If Italy is a boot (in shape), then Calabria is the toe. This Southern Italian region is famous for its spicy and robust cuisine, emphasizing powerful ingredients like garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and red-hot chili peppers.
Only a narrow waterway separates Calabria from Sicily, which explains why their food histories are so closely intertwined. Their landscapes and crops are similar, and everything from architecture to cooking methods have been shaped by this area’s contact with conquering cultures. Arabic, French, Spanish and Greek cultures have left an imprint on the region’s traditions.
Calabria’s landholdings stand apart from other regions in Italy, specifically because of the area’s quirky geographic characteristics. It is bordered on three sides by water: the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Gulf of Taranto and the Straits of Messina (separating Calabria from Sicily). But Calabria has much less traditional recreational coastline than one would expect, and has therefore escaped a great deal of the development and tourism seen along the rest of Italy’s extensive coastlines. Much of the coastline mimics the inland of Calabria, with rocky cliffs and mountains rising up sharply from the sea. Though there are small pockets of beaches here and there, most of the cities perch in the high ranges, away from the potential dangers and isolation of coastal living.
The abundance of local food festivals sheds light on how much delight Calabrians take in enjoying the fruits of their labors. While tomatoes and eggplants hold critical spots in many Calabrian dishes, local festivals give pride of place to other seemingly humble ingredients. The town of Diamante hosts a peperoncini festival in September. Caria celebrates the simple Sajuca bean in August. In July, Tropea spotlights its coveted red onions. Also in July, Bagnara signals the downhill run towards the end of the swordfish season with a festival celebrating the region’s staple fish.
With farmland sparse in Calabria, every viable plot is cultivated to its greatest advantage. Tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, artichokes, beans, onions, peppers, asparagus, melons, citrus fruits (particularly the arancia calabrese, also known as bergamot, an orange grown only in Calabria), grapes, olives, almonds, figs and mountain-loving herbs grow well in the area. Calabrians tend to focus on the high quality of their ingredients so that virtually everything picked from a garden is useable and worthy of praise.
Calabrians use the mountainous area covering most of the region to raise hill-loving pigs, goats and sheep, and comb the woods for chestnuts, acorns and wild mushrooms to add rustic flavors to their cooking. Adventurous fishermen have little trouble finding rich pockets of swordfish, cod and sardines, and shellfish are common in the forms of shrimp and lobster. The inland freshwater lakes and streams offer trout in abundance.
Because of Calabria’s hot and humid climate, Calabrians have made an art of food preservation. Oiling, salting, curing, curing and smoking have come to define much of Southern Italian cuisine. In particular, cured meats and sausages are a staple of Calabrian fair—in fact, they are sold right along side fresh produce. Local pancetta and many varieties of salumi—like Capicola Calabrese and Sopressata di Calabria—are well worth sampling alongside local breads and cheeses and accompanying Calabrian wines.
Breads, cheeses and pastas are all important to Calabrian cooking, though these staples of Italian cooking share their spotlights with heartier, meatier fare. Pane del pescatore (“fisherman’s bread”) is a local specialty rich with eggs and dried fruits. Focaccia and pitta breads are popular in the region, a strong tip of the hat to Greek and Arabic flatbread influences. Similarly, special pastries and dessert breads take on a Greek flavor with many being fried and dipped in honey. Cheeses lean towards the goat’s and/or sheep’s milk varieties, though cow’s milk cheeses are becoming more common. Sciungata (a sheep’s milk cheese similar to ricotta), ricotta calabrese (a ricotta with the addition of liberal milk and salt), butirro (a buttery cow’s milk cheese) and the prized caciocavallo silano (a cow’s milk cheese hung to dry, providing its signature teardrop shape) are just a few of the cheeses found on the Calabrian table. Calabrian pastas are hearty and varied, with the names of some of the more creative cuts like ricci di donna (or “curls of the lady”) and capieddi ‘e prieviti (or “hairs of the priest”) belying a whimsical spirit of the region’s people. Fusilli is a common pasta component in Calabrian dishes, as are scilateddri, lagane, cavateddri and maccheroni.
Wine is not produced in huge quantities in the region, though the small batches are exceptional in flavor and, like the bulk of Calabrian culture, heavily influenced by Greek influx. Ciró wines are produced by the same ancient varieties of grapes as wines produced in antiquity for local heroes of the Olympic games. The grapes are still grown primarily in the Cosenza province of Calabria, and Ciró wines are still an exercise in patience, with several varieties taking up to four years to reach maturity.