Calabria Culinary Food and Wine Travel Guide
Located all the way at the toe of Italy’s boot shape, is Calabria. With picturesque mountains and a pristine coastline that stretches along three sides of the region, the land is largely untouched and fertile making the tradition of agriculture an important focus for its people. This pure form of agriculture and sea fare from the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas make Calabria cuisine truly a one of a kind experience.
Many vegetables are grown locally in Calabria, but the showstoppers are Calabrese tomatoes, eggplant,
Tropea red onions, and mushrooms. Calabrese tomatoes and eggplant are beloved by locals and can be found in most vegetable based soups and dishes. Tropea red onions are a purple-hued, teardrop shaped bulb of intense sweetness sought after by gourmet chefs both local and abroad for its uniqueness. It is used raw, boiled, or baked in most of the region’s traditional dishes. Calabria is the largest producer of wild mushrooms that grow in the heavily wooded forests of the mountains ranges of Pollino, Sila, and Aspromonte. With such an abundance of this locally grown fungi, it is served fresh, dried, or even pickled and makes an appearance on dinner tables at least once a day.
With much of the region bordered by coastal waters, sea fare is a delicious and popular source of protein here. However, none are as popular as the swordfish. This fish is a common ingredient in many of the region’s main dishes. In fact, swordfish are such an integral part of the fare in Calabria, that the people hold a festival in Bagnara every July in its honor.
Calabria is Italy’s second largest producer of olive oil, making it one of the area’s biggest exports. The most popular olive oils are Bruzio, Alto Crotonese, and Lamezia. Of these, Bruzio is often considered to be one of the elite. Currently produced in Cosenza, this internationally renowned olive oil has roots that can be traced all the way back to the original ancient Bruzi tribes of Italy.
The region’s copious amounts of fresh vegetables and meats, combined with their own local production of olive oil, yield the perfect system for efficiently storing food. The people of Calabria do not waste a morsel of food and regularly preserve foods by packing vegetables and meat in olive oil, curing fish, and readying cold cuts.
Calabria cuisine is a simple cuisine based solely on what the people grow or catch from the land and water. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. The region’s dishes are steeped in tradition and flavored with incredible spices and a dash of local flare.
Dried Calabrese tomatoes are a regional favorite. These tomatoes are handpicked, dried and stored naturally without the aid of any preservatives, an homage to the simplicity and purity of local fare. After the tomatoes are dried, they can be preserved in olive oil along with anchovies, basil, and hot peppers for unparalleled flavor.
If more spice is what you crave, you won’t have to look far for a dish boasting ‘nduja. Found on almost every table in Calabria, ‘nduja is a spicy and spreadable cold cut commonly served with cheese or bread, on pizza, or even as a topping for pasta. This spread gets its heat from added spices and peppers and is typically made with the belly and shoulders of a pig.
Caciocavallo cheese is made in much of Italy. However, several local versions made in Calabria use the caciocavallo cheese as simply a base and add various special touches to make them the region’s own.
Calabria, and more specifically villages in Aspromonte National Park, are known for their Caciocavallo di Ciminà. Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro are known for a different version of this Italian cheese, Caciocavallo Silano, which takes several months for proper spicing and maturity. These cheeses are most often eaten with bread, in salads, or alongside vegetables.
Another popular appetizer that is cheese based is butirro. This cheese is made from the paste of other cheeses such as provola or caciocavallo and is then filled with butter. While it can stand alone as an appetizer, it also can be served on top of a dish of plain pasta.
Since fresh vegetables are a staple in the region, it is no surprise that one of the most popular first course dishes is pasta e patate ara tijeddra. This local favorite originates from Cosenza and combines ingredients such as pasta, cheese, tomatoes, and breadcrumbs. Everything is cooked together on the stove but is then put in the oven for only a few minutes or until the dish has a golden, crispy crust on top.
Licurdia, a soup historically available to Calabria’s poorest areas, is vegetable based. While the primary ingredient is the region’s red onion of Tropea, the dish usually features a variety of vegetables including asparagus, carrots, escarole, and Swiss chard. After the vegetables are briefly cooked in water and lard, the melted cream mixture is served over toasted bread and red peppers, and pecorino cheese is often added for additional spice and flavor.
Pasta has a rich ancient tradition and is in many ways the essence of true Italian cuisine. In keeping with that sentiment, a local favorite is lagane e ciciari ara cusentina. This pasta is made without eggs and consists only of flour and water. Once the noodles are formed and cooked in salt water, they are seasoned with sautéed garlic, chickpeas, red pepper, and of course, olive oil.
Continuing with an Italian pasta theme is maccheroni col ferretto. The pasta gets its name from the ferretto, an instrument that makes the hole in the maccheroni. This hearty dish is topped with protein such as pork, beef, or goat and rich sauces that may include ‘nduja.
With Calabria’s proximity to the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, it is no surprise that fish is a staple of the people. Sometimes referred to as pesce spade, swordfish is the front runner and is cooked a number of different ways. Bagnarota is swordfish cooked with lemon and capers. Riggitana is swordfish flavored with garlic, parsley, and olive oil. Alla ghiotta is another variation of swordfish served with capers, olives, and tomatoes.
While not as prominent as swordfish, stockfish or dried codfish is another traditional dish. Most locals roast or fry the fish and serve it with tomatoes, potatoes, and capers. However, some villages in Aspromonte serve Stucco di Mamola which is stockfish that is cured in fresh spring water.
Traditional Calabrian flatbread known as pitta bread is commonly served at fairs, holiday festivities, and even street side. The soft bread with a crunchy outer crust is typically stuffed with tomatoes and herbs, sausage and peppers, or even caciocavallo cheese and broccoli. Whether stuffed or plain, pitta bread is sometimes served with a mushroom sauce called piccantino that is flavored with herbs, salt, olive oil, vinegar, aubergines, and hot peppers.
For those desiring sweeter street side fare, Mostaccioli is the perfect treat. This crunchy cookie is made with flour and honey. The surprise is not in the ingredients but in the cookie’s shape. Bakers often shape the dough into unique forms such as flowers, animals, or humans and then decorate them with brightly colored foil.
Much of Calabria’s treats are sweetened with fig syrup, honey, or even mulled wine. Pignolata are small balls of light pastry that are fried in olive oil and then tossed in honey making them come together in one delicious clump. Another favorite are petrali, or fig-filled cookies that are often made in a number of flavors and varieties by local confectioners.
Perhaps the favorite of locals and visitors alike is gelato alla crema reggina.
The creation is a creamy pastry generally enjoyed as gelato. This pink, rum flavored gelato is a specialty of the province of Reggio Calabria, hence its nickname of crema reggina.
The region of Calabria is known far and wide for its wines. With such fertile land, the area is perfect for growing grapes and producing wine. While Calabria’s red wines are thought of as superior to the white wines, there isn’t really a wrong choice to be had.
The most sought after wines are those with a controlled origin or DOC label. In Calabria, these wines include: Ciro, Melissa, Lametia, Savuto, Donnici, Graco di Gerace, and Sant’Anna. Ciro’ is generally described as one of the oldest wines on earth.
Other non-DOC wines of excellent reputation from the region include Pellaro, which is known for its robustness, and Kalipea, which known for its golden color. Limbadi is considered an exceptional table wine. Rossano is a ruby colored wine with a high alcoholic content.
Whether strolling along the white sandy beaches or hiking through the mountain villages of Calabria, stop to enjoy a slower paced meal that isn’t just food, but an experience.
Savor every bite and try to distinguish every spice in between sips of world famous and locally grown and produced wines. The region’s rich traditional fare will both capture your heart and seduce your taste buds.
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