09 October 2014

A taste of Calabria

Ten years ago, the food writer Matthew Fort drove a Vespa from the southern tip of Italy to Turin, having one food adventure after another. One of his earliest stops was at Le Carolee, an agriturismo in the middle of the Calabrian countryside east of Lamezia. In his book Eating Up Italy, he raved about the food produced by the warm and friendly Gaetano family, and wondered why on earth the British are so obsessed with Tuscany and Umbria, when the food of Calabria is infinitely better and much more interesting.

Ten years later, I'm sitting in the garden of Le Carolee in the dusk under palm trees and looking out over a valley of olive trees. I'm waiting for the first of four courses of deceptively simple Calabrian food, and I'm not disappointed. Antipasti of aubergine meatballs, courgette fritters and capocollo, a salami of pork shoulder made at the agriturismo. The pasta course was penne in an aubergine and tomato sauce. The meat course was slow-cooked veal that melted in the mouth. As it was September, dessert consisted of watermelon and honeydew melons that were in season and were being sold in countless roadside stalls by wizened farmers. We'd had local red wine that was just smooth enough followed by homemade limoncello. I sat back, listened to the gentle wind rustling through the olive groves and was pleased that I had three more dinners at Le Carolee to enjoy before I had to go home.

Over the next three nights I had swordfish with capers, olives and preserved peppers. And involtini of mozzarella with rocket, pancetta and tomatoes. And cracked and roasted olives grown on the estate. And thin slices of veal with pine nuts. And homemade tagliatelle – thicker than you would ever see in Britain – with sugo, over which was sprinkled a chopped red chilli and lots of parmesan. My favourite was filej con nduja – made by winding a thin strip of pasta round something like a knitting needle, and covering it with nduja, a soft sausage whose bright red colour gives a clue as to how much chilli is packed within.

It's not complicated and it's hardly Michelin-star stuff. It's cucina povera at its best. When you live in a region that's been poor for centuries, you learn how to make the best of what you have. And Calabria, poor in many ways but so very rich in others, is surprisingly teeming with produce of incredibly high quality – olives, courgettes, nuts, figs, dates, tomatoes, aubergines. The poorer the country, it seems, the more ways they have of cooking aubergines.

Same thing with chilli. Calabria's cuisine is spicy – but with warmth and depth of flavour. Red chillis, peperoncini, flavour everything from sausages to ice cream (which is delicious) and is known as the Viagra of the poor. Apparently they see chilli as an aphrodisiac. It also adds flavour and – importantly, during the old days of crushing poverty – it suppresses the appetite. I didn't have that problem. I couldn't get enough of chilli. Nor could I get enough of Calabria.

All photographs © Adam Batterbee

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