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« Buckwheat Takes the Cake | Main | The Little Black Dress of Dinner »
Sunday
Mar092008

5 Things to Love about Calabria

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My article deadline is looming, but I wanted to share a few impressions of Calabria while they're still fresh. I don't normally have the opportunity to take photos on assignment, but for the first time I wasn't traveling with a photographer and so didn't feel completely ridiculous whipping out my own camera! A few words about the place: Calabria, in case you don't know, is the region at the 'toe' of the Italian boot and was historically one of the poorest regions of Italy. Today it's most famous for two things - one, for being the ancestral home of millions of immigrants abroad, particularly in North America, and two, for the 'Ndrangeta, one of the richest and most ruthless mafias in the world. If you ask me, though, what it should rather be famous for is being a friendly, beautiful, fascinating and extremely delicious land - and one I would not hesitate to return to in a heartbeat.

In no particular order, here are five of the things I loved most.

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1. Peperoncino
I'll never forget the long-ago night I served my Spanish host family a Mexican dinner. They took one bite of the canned refried beans - which to me tasted like they had possibly been shown a jalapeño pepper from across the room - and pushed their plates away, declaring it far too spicy to eat. That experience, combined with the fact that nowhere else around the Mediterranean (including Morocco) have I ever tasted any truly spicy food, led me to assume that hot peppers are simply not grown/eaten/favored in this part of the world. That assumption was smashed to smithereens, however, in the time it took me to take my first bite of food in Calabria. If there is one thing that makes Calabrian food Calabrian, it is spicy red peppers, and oh my, they are hot. And they're in everything: the salami, the sausage, the vegetables, the pasta, the fritters. They make a starring appearance in the ubiquitous Calabrian pork paté called 'nduja (pronounced in-DOO-ya), which in some versions is like a coarse meat paste with peppers, and in others, a devilishly hot pepper spread with a only a suggestion of pork. And worry not - if, by some slim chance, you happen to be served something in a restaurant that is not quite up to your heat tolerance, just ask for the pepper sauce - they always have a jar of it standing around somewhere.

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2. Antipasti
I know, I know, antipasti are found all over Italy. But no one, at least in my experience, does it quite like the Calabrians. You see, Calabrians seem to operate under the belief that the best way to prime your stomach for the subsequent onslaught of pasta, vegetables, meat and dessert is not to ease into a meal with a few palate-tickling bites, but rather to launch a full digestive assault as soon as you sit down. Take a look at the photo second from top, left, and the buffet below, right, to get an idea of the scale of the indulgence; a typical antipasti plate at most of the meals I ate consisted of various prosciuttos, salamis and cheeses, a slice of frittata or two, some stuffed and/or marinated vegetables, bruschetta with 'nduja and perhaps another spread, a couple of vegetable or fish fritters, and some olives. For each person. There's a reason my pants aren't fitting so well anymore.

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3. Bergamot
If you like Earl Grey tea, you probably know that bergamot is responsible for that sweet, citrusy fragrance. But do you know what bergamot actually is? I sure didn't, but I do now: bergamot is a citrus fruit, a hybrid of the pear lemon and the seville orange. Larger and rounder than a lemon, it is cultivated predominantly for its essential oil, which has a floral, bittersweet fragrance I really fell in love with. Around Reggio Calabria, at the very tip of the boot, the world's only major bergamot crop is cultivated, and here you can find just about everything flavored with the elusive fruit. I tried bergamot candies, bergamot marmalade, bergamot liqueur, bergamot custard, bergamot nougat and bergamot chocolate, and I have to say, I think bergamot is the next 'it' citrus variety. Heck, I'm ready to start importing it myself, if just to have a constant personal supply.

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4. The Landscape
When you think of the very south of Italy, what do you imagine? I imagined a dry, sun-baked land, rocky and barren with very little growing. I certainly didn't picture the reality of Calabria, which is 800 km of stunning, mostly undeveloped coastline surrounding a green and mountainous interior, full of citrus and olive plantations, vast chestnut and pine forests, isolated windswept plateaus, and a patchwork of verdant national parks. And that sea, just look at the color - Calabria has some of the cleanest and clearest in the Mediterranean. Too bad it was still too cold to swim, or so they told me - not having brought my bathing suit I didn't have the chance to put that to the test!

