Green hills, blue water, bright sunshine and the occasional palm tree welcomed us to Calabria in late January. Reggio Calabria, where we landed, sits at the very toe of the Italian boot separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina and surrounded by the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas.
Apart from the millions of Calabrian immigrants and their descendants who come home to visit, and travellers passing through to catch the ferry to Sicily, this rugged region isn’t on the radar for most North Americans, which meant more good food for us!
Enthusiastic local guide Adolfo Rossi and trade analyst Iula Casale from ICE in Montreal ensured every day was delicious.
Reggio itself is constructed of thousands of functional beige apartment blocks creeping up the hills, interspersed with handsome shopping streets, stately white-washed government buildings, stairways and even an escalator to streets above and an exquisite basilica that never seemed quite open.
First stop, the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia to see the world-famous Riace bronzes. Forget Rodin and sorry, David, but the two larger-than-life (though perhaps a little small in one department) male soldiers cast around 450 BC and wrested from the sea near Riace in 1972 are breathtaking in their muscular beauty.
Dinner at Cantina della Suocera, or mother-in-law’s cellar, pulled out all the vegetable stops Calabria’s famous for. Host Michele assured us everything was local and homemade. We devoured a quiche-like torta with onions and zucchini, thin slices of zucchini sandwiched between ham and cheese, deep-fried eggplant croquettes, a mash of potatoes, chard and beans and soupy fava bean purée. On the meat side we tasted Calabria’s pride and joy, n’duja, the soft pork sausage meat blood-red with chiles. Served in a pig-shaped terracotta dish warmed by a tea light to accompany a mixed grill of pork sausage, beef and chicken sizzling on a hot stone.
For dessert, profiteroles blanketed with pastry cream scented with bergamotto. This fat yellow-green lemon releases an intense clementine smell as you grate its zest. The white pith beneath is nasty, and the juice isn’t sour but has a bitter edge. Though used in 80% of the world’s perfume, and many Calabrian jams, jellies and liqueurs, bergamots grow only in a 100-km stretch of southern Italy.
Of course we had to visit Reggio’s outdoor market, where everyone has a relative in Canada.
Stalls were piled with local produce, from Sicilian oranges and gorgeous ripe tomatoes to long-stemmed artichokes and plump violet eggplant.
Chef Filippo Cogliandro at the grand L’Accademia nearby cooked us a magnificent lunch of local ingredients (more bergamot!) and seafood.
On the first of several mystery day trips, Clare from Wales, John from Cape Cod and I travelled along the Violet Coast (named for its violet-coloured water) to the pretty tourist town of Scilla, famed for stone terraces covered with grape vines.
As we stood on a road above the town looking out at the sea and down a steep hillside laced with grape vines, agronomist Rosario Previtera pointed out the skinny monorail, one of the few left in Italy, running parallel to the rows of vines to transport pickers and their harvest up and down the hill. He then invited us to take a seat in one of the rickety-looking metal wagons that run along the rail. With great trepidation we climbed in facing one another, feet touching, and off we went. It was like being on a slow rollercoaster propelled by a lawn mower engine, passing rows of red grapes including malvasia and nerello, blended in the famous Armacia wine, interspersed with lemon and orange trees and rows of fennel and lettuce.
Scilla, home of the sea monster Scylla of Greek mythology, appears to be thrust into the sea by mountains in the background with a fortress overlooking the beach. At Casa Vela, a B&B and wine shop, owners Francesca and Francesco greeted us with local wines and a long olivewood board laden with Calabrese cheese, cured meats and condiments. We tasted smoked and fresh ricotta, fresh and aged pecorino, chunks of grana padano, goat cheese, the best capacollo ever, thin wedges of candied citron, bergamot-flavoured honey to dab on the cheese, toasted bread spread with clementine/licorice jam, shall I continue?
Back on the bus we drove through tunnels carved into mountains and emerged in a rare flat plain dotted with century-old olive trees. Calabria is Italy’s second-largest olive oil producer after Puglia, with 10 million trees. In the 1700s and 1800s the oil was so cheap and plentiful it was used as lamp oil to light up cities as far away as Russia. Techniques and cultivation methods have improved greatly since. In fact I paid $35 in Toronto for a bottle of oil from Olearia San Giorgio, the same factory we visited. I can still smell the olives as we walked through the factory door, though the season was just ending. The Fazelli family has owned the Olearia since the 1940s and now exports their extra virgin oil around the world.
As we continued to CittaNova to lunch on Norwegian salted cod, a local specialty with a long history, we passed orange groves and trellised vines dotted with green and yellow kiwis, which Calabria began growing in 1983. Their newest crop is organic goji berries!
