A Food-Inspired Guide to Calabria, Italy

I would like to thank Dreams Abroad for giving me the opportunity to introduce Italian culinary arts and some typical products of my homeland to a wider audience. Continuing with the theme, I thought it would be interesting for our readers if I answered questions about my native Calabria, Italy.

Many famously liken Italy to a boot thanks to its distinctive shape. So what part of the stivale does Calabria, Italy lie near?

You’re right, the whole of Italy does look like a thigh-high boot. However, my creative imagination has always viewed my home country as a leg, foot, and shoe. The leg represents almost all of Italy up to the Basilicata region, which borders the north of Calabria, Italy. Southernmost Sicily represents the shoe. Finally, that beautiful foot, together with the heel and ankle, is nothing else but my sublime Calabria.

A photo of the Calabria region on a map of Italy-Calbria Italy

What sets Calabria, Italy apart from the other regions in Italy?

With 780 kilometers of coastline, Calabria is the only peninsular region in Italy with more territory bathed by the sea. Among the very few peninsular Italian regions, two different stretches of water nestle Calabria; the Ionian Sea to the east and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.

Calabria, Italy has 630,000 hectares of mountains, making it the fifth-highest Italian region. Furthermore, scarce industrial and housing developments mean Calabria is one of the best-preserved parts of Italy, making it one of the best examples of Italy’s natural beauty. It is no coincidence that Calabria is rich in large national parks, such as Aspromonte National Park, which has incredible sea views from its plentiful mountains. Another national park is the Sila National Park, within which is the second-largest plateau in Europe. Yet another gorgeous example is the Pollino National Park with 192,000 hectares, making it Italy’s largest national park.

Among the Greeks and Romans’ most prosperous regions, Calabria is also rich in important archaeological sites. For example, the Bronzi di Riace, two life-size nude bronze warriors, are considered among the most beautiful classical Greek sculptures in the world. Following their discovery in 1972, they’re now housed in the nearby Museo Archeologico Nazionale Reggio Calabria.

From the coasts to the hinterland, ancient villages perched up high alongside medieval castles of Byzantine and Norman origin sprinkle the whole region. This gives you an idea of the various rulers my native Calabria has had throughout its long and glorious history. To conclude (as you would with the icing on the cake), did you know that the name Italia derives from Italoi? This is a term the Greeks used for the Vituli (or Viteli). The Viteli lived at the extreme tip of our peninsula near today’s Catanzaro, the regional capital.

A Panoramic View of Briatico, Calabria, Italy - Photo by scaturchio, Made Available by Flickr

Is there a specific character trait of the people who live there?

Yes, but let’s start with appearance. Many describe Southern Italians as traditional Mediterraneans. Typically olive in complexion with black hair and dark eyes, we’re of stocky build.

The Calabrian or Calabrese manages to be primitive and refined, patriarchal and adventurous, taciturn and thoughtful, selfish and generous, even capable of leaps towards the unknowable and the sky; prey to ferocious passions while simultaneously able to discuss philosophical questions or to argue with subtle and refined quibbles. Sometimes we’re humble and submissive, at other times proud, haughty, daring and arrogant. It’s said that to understand the Calabrians, you have to look at the landscape, the vegetation, the climate, the smells, and the flavors of the territory. Our true essence, the most authentic one, is intense and passionate. 

Nostalgic and traditionalist, individualistic and anarchic, the Calabrese has a strong sense of family, honor, and righteousness. Parents pass these values on to their children and descendants.

A Vendor Offers Prosciutto Samples at a Local Market in Calabria, Italy - Photo by Cristina Camilla, Made Available by Flickr

How do these traits impact food?

Religious traditions plus the cultural and culinary influences from Greeks and Romans have left an indelible mark on Calabria. The wide variety of food products and recipes reflects this mark.

Calabrian cuisine is an impoverished cuisine of peasant origin. Many dishes are strongly linked to religious celebrations. During Christmas and Epiphany, it is customary to put thirteen courses on the table. At Carnival, we eat macaroni, meatballs, and pork. Easter is celebrated with roasted lamb and cudduraci (a special cake prepared with Pasqua in mind). And so on for other holidays. We always celebrate every event in family life (weddings, baptisms, etc.) with a commemorative dinner or lunch. The ‘Nduja I mentioned in my previous article acts as an excellent spicy spread for bread and features prominently in many holidays.

