On traditional items, it is the best food in the world. On anything just outside of the traditional boxes, it is totally rubbish or, most likely, it simply does not exist. Traditional food is simple, based on local ingredients, more of a mountain cooking than a sea one: long cooking times, no spices apart from chilli and occasionally fennel, no sweet-sour tastes, no mixing of sweet and savoury flavours. Sicily might be visible, actually in these clear winter days it looks almost as if you could touch it, but the Arabic influences are a world apart.
The traditional food is simple, but this does not mean that the taste itself is not extremely refined. Everything tastes just ‘right’ and the variations in a recipe are almost negligible. Why would you want to mess up with something that is just perfect as is? Among the traditional items, the best ones, according to my humble, but internationally trained, taste, are coffee and salami. They are just out of scale from anywhere else. You can find similar quality coffee in just two places in Europe: Napoli, where it was ever better, and Trieste, where it was more northern (lighter and thinner) but seriously good. Both in Italy, though somehow apart, like all proper Italian places they don’t feel as if they were Italian. In Reggio Calabria coffee is short and dense and full of aroma. The locals really love it, and the best bars are always crowded. I am endlessly fascinated by the barman’s ability to keep up with the orders and never miss a single client, always keeping cool and moving with grace, whispering among screaming people, and yet somehow always heard by the intended person. I could stare at them for hours – but the wait is never more than a few seconds even in the most crowded bar.
The other good that is really of outstanding quality here is salame. You have never tasted pork until you have tried this dried, slightly smoky minced meat, hand cut with a knife in large chunks, and spiced up with chilli. High quality, outdoor raised meat means that the meat itself will be plain delicious to start with. And I am picky when it comes to salame: I just don’t like most of the stuff.
The only small problems is that you cannot get these salami unless you come here, and even then you cannot just walk into a shop and buy them (though what you do buy is quite awesome by normal standard). That would be way too much easy for an Italian, let alone for a Calabrese. My partner’s father has all the right connections, so he manages to find salami from his ‘friends’. We mourned all day when he informed us he had argued with Don Ciccio, to date the best salami maker. I’ll never forget the perfect ripening of his salami, the subtle smokiness of them, their texture, perfectly balanced between fat and lean meat. Since then several friends have provided outstanding salame, but none ever rivalled with Don Ciccio. My partner’s father recently brought over one that was as delicious as usual, but slightly under-ripened. To my taste it was raw meat. So I thought about ways of using it by cooking it. I turned out with this funny mixture – a kind of calabrese adaptation to paella, the spanish rice oven dish. I just love paella, but it tends to get out of control – I add anything from rabbit to mussels to it, and then I have to invite all the people I know to eat it. This time I managed to contain myself, but you don’t need to do the same. You can substitute chorizo if you can’t find calabrese chilli sausage – which is not likely to happen anywhere in the world but here. Actually calabrese sausage in a substitute for the more traditional chorizo here
Other ingredients are juicy, fat black oven dried olives, but feel free to substitute with any other olive (in Germany I find acceptable ones at my Afghan grocery store, which is just in front of my physiotherapist – talking about fusion food) and bell peppers. I have to warn you: if you live in continental Europe and buy peppers at the market now (which is what I normally do) your result will be rubbish, because those peppers, well, their looks are their only asset. I’d add in a variety of vegetables from traditional paella if you want to try this – think frozen artichokes, broad beans, and such. If you live in southern Europe or other sun blessed places, your result will be worth eating as is.
Just to make you not too envious about this sunny place, here is a list of standard answers you will get in a shop when looking for something slightly unusual, food related or otherwise. The fact that an item is classified as ‘unusual’ is totally unpredictable for a foreigner, so be prepared to meet these randomly.
– You’ll have to order it. This will take at least fifteen working days, best case scenario. Do you want to see the catalog? (try next door before ordering it)
– If we don’t have it, nobody else will (walk next door before trusting this)
– Why don’t you try in Messina, they might have it (just cross the channel and everything gets delivered there like magic)
– They stopped producing it (that was about parmesan cheese – I swear)
– Why should you ever want that. We have this which is totally different but even better. (usually about something they don’t have a clue about)
– Wait! I do have it – it must be somewhere in the back… (at this point at least three or four coworkers, usually members of the family, get involved. The more family members get involved, the smaller are your chances of getting it)
– We just ordered it – why don’t you try the next week.
Oven rice with salame and bell peppers
Ingredients (serves 4):
1 red onion
2 garlic cloves
2 large bell peppers
1 10 cm long fresh salame with chili, or use chorizo
1 teaspoon paprika, or to taste
400 gr rice (use paella rice or Arborio or even Ribe)
1 handful black olives
5-6 sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
pinch of chili powder (to taste)
Traditionally you should use a paellera, i.e. a large heavy iron pan that can go both on a direct flame and in the oven, to cook paella. I don’t have it so I use a heavy bottomed non stick pan and then move everything over to an oven dish.
Peel and thickly slice the onion. Remove seeds from the peppers, and cut into strips. Remove the salame’s skin and cut it into 1 cm thick slices.
Take a heavy bottomed non stick pan, put about 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil into it and start cooking the onion. Add the bell peppers, some salt, and let cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. After a while add the sliced garlic. The vegetables should get a bit brown at the edges and start to soften after about 15 minutes.
Turn on the oven to 220 Celsius. Put some water to boiling (you can use stock instead if you have some, you are going to need about half a liter). Remove the vegetables from the pan, add the salame and brown it, so that it releases some of its fat. Put back the vegetables in the pan and let them coat well with the fat. Add the paprika and some chili to taste. Add in the rice and let it absorb the flavours. After a few minutes, transfer everything to an oven dish, garnishing with a few olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Deglaze the non stick pan using some boiling water. When all the fat and caramelized remainings have melted, pour the liquid over the rice. Top up with hot water just above the rice’s level. Cover with foil and put in the oven. Cook for about half an hour, then check the rice by tasting some. Some of the rice on the top stays crunchy so make sure you taste the one from the bottom as well: it is not unpleasant to have a bit of different textures here. Return to the oven if needed, topping up the water. The mistake I usually make is to overcook the rice, because the dish keeps cooking even after leaving the oven, so make sure you take it out when slightly al dente.