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5. The people
I know saying 'the people' is pretty clichéd, but I have good reason to say it. You see, I experienced a frightening level of incompetence and disorganization at the hands of the Italian tourist board on this trip, who were in charge of coordinating my itinerary and making my arrangements. For part of my trip they stuck me on a bus with a group of Eastern European tour operators, and all I saw (apart from the inside of the bus) was a succession of package-holiday resort complexes. When I did manage to get private guides, oftentimes the ones provided weren't guides at all, and/or didn't speak a word of English. The tourist board aside, however, everybody I met in Calabria was absolutely wonderful, and more importantly, took it upon themselves to help me out in whatever way they could. There were people willing to drop everything at a moment's notice and drive me hundreds of kilometers around Calabria when they heard about my tour-group nightmare, and one of the tour group's translators, a lovely girl called Alessandra, volunteered to stay with me and translate privately for the rest of my trip not even knowing if she would get paid for it (she did, thankfully). And that's the kind of attitude I found from many people; because inefficiency and disorganization are facts of life in southern Italy, people have a highly-developed sense of personal responsibility - since they can't rely on the system, they have to rely on each other. I don't think I've experienced this level of generosity and hospitality anywhere else, and in the end it made this trip memorable for the right reasons.

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Of course there were many other wonderful things about Calabria - some of the runners up would definitely be the region's fabulous farmhouse bread, crusty and chewy and utterly different from one village to the next; the delicious gelato, in particular the tartufo, a hand-formed ball of chocolate and hazelnut gelato, rolled in cocoa and enclosing a center of oozing chocolate sauce (pictured freshly-made, above right); the wonderful local pasta varieties, such as fileja, chunky hand-rolled spirals (pictured below the paragraph on antipasti, on the left), and schiaffetoni, palm-sized squares containing fennel sausage, pecorino and tomatoes (photo above the paragraph on antipasti, on the right); the region's wonderful cheeses, like the pungent pecorinos, fresh buffalo mozzarella (photo next to the schiaffetoni), the caciocavallo and provola (photo below the paragraph on landscape, on the left); and the beautiful towns along the Tyrrhenian (west) coast, in particular Tropea and Scilla (last photo below), both of which can rival anything in the Cinque Terre or Amalfi coast.

Though it's been barely a week since I left, already I'm dreaming about going back, though next time with my bathing suit and an extra stomach or two to fit all that antipasti...

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p.s. I hope you'll check out the Italian supplement in the June issue of Food and Travel for the 'official' report. :)

 

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Reader Comments (55)

Wow, great pics! nice job, makes me want to book a trip instantly :)
regards,

alex

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlexis

Great post, I would love to go there! Thanks for sharing.

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKalyn

Lovely photo essay & great stories too (as always). Glad you 'got off the bus' and met some of the locals ; )

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Thank you, thank you for this wonderful post. You put a lot of time into it and I thoroughly enjoyed the photos and the stories. Bello!

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertheitaliandish

*sigh* If only I was there too enjoying gelati, and the landscape.

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMireille

loved the photos and this post!

March 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkat

You are gorgeous! Love the way your visual mind works!! Thank you for this mini vacation!!!!!!!

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSusana

stunning photos as always! italy is so enchanting, isnt it? you really captured it well! bravo

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRiana

uauu, che fame!
Quelle merveille!!!!

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlory

wow melissa, u really dont need to bring a photographer anymore! the photos r so beautiful.

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commentergoogs

What a lovely journey you've had (and wonderful write-up)! I haven't been to Calabria, but I've been twice to the neighbouring Basilicata (Acquafredda di Maratea, to be more precise), and I've had the pleasure of trying their peperoncino on several occasions and in several disguises :)
I'll make sure to keep my eyes open for the F&T - and congrats on another assignment, of course!