Calabrian cuisine is not uniform in its provinces. You can find a few dishes throughout all five provinces. The likes of pasta ca muddica made with anchovies and breadcrumbs, eggplant parmigiana, and stockfish are prepared differently across the various territories.

Fresh Cheese for Sale at a Local Market in Calabria, Italy - Photo by Cristina Camilla, Made Available by Flickr

Calabria, Italy Staples

In Calabria, preserved foods are very important. For example, salted anchovies are a staple. Or, we put desalted anchovies in oil with chili for a quick snack. Processed pork such as ‘Nduja and Calabrian soppressata, cheeses, and vegetables cooked in oil and sprinkled with dried tomatoes helped locals survive in periods of famine and during long periods of siege by Saracen pirates.

Today, farmers harvest excellent agricultural products throughout Calabria’s farmlands. In the mountains, producers make many kinds of cheeses while viticulture grows in the valleys. Although the industry is in decline, we still maintain olive production. Calabrian recipes use a lot of vegetables, and fortunately, the territory is especially fertile. Eggplants reign supreme, but also tomatoes, peppers, red onions, lettuce, broccoli, and legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and broad beans are all Calabrian agricultural specialties.

A central role in Calabrian cuisine is occupied by bread, with attention to the preparation and ingredients. Equally important is traditional homemade pasta while chilies, which can vary in spiciness, frequent sauces, and main courses.

Cheeses and Pickled Vegetables for Sale at a Local Market in Calabria, Italy - Photo by Cristina Camilla, Made Available by Flickr

What are the most important products of the region?

Since there are so many, I will try to list only those that I think are the most important:

Oranges

In the period before the October Revolution, the court of the Russian tsars were fond of Belladonna oranges, or Ovals of St. Joseph. For this reason, they called them “oranges of the tsar.” These beautiful blondes grow in Reggio Calabria, Italy between the Gallico and Catona rivers’ valleys. In particular, they’re especially plentiful in the hamlet of Villa San Giuseppe. Italians appreciate them for their very sweet taste and lack of seeds.

Oranges Growing on a Tree - Calabria, Italy - Photo by Mark Mauno, Made Available by Flickr

Asparagus

The asparagus family has over 300 varieties: one of these is the wild asparagus of Calabria, or Asparagus acutifolius, which flourishes throughout the region. It’s particularly noticeable in Filadelfia, in the Cosenza province. It is here that the brackish sea meets the cold air. The hard earth of the mountains gives the local asparagus a bitter taste and a herbaceous scent incomparable with other varieties.

Bergamot

The first bergamot was planted near Reggio Calabria around 1750. From that moment on, Citrus bergamia almost became a symbol of the province. This rare fruit produces an essential oil used in the kitchen and in the cosmetics sector to make perfumes.

Many famous perfumes in the world use this bergamot. Eighty percent of the world’s bergamot comes from Calabria!

Freshly Picked Bergamot Fruit in a Basket - Calabria, Italy - Photo by Jacopo Werther, Made Available by Wikimedia

Licorice

Licorice grows spontaneously throughout the region and has allowed the development of a thriving local economy over the past centuries. The history of its cultivation is linked to that of the Calabrian estates and feudal families.

Calabrian licorice is a perennial herbaceous plant. Italians use it in its original form or transform into a juice. The juice acts as a digestive and detoxifying aid. The confectionery industry primarily uses its essence to prepare cakes, candies, and ice cream. In Rossano Calabro, Calabria is the only Italian museum dedicated to licorice, where tools are exhibited and history is reconstructed. This detailed recounting of the history of licorice is thanks above all to the Amarelli family’s manuscripts, who have produced liquirizia for almost four centuries.

Potatoes

There are different varieties of the Sila potato: Agria, Désirée, Ditta, Majestic, Marabel, and Nicola. The common feature of all the potatoes is that they have a higher percentage of starch than average (meaning they require longer cooking times). The extra starch makes them particularly tasty and nutritious. The added flavor is due to the growing region on the Silan plateau, located over 1,000 meters above sea level.

