Calabria is known for three things: fish, pork and eggplants (of all things!). The pork items in Calabria are outstanding, really. One of their best sausages is called 'nduja and it's made of lard, liver and pig feet spiced with chile and grilled. Yeah, not exactly on the Weight Watchers program. I'm telling you though, it's spectacular. Capocolla and soppressata are also two other sausages native to Calabria and I love them both! Capocollo is made with meat from the neck (where the name's from) and shoulder and it's seasoned with salt for eight days then soaked in red wine and pepper. Soppressata is made with lean pork meat, cut and mixed by hand. It's then seasoned with cumin, pepper, chile and red peppers.
Calabrians use a lot of the "poor" meat from the pig in attempts to be as economical as possible. A perfect example is a dish called morseddu which is a ragu made of boiled pig and calf liver, heart, tripe, lungs, sweetbreads and spleen which is cooked in tomato, herbs and chile. I know this sounds horrific but some of these organ meats are truly delicious. When you think of the history as well with people not being able to afford meat, it makes it somehow seem even better because you understand the real value of stewardship, in a way.
The most common fish in Calabria is swordfish. In fact, it's known as the "city of swordfish"! They use a lot of anchovies, sardines, pike and cod, as well. Three preparations are most popular for fish, in general: alla ghiotta (stewed with lemon, oil, capers, garlic and parsley), alla marinara (stewed with breadcrumbs, tomato, black olives, capers and chile) and alla riggitana (cooked with onion, white wine, bay leaves, capers and parsley). I think all three dishes sound incredible. Is there anything better than simple things like lemon or garlic? Mustica is a dish of baby anchovies preserved in salt and pressed with chile pepper and fennel seed. The paste is then served spread on homemade bread and drizzled with olive oil. It's considered the caviar of the poor and actually most often served for breakfast, of all things!
As mentioned, eggplant is the third most important thing in Calabria. It grows well there due to the dry climate, high temperature and nearly calcium-free soil which is ideal because it helps prevent buildup of the fruit's bitter juices. Eggplant is originally from China but was brought to Italy by the Arabs in 1400. So crazy how that can be when the crop has become the most important thing in an area of Italy!
In Basilicata, farming and agriculture are the base of the economy. Olive oil is the key ingredient in everything and you'll find it present in all dishes. Unfortunately, Basilicata suffers an intrusive presence of neighboring regions because it's subjected to other influences and traditions. However, there are two universal specialties that Basilicata is known for: lucaniche and salumi. Back in the day, Roman soldiers forced inhabitants to pay taxes with sausages because they were made with only top quality meat. Interesting fact, eh? I'd gladly pay the government in sausages instead of money, that's for sure.
A very particular and AWESOME thing from Basilicata is peperoncino di denise which is red bell pepper that's mixed with chile and it's most often ground and dried. It's incredibly potent but the fragrance and taste are terrific. They season a ton of stuff with it throughout Basilicata.
Chef Gaetano Alia did our chef demo for the day and I was all kinds of happy that he brought some of these treats for us to taste! As we were being introduced, he was actually whipping up a red pepper jam to top some caciocavallo cheese he brought for us. Um, this is how I like to start the day off:
It was soooo good. It was sweet and tangy, perfect to compliment the cheese. It's really a good thing that stuff like this is only given to us in "taste" form because I'd eat my weight in it.
I was also really intrigued by mustica when we studied it so I was psyched that he brought some freshly made for us to try:
You actually see the eyes and everything, eeek. It's very, very potent but absolutely delicious. I can't say I'd want to wake up and eat it for breakfast but I'd gladly sit outside midday and sip a strong white wine along with it for a snack.
The third thing we got to try was the 'nduja and I looooooved it:
The orange slice on top made it even better. The acid cut through the richness of the sausage without interfering with any of its flavor. It was very spicy and so delicious!
The defining moment of the demo for me was when Chef Gaetano pulled out this sucker:
Whaaaaat? This is a fish called pesce spatola and it's in the swordfish family, of all things! How creepy looking is that thing?! They swim very far down in the ocean which is why their eyes are so big. I have never in my life seen a fish like that. Once again, it keeps right in line with the uniqueness of fish in Italy…
The chef also brought candele pasta for us to try which is super thick and long. You break it by hand before cooking so it has this nice, rustic appeal to it. He cooked it with a very simple sauce made out of the 'nduja and I died and went to heaven:
The spiciness was so perfect! I'm telling you folks, I'm digging me some Calabria and Basilicata. The next time I travel in Italy for fun, it'll definitely be a trip planned by region. I can't wait to one day explore so much more of this country! I think I'll need to run another marathon just before so I properly plan for all of the calories I'll ingest daily. That's my kind of livin'.