Cosenza and its territory
Cosenza springs up in the area between the Sila and the coastal chain, where the Crati River begins to be an important communications route toward the sea. It is a land which produces cereals, wine, oil, fruit (such as the famous figs which are dried and baked), vegetables and legumes. A cuisine characterised by certain dishes rooted in tradition and the preservation of food products in oil is derived from these products.
The oil, in fact, is produced in abundance in the whole area and dates back no less than seven centuries before Christ. The DOC (denomination of controlled origin), which refers to the name Brutium, is given to extra virgin olive oil produced on the plains of at least forty-nine townships of the province of Cosenza. These townships are gathered in four large groups, each group marked by a successive obligatory geographic mention: Fascia Prepollinica, Valle Crati, Colline Ioniche Presilane and Sibaritide. The differences in colour, flavour, aroma and acidity are minimal in these types of oil, but they cannot escape the notice of the experts. The “Brutium Fascoa Prepollinica” has, according to the appropriate expert, a green colour with yellow highlights, while the Brutium Colline Ioniche Presilane” is golden yellow with green highlights.
The richness of oil and the ancient need to preserve foods for the winter, dating back to the times in which communication was extremely difficult, determined the tradition of preserves. In fact, the Calabrians have shown themselves to be unequalled in the preparation of aubergines oil, olives and dried tomatoes. They have done so as well with “mustica” also known as poor man’s caviar (salted, dried anchovy or sardine spawn preserved with chilli peppers in olive oil), and “avannoti di alici” (fried anchovies), which are fished by the millions, spread out to dry on wooden tables, covered in chilli peppers then closed in barrels of oil. They are a real explosion of flavour. They are also only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the delicacies to be discovered while visiting the towns.
The aubergine, aside from being baked in the oven with various ingredients, making up a complete dish, is also preserved. Sliced and left salted to drain of liquid, they are washed, dried and then marinated in vinegar until they are ready to be placed in a glass container with oil, chilli peppers, garlic and aromatic herbs. The aubergines in this area are also celebrated with a festival which takes place in the middle of August on the banks of the Coscile River, where there is a contest to decide which family makes the best baked aubergines stuffed with breadcrumbs, tomatoes, chilli peppers, garlic and basil.
Another important preserved food (though this concerns all of Southern Italy) is the tomato, both dried and preserved in oil. Reduced to a sauce with their oil (using a blender), they become an extraordinary dressing for spaghetti sprinkled with abundant grated pecorino cheese.
The cuisine of this area is especially characterised by fish, mostly tuna and anchovies. Boiled tuna is typical and an ancient recipe for this dish suggests the following preparation: put two litres (8 cups) of boiling salted water in a pan with various cleaned and peeled vegetables. Boil everything for three-quarters of an hour, filter the broth and allow it to cool in a pot. Remove the skin from a slice of tuna, wash and tie it with string so that it keeps its form, place it in the vegetable broth and place the pot on the stove. When the tuna is cooked, drain it, untie it and slice it into even slices. Spread the slices on a serving platter. Sprinkle the tuna with chopped parsley, garlic and freshly ground pepper and dress it with olive oil.
Another typical dish is “braciolette di alice” (anchovy chops), which requires a long preparation time but promises exquisite results. Place breadcrumbs, cheese, a pinch of oregano, chopped parsley, a pinch of salt, a small amount of wine and two or three finely chopped cloves of garlic in a bowl. Mix the ingredients well. Clean the anchovies, wash them well and cut them in half. Dip them in wine, drain them and sprinkle them with the mixture. When this is completed, roll them up (as a “braciola” – ‘chop’ - as they say Calabria) and fasten them with toothpicks. Dredge the “chops” in flour and fry them in boiling oil. They can also be served with a tomato sauce.
The presence of fish in this cuisine does not exclude the presence of meat-based recipes. These recipes include “’nduja” (spicy liver and lung pork sausage). This dish is prepared using pork meat, liver and lungs, finely chopped and stuffed into the intestine after considerable and knowledgeable seasoning with Calabrian chilli peppers. The ageing can last for up to one year and contributes to the intensity of the flavour. Aside from enriching what are surely lively starters, it is frequently used in first courses and main courses in need of reinforcement. It is also advised to spread a large quantity of this sausage on still-warm, toasted bread.
Cheese, especially pecorino in its many varieties, is also widespread, both on the table and prepared in various ways. It is used in first courses and in fillings.
To end meals, figs are famous. “Crochette di fichi” (fig croquettes) are figs stuffed with almonds and baked in the oven. Also famous are “cioffi,” figs stuffed with almonds and covered with white or dark chocolate, and “ficarielli,” true and proper figs, flavourful and aromatic, gathered in appropriate containers and covered with syrup and aromatic myrtle leaves. Other ways of preparing figs include dried figs formed into a crown on a myrtle branches, or braided. Cakes are often tied to religious events. “Cuzzuolu” is a famous Easter cake of secular origin. It is made of dough made from flour, egg, lard and sugar. The shape (heart, horse or doll) varies depending on the whim of the baker and habit. The hard-boiled egg with its shell still intact, which is placed in the centre, symbolises the Resurrection.
Almonds and honey are the basis for torrone (a type of nougat) and various other sweets which are, however, widespread throughout Southern Italy. Other such sweets include “mustaccioli” (small cakes made of honey, flour, orange peel, almonds and spices and covered with chocolate icing), “passulata” and “turtidoli.”