Freshly Picked Potatoes from the Farm - Calabria, Italy - Photo by Pexels from Freerange Stock

Calabrese chili

The Calabrese chili is considered by all of Italy the king of chilies. We’re talking spagnolicchio, diavolicchio, pipu, and pipi bruscenti. Thanks to its spicy and simultaneously aromatic flavor, it has become a fundamental ingredient for local cuisine, used both fresh and dry. Its organoleptic characteristics are due to the sandy soils it grows in as well as the climatic conditions. 

Calabrese chilies grow on sunny soils, where temperatures never drop below five degrees centigrade. The chiles are watered abundantly to have an ideal product at the time of harvest, which occurs between August and September. Used to both preserve food and add an extra kick, Calabrese chilies are one of the area’s characteristic products. The first written traces of chili production in Calabria dates back to 1635. Nowadays, there are many varieties such as the Soverato or Vulcan, Poinsettia, Hot Super Shepherd or Spicy Dog’s Nose, and Cherry Bomb or Cherry.

Belmonte Calabro

Coming from Belmonte Calabro, a town in the Cosenza province, an Italian emigrant who had returned from America imported the Belmonte Calabro tomato at the end of the 19th century. It is a large tomato that cannot grow anywhere else in Southern Italy. 

There are actually two varieties. The first is Cuore di bue, which is quite widespread throughout the region. It weighs between 400 and 800 grams and has an elongated shape that resembles a heart. The second type is called Giant and weighs between 700 grams and a kilo. Giant tomatoes can even reach two kilos while the vine can extend to three meters in height. It has an intense pink color but never turns red. The pulp, which has no acidity and has few seeds, is practically indistinguishable from the skin. Only use this tomato in salads to avoid losing its delicate flavor during the cooking process.

Via della Porta di Mare a Belmonte Calabro - Calabria, Italy - Photo by Edoardo Scialis, Made Available by Wikimedia

Salami

Whether or not black pig makes up the salami, it serves as a fundamental ingredient in Calabrian gastronomy, protected by the designation of origin. Although there is no definite recorded date, it is believed that this soppressata was first made in ancient Lucania and exported to neighboring regions by the Greeks more than three centuries ago.

The finest pork cuts are chosen to prepare the soppressata: shoulder and ham for the meat, the front part of the loin for the fat. The cuts are coarsely chopped and black pepper, fennel, salt, and chili, are added. Everything is stuffed into the pig’s large intestine. The mixture is covered with linen sheets and pressed for about a week to assume a cylindrical shape flattened at the sides. 

At this point, the drying phase takes place, which lasts about two weeks. It is customary to light a nearby brazier with lemon peel and oranges to lightly smoke the salami during those two weeks. The pressing is repeated and the soppressate are left for five to six months. Once matured, the soppressata has a spicy and intense flavor, with a bright red color. The Dop always covers other varieties on the market: the white soppressata, without pepper and chili, and the sweet soppressata, with either sugary red pepper or sweet peppers.

How highly regarded are the wines of Calabria, Italy?

The history of wine in Calabria has its roots in an ancient past during Magna Graecia, when the Greek colonists moved along the peninsula’s coasts and brought with them the vine. The grapevine was a gift of Dionysus and his noble fruit, gaglioppo, is one of the most representative vines of Calabrian viticulture. Gaglioppo dates back to the eighth century B.C.E. and was imported by the Greeks along the Ionian coasts.

Thanks, above all, to the potential of an extremely varied territory in terms of geomorphology and microclimate, Calabria gave rise to rare, precious, and unique wines. Between the snow-capped peaks of the Pollino Massif in the Sila plateau, the Aspromonte mountains, and the long Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts surrounding the region, there are many wine varietals that find themselves at home in the region.

Characterized by a clear prevalence of black-berried grapes, this panorama makes up to 75% of the entire production. Magliocco and Gaglioppo are undoubtedly the most representative black-grape varieties of today’s Calabrian viticulture.

You’ll find the best vineyards in the Cirò area, one of the most well-known wine-producing regions. For centuries, viticulture has thrived here. Its grapes ripen during the first ten days of October. This vine has few anthocyanins. This translates into a mild color distinguished by a clean palate and fresh taste.

