My article deadline is looming, but I wanted to share a few impressions of Calabria while they’re still fresh. I don’t normally have the opportunity to take photos on assignment, but for the first time I wasn’t traveling with a photographer and so didn’t feel completely ridiculous whipping out my own camera! A few words about the place: Calabria, in case you don’t know, is the region at the ‘toe’ of the Italian boot and was historically one of the poorest regions of Italy. Today it’s most famous for two things – one, for being the ancestral home of millions of immigrants abroad, particularly in North America, and two, for the ‘Ndrangeta, one of the richest and most ruthless mafias in the world. If you ask me, though, what it should rather be famous for is being a friendly, beautiful, fascinating and extremely delicious land – and one I would not hesitate to return to in a heartbeat.
In no particular order, here are five of the things I loved most.
I’ll never forget the long-ago night I served my Spanish host family a Mexican dinner. They took one bite of the canned refried beans – which to me tasted like they had possibly been shown a jalapeño pepper from across the room – and pushed their plates away, declaring it far too spicy to eat. That experience, combined with the fact that nowhere else around the Mediterranean (including Morocco) have I ever tasted any truly spicy food, led me to assume that hot peppers are simply not grown/eaten/favored in this part of the world. That assumption was smashed to smithereens, however, in the time it took me to take my first bite of food in Calabria. If there is one thing that makes Calabrian food Calabrian, it is spicy red peppers, and oh my, they are hot. And they’re in everything: the salami, the sausage, the vegetables, the pasta, the fritters. They make a starring appearance in the ubiquitous Calabrian pork paté called ‘nduja (pronounced in-DOO-ya), which in some versions is like a coarse meat paste with peppers, and in others, a devilishly hot pepper spread with a only a suggestion of pork. And worry not – if, by some slim chance, you happen to be served something in a restaurant that is not quite up to your heat tolerance, just ask for the pepper sauce – they always have a jar of it standing around somewhere.
I know, I know, antipasti are found all over Italy. But no one, at least in my experience, does it quite like the Calabrians. You see, Calabrians seem to operate under the belief that the best way to prime your stomach for the subsequent onslaught of pasta, vegetables, meat and dessert is not to ease into a meal with a few palate-tickling bites, but rather to launch a full digestive assault as soon as you sit down. Take a look at the photo second from top, left, and the buffet below, right, to get an idea of the scale of the indulgence; a typical antipasti plate at most of the meals I ate consisted of various prosciuttos, salamis and cheeses, a slice of frittata or two, some stuffed and/or marinated vegetables, bruschetta with ‘nduja and perhaps another spread, a couple of vegetable or fish fritters, and some olives. For each person. There’s a reason my pants aren’t fitting so well anymore.
If you like Earl Grey tea, you probably know that bergamot is responsible for that sweet, citrusy fragrance. But do you know what bergamot actually is? I sure didn’t, but I do now: bergamot is a citrus fruit, a hybrid of the pear lemon and the seville orange. Larger and rounder than a lemon, it is cultivated predominantly for its essential oil, which has a floral, bittersweet fragrance I really fell in love with. Around Reggio Calabria, at the very tip of the boot, the world’s only major bergamot crop is cultivated, and here you can find just about everything flavored with the elusive fruit. I tried bergamot candies, bergamot marmalade, bergamot liqueur, bergamot custard, bergamot nougat and bergamot chocolate, and I have to say, I think bergamot is the next ‘it’ citrus variety. Heck, I’m ready to start importing it myself, if just to have a constant personal supply.
4. The Landscape
When you think of the very south of Italy, what do you imagine? I imagined a dry, sun-baked land, rocky and barren with very little growing. I certainly didn’t picture the reality of Calabria, which is 800 km of stunning, mostly undeveloped coastline surrounding a green and mountainous interior, full of citrus and olive plantations, vast chestnut and pine forests, isolated windswept plateaus, and a patchwork of verdant national parks. And that sea, just look at the color – Calabria has some of the cleanest and clearest in the Mediterranean. Too bad it was still too cold to swim, or so they told me – not having brought my bathing suit I didn’t have the chance to put that to the test!
5. The people
I know saying ‘the people’ is pretty clichéd, but I have good reason to say it. You see, I experienced a frightening level of incompetence and disorganization at the hands of the Italian tourist board on this trip, who were in charge of coordinating my itinerary and making my arrangements. For part of my trip they stuck me on a bus with a group of Eastern European tour operators, and all I saw (apart from the inside of the bus) was a succession of package-holiday resort complexes. When I did manage to get private guides, oftentimes the ones provided weren’t guides at all, and/or didn’t speak a word of English. The tourist board aside, however, everybody I met in Calabria was absolutely wonderful, and more importantly, took it upon themselves to help me out in whatever way they could. There were people willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice and drive me hundreds of kilometers around Calabria when they heard about my tour-group nightmare, and one of the tour group’s translators, a lovely girl called Alessandra, volunteered to stay with me and translate privately for the rest of my trip not even knowing if she would get paid for it (she did, thankfully). And that’s the kind of attitude I found from many people; because inefficiency and disorganization are facts of life in southern Italy, people have a highly-developed sense of personal responsibility – since they can’t rely on the system, they have to rely on each other. I don’t think I’ve experienced this level of generosity and hospitality anywhere else, and in the end it made this trip memorable for the right reasons.
Of course there were many other wonderful things about Calabria – some of the runners up would definitely be the region’s fabulous farmhouse bread, crusty and chewy and utterly different from one village to the next; the delicious gelato, in particular the tartufo, a hand-formed ball of chocolate and hazelnut gelato, rolled in cocoa and enclosing a center of oozing chocolate sauce (pictured freshly-made, above right); the wonderful local pasta varieties, such as fileja, chunky hand-rolled spirals (pictured below the paragraph on antipasti, on the left), and schiaffetoni, palm-sized squares containing fennel sausage, pecorino and tomatoes (photo above the paragraph on antipasti, on the right); the region’s wonderful cheeses, like the pungent pecorinos, fresh buffalo mozzarella (photo next to the schiaffetoni), the caciocavallo and provola (photo below the paragraph on landscape, on the left); and the beautiful towns along the Tyrrhenian (west) coast, in particular Tropea and Scilla (last photo below), both of which can rival anything in the Cinque Terre or Amalfi coast.
Though it’s been barely a week since I left, already I’m dreaming about going back, though next time with my bathing suit and an extra stomach or two to fit all that antipasti…
p.s. I hope you’ll check out the Italian supplement in the June issue of Food and Travel for the ‘official’ report.