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPille

I totally agree with the above comment: You do not need a photographer. Calabria looks like a magical place and it is so close to me (Turkey)! I am sending this post to my travel circle and I am sure we will be lying on that beach this summer. Thanks for sharing!

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCenk

beautiful, beautiful photographs! Thank you for sharing with us and all that charcuterie and gelato are making my mouth water right now. Enjoy your trip!

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAran

mmmmm, bergamot is one of my favourite flavours. Ever, and yet I didn't know that it was a citrus fruit! I really didn't imagine it that way, that's really fascinating.

March 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

lovely--thanks yet again, Melissa

March 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentera.j. kinik

what a dream of an assignment. i think i've just decided where i'd like to go on holiday next.

March 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMari

Lovely post, I've heard Calabria is the best place in Italy to eat good food... will really need to visit one of these days! Also- bergamot... DIVINE!! I absolutely adore that stuff!!

March 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMariannaF

unbelievable. I suspect that if my mother were to see the pictures of the ocean, she'd die of envy.

As for me, mmmm.. it seems like a great place for food, not so much for organized travel. Unless you organize it all yourself, of course! :)
Mentioning Italy, I am planning a week-long trip to Turin on the last week of May. I would love to meet some local food lovers there, find a lovely open-air market if such a market takes place, make new friends, and in general get a "taste" of the city.
Salsa dancers and music lovers also welcome to contact me. I'm passionate about getting to know the local food, especially street food. I'm a little too broke and adventurous for upscale restaurants. ;-)

March 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMalka Lev Adom

apparently my last reply doesn't show my e-mail address.(although I've added it).. if you'd like, please write to me at malka_lev_adom@hotmail.com.
Sorry for the double post...

March 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMalka Lev Adom

This post is fantastic! Your photos are gorgeous and made my stomach growl with hunger. Wonderful stuff!

March 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNot Scarlett

Fantastic evocative pictures!
What I would give to smell bergamot right from the tree.

March 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNorlinda

What an incredible place! Your photos completely captured the essence of it. They are stunning! You really brought Calabria to life for me.

March 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStickyGooeyCreamyChewy

Stunning photographs and write up!!! I really missed Mediterranean countries :'-( Thank you for the post... Calabria definitely in my next travelling itinerary for sure!

March 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphoena

Yes yes! Come back to Calabria! And this time come to my village!

This is a *fabulous* tribute to my beloved region, Melissa; I literally teared up at how beautifully you captured la bella Calabria :)

March 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbleeding espresso

P.S. I should add that I will hope for better phone connections next time...still not sure why not even a message would get out to you :(

March 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbleeding espresso

What a seriously fun sounding trip! And your photos capture the feel of the place so beautifully :)

March 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRic

What a wonderful reporting, with great photos. My parents were there and also loved the place. I want to go on holidays now! ;) Thank you for this superb blog.

March 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarole (France)

hi there, long time reader first time commenter
:)

i just wanted to give you some mad props and let you know that i started a new blog called http://barredowl.wordpress.com
where i will be posting about food and birds and restaurants and other fun stuff!

i put you on my blogroll because i'm a huge fan!

peace,
owl

March 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbarred owl

Beautiful photos... I know Calabria is beautiful but I have never been there, can you imagine? I am from Italy. There are so many place to see in Italy and it takes time but I definitely have to go.
Ciao.

March 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterOrchidea

I think in Italy when you say "Calabria" everybody would immediately think of the beautiful sea, the beach and the warm weather... not mafia. Interesting to know what people abroad think.
Ciao.

March 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterOrchidea

I want to devour every single picture. Including the beaches. Report back soon!

March 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie Pariseau

Hi,
Wanted to email you, but could not locate your email address on the
blog. we have 2 cool widgets ( a slideshow widget and a content widget
) which can help enhance site interaction and reader's experience. pl
contact me at saibose@gmail.com to know more.

thx-Saikat

March 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSaikat Bose

Magnifiques photos… très beau reportage… je ne connais pas la Calabre maintenant j'ai très envie d'y aller…

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterb comme bon

Wonderful post. Oh, wonderful.