A Wine Tasting at the Vineyard - Calabria, Italy - Photo by Udo Schröter, Made Available by Flickr

On a scale of one to ten, how hot is a Calabrian chili pepper?

Certainly, the Calabrian chili will never be able to match the SU (Scoville Unit, a measurement of how spicy a pepper is) achieved by the Cayenne pepper, the orange Habanero, or the Red Savina Habanero, which has an SU of 400,000 and is considered the hottest chili pepper in the world. However, considering that the Italian chili pepper has about 5,000 SU, while the Calabrian peppers are around 15,000 SU, we can safely say that the Calabrian pepper is the most piquant one harvested on Italian soil. So, on a scale of one to ten, we could easily ascribe it a value of seven.

Hanging Calabrian Chilis - Calabria, Italy - Photo Provided by PxHere

What is the region’s signature dish?

Because five provinces make up the region, there is no regional dish. Each of these provinces produces different traditional dishes. However, there is an appetizer which, for some reason, blends all of the provinces together in a harmonious and delicious explosion of flavors. It is the famous Calabrese Antipasto.

How do you prepare it?

As explained above, the Calabrian people have dedicated themselves since ancient times to the preparation of preserves. Poverty led people to be provident in the sense that everyone tried to keep their pantries fully stocked by conserving seasonal agricultural products through traditional procedures handed down by peasant wisdom. They dried vegetables in the sun and then put in oil or vinegar. Meanwhile, they preserved pork in lard. How ingenious in a time when there were no refrigerators and freezers!

Today, our appetizers mostly consist of eggplant or mushrooms in olive oil, green and black olives, different types of cheese, capocollo, soppressata, and other various cured meats. In short, more than an appetizer, Calabrese Antipasto is a rich and appetizing single dish, capable of satisfying the most demanding appetites.

A photo of homemade Calabrese Antipasto-Calabria Italy

Please share your recipe

INGREDIENTS:

  • Capocollo or any cured raw ham
  • Guanciale (pig cheek)
  • Soppressata ( or substitute salami)
  • Goat cheese or caciotta
  • Fresh pecorino cheese with hot pepper
  • Sheep ricotta with grape mustard
  • Bruschetta with tomatoes, eggplant in oil, sardella and ’nduja
  • Eggplant rolls with onion jam
  • Black olives
  • Mushrooms in olive oil

DIRECTIONS:

You can prepare this simple recipe according to different variations. The main rule is to have at least a couple of cheeses, a duo of cold cuts, and some canned products in oil or vinegar.

If you can find the products listed above, all you have to do is thinly slice both the cheeses and the cold cuts and arrange them radially on a large serving dish.

In the center, place three or four different types of oil-based products. I highly recommend green olives, a few slices of roasted eggplants, and some mushrooms in oil (porcini mushrooms would be the best choice).

To finish this dish you will also need to prepare three or four bruschettas. You can do this using slices of wheat bread placed in the oven. Garnish the bruschetta with fresh cherry tomatoes cut into cubes, a sprinkling of oregano, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Buon Appetito!

a photo of salami and pickles-Calabria Italy

Before I leave you

I would like to sign off with a special video about my hometown, Catanzaro. The video was recently made through the artistic fusion and genius of two great professionals in the film industry, who are also my dear friends, Vittorio Sala and Andrea Mauro. Their creative agency, A|BOUT, produces professional videos for commercial and cultural projects.

I hope it will be to your liking 🙂

You can also follow them on Instagram.

A warm farewell to all, and see you again soon.

Cooking Italian Cuisine While Living in Thailand

Diego Ambrosio
Diego Ambrosio

Thirty-something Diego Ambrosio was born in Catanzaro, Italy, located in the southern part of the country. He is passionate about wild nature, cooking (especially Italian cuisine), singing, and playing different musical instruments like guitar, piano, and bass. Diego considers himself an extrovert and talkative person, but he also likes to listen to people.

While now living in Phuket, Thailand with his father and partner, Diego cooks on a regular basis. He enjoys mixing the local fresh ingredients and produce with his Italian recipes. In addition, he learned to create new fusion recipes that he enjoys just as much as his native dishes. Read on to find out more about his favorite southern Italian cuisine and his homemade Thai-Italian fusion.

What is your favorite Italian cuisine?

