The region of Calabria has always held great strategic importance. Laying between the Ionian an Tyrrhenian sea, Calabria has always been the target for foreign invaders wanting to gain a secure position, because of this Calabria has been the scene of many battles between many different conquerors. Throughout history the Calabrian people, without much resistance, accepted these invasions and assimilated their languages, customs, superstitions and, more importantly, their culinary traditions, even today in certain parts of Calabria farmers still profess to be able to read the future using the entrails of their freshly butchered pigs, just as the Etruscans once did. Even today Calabrians see to it that the formal Christmas and Epiphany dinners always consist of thirteen courses, no more - no less, and on St Roco's day (August 16th) Calabrians bake bread in the shape of an ailing body parts they may have and it is said that it will heal, without any medical intervention. Until fairly recently in parts of Calabria while women are kneading leavened bread dough they are required to dance and shout incantations to scare away evil spirits.
Some Calabrian customs deviate quite a lot from the customs of the rest of Italy. Throughout Italy breakfast usually consists of a sip of coffee or something light, Calabrian's however, prefer a cooked breakfast often in the company of friends and family. A Calabrian breakfast can be quite hardcore first thing in the morning - murseddu is a shell of leavened bread, the soft dough moved then mixed with entrails, liver, pancetta, salt pork, and salami served with a hot chilli sauce. Some softer stomached Calabrians eat a brioche filled with ice cream. For those Calabrians on the way to to work can enjoy arrancini (rice balls) and panzerotti (folded pizza), fritters, pizza and stuffed focaccia are available throughout the regions streets.
Aubergines came to Calabria with the Arabs who conquered it many years ago. Aubergines are not generally grown in northern Italy, as the climate is too cool and any aubergines that do grow tend to be quite flavourless. The Calabrians however, grown excellent aubergines, mainly due to the blistering Calabrian sun, which are known for their fragrant flavour. There are many different varieties of aubergine successfully grown in Calabria - Asmara, Nubia, Larga Morada, slim Jim, Black Beauty, Violette, and the enormous "Montruosa di New York". Up until the end of the nineteenth century, aubergines where looked at with suspicion and were considered indigestible and were accused of all kinds of sins. Many people believed that they caused indigestion madness and psychic disorders. The popular interpretation of their name melanzane or mele insane means crazy apple in Italian which speaks volumes about their reputation. But it took the obstinate Calabrians to keep using aubergines for centuries for them to become accepted by the rest of Italy.
One of the Calabrians favourite aubergine dishes has now become one of the most iconic aubergine dishes in all Italy. Melanzane Parmigiana, which despite its name was not invented or prepared in Parma. The dish is actually named after the Parmesan cheese that is sprinkled over the fried aubergine. Parmesan was brought from the north by the Cistercian monks, they made their own cheese according to the northern recipe they brought with them.
In addition to aubergine, fava beans are used a great deal in Calabria, along with broad beans and white beans. They are eaten mainly in winter, during the cold season, as a sauce of protein. Calabrians believe one protein on a plate is sufficient, so beans and meat are rarely cooked in the same dish. Beans are cooked with tomatoes, celery, chicory, olive oil, cabbage and potatoes. Most bean dishes in Calabria start with the beans being marinated with spices for twenty four hours before being cooked a culinary tradition that can be traced back in the region to Roman times.
The main source of protein in the Calabrian diets comes from fish. As one of the few regions having access to two seas, Calabrian fishermen are spoilt for choice and can afford to choose where and when the fish are biting best, and where there are fewer storms. Swordfish fishing is one of Calabria's most important economies. Swordfish have been fished from the ports of Pizzo, Palmi and Scylla for over a thousand years. Throughout the year sardines and herrings are fished between Scylla and Charybdis, but in May and June in the Gulf of Saint' Eufemia all the areas fisherman join together for their most important season of the year, the arrival of the swordfish. Good swordfish may reach a length of four metres but as a rule most customers pay the fishermen in advance and wait patiently on the shore for the fishermen's return with their catch.
Each year, in Bagnara Calabra there is a swordfish festival held on the first Sunday in July. As an indication of the importance of these fish to the area, according to the last census out of the eleven thousand people in the area two thousand were professional fisherman. The swordfish festival attracts crowds of tourists from all over Calabria and neighbouring Sicily. During the festival a priest bless the ontre, the traditional swordfish fishing boats of the region, and the fishermen themselves. The feast day itself takes place when the schools of swordfish that swim towards the warmer waters of the Calabrian coast, where they deposit their eggs, must pass through the Strait of Messina.
Antonio Mongitore, a Sicilian historian from the eighteenth century, authorised a tailed study into the rituals of swordfish fishing.
" In the centre of the ontre, or boat, stands a twenty foot mast complete with an observation tower where the ships boy would stand and post lookout for their prey. Two large harpoons are tied to around a hundred foot of rope. From the lookout, the ships boy shouts and the hunt begins. The swordfish are mating now, so often fisherman catch two swordfish at a time. The best strategy is to harpoon the female first, as the male will not abandon her, so he too, becomes easy prey".
In Bagnara Calabra, on the day of the festival, a fire is lit in the main square, the piazza Marconi. Pennette pasta is cooked with a sauce made from Scozzetta, the flesh found under the neck of te swordfish. The fisherman eat the most tasty parts, the fin, on the boats whilst turning from fishing. In the piazza, slices of swordfish are grilled and the regions famous fresh swordfish roulades are served. Swordfish here are cooked in tomato sauce ghiotta-style (in a pan) or in salmoriglio (marinated in olive oil, garlic, salt, oregano, capers and parsley, then grilled).
The Wines Of Calabria
Calabria is the home of the Gaglioppo grape, otherwise known as Montonico Nero. The deep, dark, tannin rich, full-bodied red wines produced from this variety are much loved throughout the region, but in terms of quality form the basis of most DOC wines in Calabria, either as single variatel wines or often blended. As a wine region Calabria has some 71,630 acres of vine planted, around a quarter of the total vineyards of Germany, but despite all this Calabria does not play a significant role in the global wine market (click here to find out more about The Wines Of Calabria ).
Typical Dishes Of Calabria
Mustica - baby anchovies in oil.
Sun-dried sardines fried with chilli sauce and preserved in oil, wine vinegar and herbs.
Minestra maritata - soup containing both herbs, vegetables and meat.
Macaroni alla pastora - shepherdess-style pasta topped with ricotta.
Licurdia - onion soup with chilli.
Lasagne chine - lasagne layered with meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, Scarmoza, Mozarella, grated Pecorino and a sauce made from artichokes and peas.
Pitta - local variant of pizza.
Pitta chicculiata - pizza with fresh tomato sauce, oil and chilli.
Pitta maniata - "calzone like" folded pitta stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, ricotta, Provola, soppressata (salami), and the usual chilli.
Stuffed kid - kid goat boned and rolled with vermicelli and a ragu sauce made from the kids intestine, baked in the oven with salt pork and herbs.
Jujume - sea anemones fritters.
Involtini di melanzane - slices of aubergine wrapped around a filling of garlic, pancetta, parsley, cheese and soft bread with pitted olives, anchovies, garlic and oil.
Morseddu - a pie made from entrails, tripe, heart, lungs and spleen with red wine, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
Tiana - lamb baked with potatoes in a clay pot.
Mazzacrde - sausage of lamb intestine.
Swordfish alla ghiotta - swordfish in a tomato sauce..
Calabrian-style Tuna - roasted with capers.
Alalunga - tuna in a sweet-and-sour sauce.
Mostaccioli - sweet pastry with honey.