I had four days in Lombardy on business last November and I plan on never getting over it. Lovely landscape, lovely food, wonderful people. Thanks for confirming my guess that the rest of the country is like that, too.

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJuti

I cannot say what exactly it is about the photos that makes them so stunning, but they are. As I read down through the article (wonderfully written as always!) I found myself seriously choking up with homesickness, and I'm not from anywhere NEAR Italy. What a lovely place.

March 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElleD

you're killing me with these pictures! i'm from puglia, calabria's neighbor to the east, and i miss it so much! your photos are gorgeous.

I'm Italian and I want to thank you for this wonderful tribute to Calabria region, this is the true Italy.
Love Chocolat of Cookinginrome

March 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterchocolat

What adorable color of the water! Reading your blog and watching photos i started to imagine myself resting on a beach, traveling through small cosy streets, meeting people,besides i love european food culture. i would like to try bergamot :)

March 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBri

Hey! I haven't been by in a while and I've missed you and your blog!

March 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersteamy kitchen

Once again I'm shamefully late in responding here, but I just wanted to thank you all for such lovely comments! Calabria was such a magical place, the perfect antidote to this seemingly never-ending winter, and I'm glad I could share a little bit of that with you.

March 28, 2008 | Registered Commentermelissa

Wow nice pictures!!! Wanna tell me your camera model? External flash used?

April 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

Holy-smack this is a knocked-out-of-the-park post. Well done.

April 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

These images are so refreshing and authentic; I want to jump right in.
- Jessie -

April 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJessie Cacciola

What a fantastic post - you have sold me - booking my tickets! ;)

April 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDenise & Lenny


You and your photographs are stunning. I also love the way that you write. Thank you for the inspiration. I currently live and work as a teacher and photographer here in Seoul, South Korea and am contemplating moving to either Thailand or Italy. You've given me more reasons to move to Italy. Time will tell. I'm also thinking of embarking on a career in food photography as I darn near experienced complete bliss in eating Thai food in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Taking a cooking class on an organic farm in the country helps as well.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Now I will research Calabria.

Ciao!

Felicia
www.nearandfar.wordpress.com

April 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFelicia

I'm leaving for Calabria June 4th and staying at my friends' appartment in Diamante on the Coast (Diamante is where they have the pepper festival every Sept.) I'm very happy to see your post. My friends rent out their apt for holidays and it's in the old part of town check out their web site www.diamantevacanze.com. My husband & I are taking my 13 y/o daughter and a friend & we were looking for a less expensive place in Italy to go w/ 2 young teens. I knowthe beaches are beautiful there. Thanks, lauri.

May 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlauri h.

ooh yes I really like the new digs and the photos are stunning, I especially want to dive into that turquoise blue water and eat myself silly with delicious calabrian food.

May 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterfoodhoe

I love your description and feeling on Calabria and from what I know I think you've got it just right! I'm American born and raised in Italy. I remember travelling through Calabria as a kid in 1960 in our brand new Fiat 600 and it felt like going to another world. It is still remote, which is great because it feels like all of the rest of old Italy used to be until about the mid 1970s... I mean with women walking around with jugs of water balanced on the top of their heads, donkeys and sheep going through the village, lots of shepherds and goats, men dressed in dark suits gathering in the piazzas and all of that. It's still very much like that, and if you like mountaineering or beautiful warm water without huge crowds, this is the place. We loved the area around Diamante with its murals, old town, and beautiful coast. Check out our website for a photo gallery and some talk about interesting things to do, mostly around Diamante. I would love to talk to you about Calabria. Thanks for this article because it gives a great idea of what it's like there, something I've been attempting to do, also to help friends I have there that would like to see some international travel coming through.

John

May 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

Thank you for giving me more description of beautiful Calabria. I was told not that it was Mafia but full of hard headed (stubborn) Italians. I know this is not true by the wonderful blogs that are written about Calabria.

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLucy

Hello...
Congratulations for your blog...
Your make me feel I´m travel with you...
The photos are really wonderfull

Kisses from Spain

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHilda

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