in the Calabrian mountains. It is a special kind of stone, recognisable for its porosity, which the experts find deep in the forests. It is rich with mycelium, the mysterious, underground network of tiny roots which permits the growth of mushrooms. Kept indoors, in a cool place, kept constantly damp, the stone starts to produce excellent mushrooms, of the type of field mushrooms, until its properties run out. Amongst the first to write about this singular phenomenon was the English writer Norma Douglas in the 1800’s, in a famous book of his dedicated to a journey in Calabria.
Other products which should be tasted in Sila are the salamis and sausages, the trout and the cheeses. The dairy products are interesting: the cheeses such as pecorino, caciocavalli, provole, «butirri» (small caciocavalli with a centre of butter), «piticelle» (mozzarella on the outside and butter inside).
Amongst the fish recipes, the most original is the «me'stica», or the «poor man’s caviar», a ready to use, typically Calabrian preparation: in fact – as we have seen - in this region, the technique and the custom of preserving foods its very widespread. The newly born anchovies are mixed with chilli pepper and put into oil in a very spicy hot sauce which is also produce by the local small industries. A jar of «me'stica» could, therefore, be a tasty souvenir from a trip to Calabria. Anchovies, furthermore, are one of the few dishes to be recorded by historians of cuisine; Vincenzo Agnoletti, again, in his first work La nuova cucina economica della gastronomia calabrese relates the recipe «Alici salate alla calabrese» (‘Salted anchovies Calabrian style’).
«Clean the salt off the anchovies, break them in half and remove the backbone, arrange them in a paper tray with the same dressing of fine herbs as that used for fresh anchovies, cover well on top with breadcrumbs, cook in a hot oven and serve immediately with a little lemon juice.».
But you must not leave Reggio without taking away with you one of their wonderful traditional cakes, first of them all, the various types of torrone (a type of nougat), then come the figs prepared with almonds, the jams and the marmalades made from citrus fruits. The ice cream and the sorbets are of the highest school: here, as in Messina, on the other side of the Straits, the rite of the morning brioche, fragrant and warm from the oven and filled with ice cream , is a must: what could be a more Sybaritic breakfast?
So the cuisine of Calabria, can be defined as a cuisine which has been autochthonous for several centuries: a cuisine in which the strong flavours of the numerous aromatic herbs merge together, in which the richness of every dish is obtained by the addition of ingredients. A cuisine which unites the seas and the mountains, a cuisine which resembles the inflexible character of the inhabitants of this region.