This is probably one of the hardest questions you can ask an Italian since they would immediately begin thinking of multiple answers. Why? Because there are so many favorite Italian dishes! If I really had to choose a dish by type, I think my first answer would be tortellini with cream, peas, and ham. The second would have to be parmigiana di melanzane with fried potatoes and peppers on the side. Finally, for dessert, tiramisu… all, obviously, homemade.

What is your Italian hometown’s signature dish?

‘NdujaAs in most countries, Italy has a rich list of excellent regional products. Many of these are even exported abroad, as they are delicious and appreciated by various European and non-European countries. Without a doubt, the best product from my region, Calabria, is ‘nduja. ‘Nduja is a particularly spicy, spreadable pork sausage typically made with pig parts such as the shoulder and belly. Producers combine the pork with tripe, roasted peppers, and a mixture of spices. ‘Nduja originates from the small southern Calabrese town of Spilinga. Italians mainly serve it with slices of bread or with ripe cheese. My hometown, Catanzaro, also has its signature dish. It’s called Morzeddhu alla Catanzarisi. This is prepared with tripe and beef offal, tomato paste, chilli pepper, salt, a bay leaf, and oregano.

Traditional Morzeddhu

Morzeddhu, a Calabrian staple

Morzeddhu must be eaten while hot, perhaps with a further splash of spicy sauce. It also must be eaten in the pitta, a typical Catanzaro bread shaped like a flattened donut and with little or no crumb inside.

According to legend, Morzello, or Morzeddhu in the local dialect, was born from that mother of invention, necessity. An impoverished widow was forced to accept odd jobs to support her hungry children. On Christmas Eve, her boss asked her to clean a slaughterhouse and dispose of the waste in the nearby river, Fiumarella.

Worried about what she would serve her hungry children for Christmas dinner, she saved the meat, cleaned it, and prepared a meat soup. And thus, Morzello was born.

What is the most famous Thai dish in Phuket, Thailand?

Without a doubt, Pad Thai is one of the country’s most iconic dishes and is easy to find all over Phuket. There are two main types of Pad Thai, Pad Thai Gai and Pad Thai Goong. Gai includes chicken and Goong, shrimp. Pad Thai is a stir-fried dish typically made with rice noodles, chicken or shrimp, tofu, scrambled egg, bean sprouts, and other vegetables. The ingredients are sautéed together in a wok, which creates rapid heat distribution. Once finished, chefs serve Pad Thai with peanuts, sugar, chili peppers, and a lime wedge on the side.

And just for the record… Pad Thai is my second favorite Thai dish. I prefer Pad See Ew which is similar but has a sweeter sauce.

Pad See Ew Goong

What types of Italian cuisine do you cook in Thailand?

When I arrived in Phuket, I thought it would have been impossible to reproduce typical Italian recipes at home for various reasons. The first challenge was surmounting the impossibility of finding all the authentic Italian ingredients. Next, we had to overcome the lack of an oven in the house. Ovens are critical for cooking different Italian dishes such as the famous Lasagne al Forno or pizza. Over time, we have fortunately managed to get almost everything we need to taste a bit of home. In fact, after a whole first year of researching, we managed to find a house that had a professional oven inside.

Homemade bread, a frequent Italian cuisine at Diego's house

Now, we can cook any type of Italian dish. In fact, we have become so accustomed to making Italian food at home that we’ve eaten out very few times. Both my father and I are able to prepare any type of Italian recipe — first courses, main courses, side dishes, and delicious desserts — that enrich our daily meals all the time. Finally, we also make our own homemade bread.

Where do you source Italian ingredients from?

Fortunately, it is not difficult to find Italian products in Thailand. There are various shopping centers and supermarkets like Makro and Villa Market, offering imported products. However, you have to be very careful when selecting your products. Everyone can easily find products of apparent Italian origin, but some of these  are actually not from Italy at all.

For example, an Italian knows very well that if he has to buy pasta, he can trust brands such as De Cecco, La Molisana, and Agnesi. All of these brands are available in Thailand, so we can avoid other little-known brands of dubious origin. The same goes for Italian mozzarella. Clearly the prices for authentic Italian products are higher than in Italy. For example, Italian fresh and aged cold cuts and cheeses cost at least 40% more. However, for some products (such as pasta), I can find similar prices to Italy.

