Thursday, 5 September 2013

Tastes of Calabria

Every summer my Italian family take a trip down to the region of Calabria ie. the toe of the boot to visit relatives and never fail to return laden down with ingredients that you simply can't find here in Tuscany, or in the rest of the world for that matter. Last year they packed the car so full of food that my boyfriend's mother had to take the train back to Pisa as we couldn't fit her in the car! I am a huge fan of Calabrian flavours and was pleasantly surprised to see that they seem to have increased in popularity lately - last time I was in the UK I noticed that even Pizza Express now offers two Calabrian-style pizzas!

Today I thought I would talk you through some of my favourite Calabrian ingredients and tell you a little bit about what we do with them in our household.

So, the first thing I'll say is that a lot of the traditional Calabrian produce is famous for being quite hot as they tend to be quite liberal with the use of chillies, which is fine by me, but not everyone's cup of tea. For those who are a little chilli-shy, fear not, there are also plenty of equally tasty ingredients that have less of a kick.

Starting off with the spicy options, the Calabrian staple ingredient has got to be the Salsiccia Piccante, literally, Spicy Sausage. A lot like Chorizo in both appearance and concept, the salsiccia piccante has a less smokey and more peppery, perfumed taste thanks to the use of the Calabrian pepperoncino and fennel seeds. The quality of sausage can differ greatly so unless you're buying it directly from Calabria it's best to check that the packet has the D.O.P label to ensure that you're getting something authentic. The best Salsiccia Piccante I've ever tasted was some homemade by my boyfriend's aunt that she hangs up to dry in her loft in Calabria, but failing that, anything D.O.P. approved should be decent. You can also find Salsiccia Dolce which is the same as the piccante but without the kick. The sausages can vary hugely in texture depending on when they've been made - I would recommend an older, harder sausage for just eating sliced on its own but a newer, softer one for cooking as you tend to get better results. Most of the time we eat the sausage on its own as an antipasto but it's also great on top of pizza, thrown in a tomato sauce or fried off with some potatoes.

The next ingredient on my list is the 'nduja (pronounced un-doo-ya) which is possibly the most successful ingredient to make it out of Calabria. For those of you who haven't tried it, 'nduja is essentially a spicy sausage paste which, on first glace, doesn't look so appealing but tastes wonderful. Again, there is a lot of variation in the types that you can find - some hotter, some milder, some thicker, some really quite runny. The ones that you find in the Calabrian delis tend to be thick and spicy but, again, a good tip is to go for something D.O.P. We eat ours simply stirred into pasta with some stracchino cheese or spread onto crostini for a tasty antipasto.

Ending the spicy line up we have the pepperoncino flakes themselves which form the base of many calabrian dishes as well as being a key ingredient in cured meats. Calabrian pepperoncino is in fact available in both piccante and dolce varieties meaning that those who love the deep peppery flavour of chilli but don't like the heat needn't miss out. These wonderful little chilli flakes are a welcome addition to any tomato based sauce that needs livening up as well as being used in dishes such as orechiette con cima di rapa, a fresh pasta dish with turnip tops. Being from Calabria, my boyfriend's father sprinkles them on pretty much everything!

Moving on to something a little less spicy, one of my favorites has got to be Soppressata dolce, a dry, cured meat similar to salsiccia. Soppressata, also known as Suppizzata in Calabrian dialect, is a wider, drier salame which slices into oblong shapes and often contains whole peppercorns. Like the salsiccia it is available both in piccante and dolce varieties but tends not to have the fiery red colour of the spicy sausage. Due to its very dry consistency, Soppressata is not normally used for cooking with but is simply eaten as an antipasto or as a snack to accompany an aperitivo.

Finally, I wanted to talk about cheese. Calabria produces many fantastic cheeses such as Caciocavallo Silano and Caprino della Limina, however ,my favourite has got to be the Burrino Calabrese, a mild, cylindrical cheese with a salty butter centre. Again, this beautifully rich and creamy cheese is best enjoyed as an antipasto or snack on some fresh crusty bread or even on its own. Sadly, this summer our Burrino didn't fare so well since the buttery centre melted during the 10 hour drive back to Pisa so we've ended up with a ghee-like filling in our cheese! A non-melted version should look something like this:

1 comment:

  1. That cheese looks and sounds gorgeous! I used to love it when my ex boss went to Rome and came back with goodies for the kitchen.