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E - 160 : Calabrian Food - Mountain Food

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

All Coastal Towns in Calabria are heavily fortified against the Saracen Threat

A few days ago, my best friend David suggested to also write about the Albanian villages in Apulia and how important the World War 2 battles in Southern Italy were for the liberation of Europe. It was England's and America’s first foothold on continental Europe. Am gladly taking him up on his suggestion. Please write if you have any topics I could cover.

But today is on the cuisine of Calabria, something I already touched upon when describing how the Mezziogiorno became one of the poorest regions in Europe. Not only did Southern Italy loose its prosperous export markets, the constant threat from Muslim pirates also forced the people to retreat to the mountains or into heavily fortified coastal towns. The fertile coastal plains became empty and untended. Food was only grown in the mountains, close to the secluded villages, we admire today for their picturesque appearance. This surely must have influenced the local cuisine.

Calabrian Vegetable Market - held in all Towns every Morning

We encountered a similar phenomenon last year when sailing along the coast of Sardinia. We expected a cuisine based on seafood and goods arriving from many countries across the sea. But we found a rural cuisine instead - plant based stews with the occasional piece of meat but no sea food. Fish and shells only arrived on the Sardinian tables by the 20th century and with the arrival of tourism. Sardinia was and is also home to millions of sheep – a good and affordable source of meet which is part of the local culinary tradition.

The Calabrian Nduja

Calabria is not much different. The century long poverty and seclusion forced people into a plant based diets too. Meat was the rare exception. Calabria was so poor that neither lamb nor beef figure on the local menu. Meat in the Calabrian cuisine is almost exclusively pork – an animal fed with leftovers from the kitchen or sent into the woods to feed on acorns or anything else they could dig up. My guess is that Calabrian pigs lived a quite similar life to their wild cousins in Corsica, the Boars. By the end of the summer these pigs were caught and slaughtered and the meat made into sausages. It was the only meat the people of Calabria had access to. And it was only served on Sundays.

Calabrian Chillies, the hottest in Europe, are used for making Nduja

When you google Calabrian food, you inevitably drop on the Nduja, the spreadable pork sausage made from finely minced pork meat, fat, salt and chilly peppers. The sausage is made by kneading the ingredients to a sticky paste, then putting it into some transparent skin and leave it curing for up to 3 months in a moderately temperated room. The salt cures the meat and softens it up so it can be eaten without cooking. The recipe apparently arrived with the Norman Knights and is supposedly close to the Andouillettes. But having cooked the French "cousin" myself I cannot see the connection. French Andouillettes are made from waste meat whilst Nduja is made from prime cuts from the pig's shoulder. Nduja is eaten as bread spreads, used in pasta sauces or as condiment in stews. It is such a truly versatile sausage. Cannot wait to buy some when sailing this summer.

Tropea Onions

The second thing all chefs talk about are the Tropea Onions, a very sweet, smaller and light variant of our white onions. Have to confess that I never had any so this is a definite must for Kostas, our chef. They are used for onion soup, onion jam and pasta with pecorino, white wine and garlic. Am sure there are many more ways to use it. Let's find out!

Pasta made with Tropea Onions, Pecorino, Garlic, Olive Oil and White Wine

Calabria became poor due to its geopolitical location and the clientele economy under Spanish rule but its soil was always fertile. Calabria is well watered during the winter months, has hot summers with lots of sunshine and excellent crystalline soil. The soil around our house in Chantrou is exactly the same. Every spring nature explodes and harvesting vegetables four times a summer is not unusual.

Calabria is thus a true paradise for vegetables, plants and fruits. Tomato, peppers and egg plants grow everywhere. Olive trees and wines are omnipresent - will talk about Calabrian Wines in a separate blog. So are orange and lemon trees. Many vegetables are preserved for the winter months. There are two ways to preserve them. They are either sun dried or put in jars with olive oil to seal them hermetically. All of this makes Calabria famous for its delicious and varied pasta sauces. The Durum wheat for pasta is imported from the neighboring Sicily – a tradition many centuries old when Spain forbad the sale of Sicilian wheat to Muslims.

Trying to stay with my tradition of keeping my blogs below 4 min reading time, I add a link to the most appetizing website I found:

The Calabrian cuisine definitely echoes the diet of the poor farmers in the Calabrian mountains. It sounds delicious, nonetheless. Am looking forward to our menu for the second week this summer and to the many visits to the local vegetable markets.

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