Authentic Calabrian cuisine is not to be found along the coastal areas of the region, even though it is bordered both by the Tyrrheanian and Ionian seas; along the coast, the cuisine is somewhat anonymous, without any real character of its own, influenced more by those of Naples and Sicily. In contrast, the cuisine in the heart of the Sila, an area comprising the extensive upper plateau of the vast mountainous ridge of northern Calabria which extends from the Val di Crati in the west, to the northern plain of Sibari, down to the Ionic hills in the east and south-east, is of particular interest.
The true Sila area is a plateau rich in fir and pine trees, lakes, pastureland, and dense woodland with a high-mountain climate just a few kilometres from the Tyrrheanian and Ionian seas. An area abundant with mushrooms, perhaps the richest in all of Italy, certainly the only one that offers year round availability. Mushrooms that can be cooked in a variety of ways, for the most part with meat, most commonly that of goat, kid or pork. In May one can find the perfumed “spugnole” , also known locally as “maroccu”, which are cooked either in a stew with goat’s meat or in a ragù. Later-on in the year appear the “sillu” or porcini (gourmet mushrooms), which are ideally suited for Rice timbales or in meat-sauces. Towards the end of the summer, one can find the “vavusi”, which can be sautéed with sweet peppers, and are also excellent when preserved in olive oil. The most typical of mushrooms from the Sila however, is the Lactarius delicius, also known as “rossitto”, from its pinkish colouring, which are often barbecued with garlic and pancetta (bacon), and can be preserved and used in a variety of ways.
Something that is testimony to the abundance of mushrooms in the area is the mushroom stone, which can still be found in the some mountain regions of the Sila. It is a particular type of stone, extremely porous, that is found deep within the forest, sought after because it is rich in mycelium which promotes mushroom growth. Once brought home and kept in a cool place, this stone produces excellent mushrooms, a variety of pratioli (field mushrooms) which are usually cooked in a sauce-pan with garlic and chilli peppers. Naturally, the properties of the mushroom stone eventually become exhausted and, as a result, many families replace it with another in order to have a ready availability of home-grown mushrooms, while the more prized ones – or at least the very best of them - sought and gathered in the woods, are usually sold on the national market, becoming a source of economic wealth.
Cheese also has a great part to play in the cuisine of the Sila, its production being connected to the widespread practice of animal-rearing, brought about by the pasturing not only of goats and sheep but also of cattle which assures the cows’ milk which is indispensable for making a variety of cheeses, first and foremost the “butirro”, a caciocavallo type of cheese filled with fiore di burro (buttermilk) which can, however, also be found in other areas. Unique, however, to the Sila is a cheese obtained from the milk of annicchiariche cows that have calved in the last year. Another basic cheese of the Sila is the “juncata” or “sciungata”, which is a fresh, creamy cheese with a soft and delicate texture, made from sheep’s milk, a very traditional type of cheese, once made by shepherds during the transhumance period. Now, as then, it is eaten as a fresh cheese-spread on bread. Also, though prohibited for reasons of hygiene, one can sample – stomach allowing- a highly flavoured cheese known as “formaggiu de quagghiu”: which is actually nothing more than a goat’s cheese which has been imperfectly matured. It sometimes happens that the curd does not fully dissolve; the residue produces what is known as inverminatura, the proliferation of tiny white worms which are savoured for the spicy flavour that is derived from them. Finally, it is worth remembering among home-made produce, the “piticelle”, which are tasty little cheeses that are similar in form to mozzarella but are filled with butter on the inside.
Meat, especially that of pig, lamb, kid and wild boar are fundamental to the region’s cuisine and are widely available in the area. Pork provides the basis for a wide variety of hams and sausages and salamis which are seasoned with the flavours typical of the area, from wild-fennel seed to the ever-present chilli-pepper. Also quite common are sausages which are cooked to make a sauce for pasta dishes, barbecued or cooked in a saucepan with potatoes and tomato; they are presented bound together by hand to create the noted chainlink form.
Other dishes involve the use of entrails which are cooked in a saucepan over a low flame along with a tomato sauce and the addition of other meats such as meatballs. A typical dish of this variety is the “marro” which is made with a variety of ingredients, though principally with the liver, lungs and intestines of the kid to which is then added pecorino (sheep’s cheese) and grated provola cheese, pancetta ( bacon ), parsley, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. A traditional old recipe suggests the following preparation: Roll up the kid pancetta and immerse in boiling water for one or two minutes; remove and dry well with a cloth, then cut into squares of about ten centimetres (three and a half inches) each. Chop up the liver and lungs; dice the pecorino, the provola cheese and the pancetta. In each stomach lining place a little of the above ingredients along with some parsley and chopped garlic, then salt and pepper, enclosing in a sack-like form using a piece of intestine(washed and without fat) as binding. Place the involtini (bundles) in a saucepan with olive oil and a little hot salted water, cook until done and serve warm with fried potatoes.
These are flavoursome dishes which combine a variety of flavours and ingredients whose digestibility is reliant on the use of chilli-pepper, which has the ability to stimulate the digestive system.
The combination of sweet and sour spices is a very traditional element of the area’s cuisine the origins of which are quite distant, above all oriental. In this regard, it is worth mentioning a particular dish known as “uova (egg) alla monacella”, for which the following is a traditional old recipe. Ingredients: one hundred grams of sweet cocoa, eighty grams of icing sugar, seven eggs, cinnamon powder and olive oil. To prepare, proceed in the following way: boil six eggs and then place in cold water; shell and cut in half leaving aside the whites. Pass the yolks through a sieve and into a tureen, adding fifty grams of cocoa, the sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and an uncooked yolk, mixing well together. With this mixture fill the boiled egg-halves and cover in the remaining fifty grams of cocoa that has been seasoned with a little bit of cinnamon. Heat plenty of oil in a frying-pan. Whisk until fluffy the remaining uncooked egg-white, and then add the stuffed egg-halves and fry them. Serve hot.
Also in the area of desserts one can discern an oriental influence: which is the case for a wide range of torrone (nougats), amongst which it is worth remembering the so-called “cubbaita”, a honey and sesame nougat that is a traditional sweet of both Greece and Turkey. A wonderful dessert is one known as the “torrone gelato” (‘nougat ice cream’), which is not actually an ice-cream but rather a nougat composed of candied citrus, orange and mandarin, together with almonds, bound by a multicoloured melted sugar, then it is all covered in a chocolate icing. This is actually a rather soft sweet that is easily cut into slices.
There are many recipes for desserts though generally they are somewhat uniform throughout the region.