If you were to pick a favorite Italian cuisine to make for us that you make on a regular basis, what would it be?

I practice making real Italian pizza for my loved ones frequently. Every two weeks, typically on a Saturday evening, we will get together and eat Italian pizza. My father is a great teacher, but I will obviously be his heir sooner or later and am determined to perfect it.

The preparation process has almost centennial origins, handed down from generation to generation. It has been perfected even more over time by generations of Italians.

The "Mother Yeast" Diego uses for Italian Cuisine
The Mother Yeast

The extraordinary thing is that my father created the so-called “mother yeast.” It is a natural yeast capable of regenerating itself eternally. It certainly has significantly improved the quality of the pizza. Additionally, you can vary the outcome by using different types of flour. Each flour has a specific protein intake capable of creating a unique gluten shield of its kind.

Spread the dough in round and rectangular trays. Follow that with a long process of rest, maturation, and fermentation for about three days in the fridge. At the end of this period, the pizzas are removed from the fridge, covered with a cloth, and left to rise for several hours. Finally, we move on to stuffing and baking. The oven must be at a maximum temperature of around 250 or 300 degrees Celsius. First, bake the pizzas on the bottom rack without ingredients in order to cook the bottom of the pizza. Then, add the ingredients. Put the pizza back into the oven. This time, put it on the top shelf to finish cooking.

Do you have to substitute the ingredients for the dish you are making with Thai ones? If so, what are the differences in ingredients that you see in Thailand vs Italy?

We managed to obtain all the Italian products we needed to make the pizza without having to resort to any Thai substitute. However, we have added a dose of creativity by trying to prepare some pizzas with typically Thai ingredients. For example, we made Tom Yam Goong Pizza. It is an Italian-made pizza with Thai seafood and Thai chili peppers.

While we were able to find all of the ingredients necessary to make the pizza, I can say that the Thai culinary culture is very rich in strong and contrasting flavors. Many of these flavors would seem absurd to mix together if cooking traditional Italian cuisines. This is because Thai food is actually based on a balance between different flavors, including spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.  Sometimes, chefs combine these flavors together. For example, the famous Thai dish Som Tam is both intensely savory and insanely sour — in short, the flavors of southeast Asia mixed on a plate. Every Som Tam dish normally contains garlic, chili, fish sauce, lime juice, and dried shrimp. All these flavors fit with the direction that Som Tam should “taste sweet, sour, hot, and salty.”

Do you get creative and make Thai-Italian dishes with both themes or cultures in the dishes?

My culinary passions obviously led me to the preparation of typical Thai dishes. My Thai girlfriend likes to say that one of the Thai dishes that I like to prepare, the famous Khao Pad Goong, “comes out better than the original.”

After studying and reproducing the original version of the dish, I dedicated myself to experimenting and mixing the two cultures. I managed to propose a unique and delicious Italian-Thai version of Khao Pad Goong.

I added some anchovies, dried tomatoes, sweet pepper, celery, and Italian parsley to the traditional recipe. Furthermore, I also replaced the classic rice oil with extra virgin olive oil instead. The result tastes fabulous and the multitude of flavors generated in the mouth tastes literally sublime.

What is your favorite Thai ingredient to mix with Italian food?

I think that soy sauce is a very interesting ingredient I discovered in Thailand. Chefs in Italy rarely use soy sauce in Italian cuisines. This type of sauce goes fabulously with fish dishes such as salmon. It also tastes wonderful when added to typical Italian salads with a Romaine lettuce base.

Diego is an extrovert and very sociable person but enjoys eating Italian cuisine while living in Thailand. He prefers making pizza for his family and friends. However, when he is not baking homemade pies, he recommends trying these three pizzerias in this order:

1) Pizzeria Da Moreno in Patong (probably the best ever, since it follows the authentic Neapolitan recipe)

2) Pizzeria Agli Amici in Chalong.

3) Trattoria Pizzeria Cosa Nostra in Chalong.

In his next article, Diego will share more about Italian cuisine. Be sure to stop by and check it out. To discover what other recipes Dreams Abroad members are learning about, read about Edgar’s experience making traditional paella!