We also stopped at another factory important to the local economy, preserved vegetables and fruit. In the backyard our guide showed us the tall orange and black plastic barrels filled with vegetables, from beautiful long red peppers to eggplant left for 90 days to steep in salt and white wine vinegar. Inside we sampled preserved local olives, sun-dried tomatoes and sliced sweet red Tropea onions, which turn pink when preserved and are recommended with cheese. To make bergamot jam, the peel is boiled with lemon, orange juice and sugar.
My new favourite expression is Scappiamo! Let’s go quickly!
Dusk was falling and the sky pink as we headed back to Reggio. I realized the long charcoal smudge stretching over the strait of Messina wasn’t a cloud at all, but smoke emanating from snow-capped Mount Etna.
At dinner, a walk from the hotel, we joined Italian exporters from Canada, the US, Britain, Austria and Germany for another dinner of delicious small plates and homemade pasta. The vegetable custard called sformato, penne with rapini, thick vegetable soup with porcini mushrooms, soft meatballs made of suino nero, Calabria’s black pig, cooked in a rich, acidic tomato sauce. And the best stew ever of meltingly tender pork simmered for eight hours in red wine and finished with a drizzle of green olive oil.
The following day we passed Dr. Suess hills to reach the Tramontana winery. Almond trees bursting with pale pink blossoms lined the entrance. On to Agritourismo Constantin, which grows its own vegetables, grain for bread and olives for its organic olive oil. The fourth generation owner said the oil should smell like fresh-cut grass when you open the bottle. She offered yet another buffet of fabulous vegetable dishes: pumpkin and borlotti bean soup, roasted cauliflower in cream sauce, sautéd dandelion and rapini. And always cheese, fresh goat cheese and spiced pecorino. For dessert, sliced orange rounds sprinkled with good chocolate.
Back on the bus to Cosenza, past signs announcing Direction Lamezia Terme, Catanzaro, Crotone as cellphones rang with business calls: “Siamo (We are)in autobus! Siamo in Calabria!”
From the highway there were few signs of life apart from the occasional hilltop town in the distance. Mountains rose from the ever-present sea, rugged and rocky. Early on I caught occasional glimpses of sandy beaches – Calabria has 800 km of coastline – where tourists congregate in summer. Closer to Cosenza we stared down into deep valleys connected by bridges on stilts, and drove under mountains through countless tunnels.
It was nearly dark and getting colder when we arrived in the sprawling metropolis of Cosenza, full of life and pizza shops. I was desperate to see the old town, but the guy at the hotel front desk didn’t recommend it. Instead he sketched me a route to the newly-refurbished city centre, with its wide, brightly lit pedestrian shopping street. The woman at the tourist office along the way agreed with him, which of course made me want to GO.
The centre was indeed splendid, filled with shops and people. I crossed the small bridge separating the old and new city and found myself, abruptly, facing dark, sad streets. Signs pointed to famous landmarks up the hill but none were in view. It appeared you’d need a car or to walk a fair bit to get to them. I headed back, disappointed.
Out the next morning for our last Surprise Outing for Journalists. The city fell away as we drove up and up into tall pine forests and snow! Shaggy sheep were still out in the fields as we entered the National Park of Sila, potato country. The low solid houses are built to withstand the average two metres of winter snow!
We stopped at Caseificio Guarascio Mario to see the family’s small cheese factory, in operation from March to December when fresh milk is plentiful. The barn next door was full of sheep, goats and frisky lambs, some marked for Easter dinner. When the weather’s good they can play outside while their minders watch for wolves.
In the flat above the factory, the entire family greeted us, parents, uncles, wives, perhaps a sister-in-law or two. Someone handed me a plastic cup of homemade red wine so rough I could only pretend to drink it. Once again, everything on the living room table was homemade, from the brined olives to the slabs of prosciutto cut thick as steaks and the magnificent fresh and aged pecorino, made with equal parts sheep and goat milk.
One last lunch at a brand new agriturismo in the Savuto region. We feasted on chickpea soup with salt cod and thick croutons, layered cheesy eggplant circles, wide homemade pappardelle noodles with tomato sauce and pork ribs cooked in the same sauce. Then a brief tour of Rogliano in the fog and drizzle. In the church mourners gathered for a funeral.
The local barber had papered his walls with Bob Marley posters. We also met surely the world’s most handsome butcher at the marble-walled Macelleria Ambrogio Aurelio, where pig heads and other delicacies hung from metal hooks.
Back in Cosenza we joined the exporters for a farewell seafood extravaganza at La Perla starring langoustines and tender octopus.
At 3:40 the next morning three of us stood outside the Lamezia Terme airport waiting for the doors to open at 4 a.m. We then stood at the empty Al Italia counter until 4:45 a.m., when it opened, just as the next group arrived from our hotel.
Calabria may not quite be ready for mass tourism, but how lucky were we to visit this rugged and delicious slice of Italia.