I’ve noticed the word “calabrese” showing up with more frequency on Italian menus in the United States, often as a synonym for spicy: calabrese sausage, calabrese pizza, pasta alla calabrese … What do these dishes have in common? That little hot pepper affectionately known as the peperoncino, and Calabria has a certain reputation in its regard. The region boasts a healthy production of its peperoncino calabrese and is even home to the Italian Peperoncino Academy!
HISTORY OF THE PEPERONCINO
So from where does the peperoncino hail? Originally, the New World, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the spicy pepper on his first voyage to America. He brought it back to Spain, and it quickly spread throughout Europe.
The botanical name for peppers in general is capsicum from the Latin capsa, meaning box, most likely a description of the pod, which resembles a container. The Italian word peperone comes from its spicy similarity to pepe, which refers to pepper (as in black). And to confuse matters further, the plural of peperone (pepper/sweet pepper) is peperoni. However, if you ask for a pepperoni pizza in Italy, you’ll get a pizza with bell peppers on it.
Peperoncino (chile, chile or hot pepper, chilli-British) is the diminutive of peperone.
PEPERONCINO: SPICE OF THE POOR
The peperoncino got its foothold with the less affluent ranks of Italian society, particularly in the south. The spicy little pepper brought a new twist to what is referred to as the cucina povera (cuisine of the poor). It was also used for preserving meat, which was especially helpful in warmer climates without refrigeration.
The prevalence of the peperoncino in kitchens of the poor brought about its nickname, spezia dei poveri (spice of the poor).
The peperoncino calabrese flourishes happily and spicily in the Calabrian climate. The locals have an affinity for the little red pepper, known in various areas as the cancarillo, pipazzu, pipi vruscente and diavulillo. The spicy peperoncino calabrese has played an important part in the cuisine for centuries, and the recipes are being recognized more and more outside the region.
One of the “hot” tickets on the international stage at the moment is the ‘nduja, a spicy, spreadable salami created in the town of Spilinga near Tropea. The ‘nduja is made with pork lard, guanciale (cheek) and pancetta (bacon) mixed with peperoncino calabrese. The pizza calabrese in Calabria will often feature the ‘nduja amongst its ingredients. A traditional dish from Calabria’s Ionian coast is sardella or caviale (caviar) calabrese, baby fish in peperoncino and herbs, a delicacy that has been commercially suppressed by the European Union’s ban on whitebait harvesting.
PEPERONCINO CALABRESE ON TABLES
The peperoncino calabrese is used in sausage and cold cuts, pasta sauces, and on pizza and bruschetta, but that isn’t always enough for those with a spicy tooth. Of course, piquant isn’t for everyone, not even in Calabria. But for those who would like to add the zesty flavor to their pasta with broccoli or tomato sauce, for example, peperoncino calabrese is found on tables as a general condiment: fresh, in oil or dried. There are those who add a spoonful to whatever they eat. And it isn’t uncommon to see an older man lithely reach into his jacket pocket, pull out a peperoncino from home and cut it into little pieces over his plate.
For tourists, the perpeoncino calabrese is playfully packaged in what is called the bomba calabrese. The Calabrian bomb comes with a fuse sticking up from the glass jar filled with a mixture of finely chopped vegetables drenched in a healthy dose of peperoncino and oil.
ACCADEMIA ITALIANA DEL PEPERONCINO OR THE ITALIAN PEPERONCINO ACADEMY
With the quality and popularity of the peperoncino calabrese, it’s no wonder that Calabria is the home to the Italian Peperoncino Academy. From its headquarters in Diamante on the region’s northwest coast the academy organizes dinners and cooking classes with a focus on the peperoncino, publishes a magazine, and has a library and an experimental center for the peperoncino’s cultivation. Every year the organization puts on the Peperoncino Festival the second weekend of September (from Wednesday to Sunday) in Diamante, Calabria.
In addition to the presentation of the peperoncino in all its forms, food exhibitions and folkloric events, the festival hosts a peperoncino eating contest. The finalists face off in a 30-minute competition in which the spicy peppers can only be tamed with bread and oil.
SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO
The Peperoncino Festival also hosts chefs, and a few years ago the recently deceased Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, one of Italy’s most famous, was honored. For the event, his version of spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino was prepared. By now this simple yet flavorful dish with garlic, oil and peperoncino, often whipped up quickly at home, is fairly common on restaurant menus throughout the world.
So, how did this renowned chef put his personal touch on the classic dish? Curiously, Chef Marchesi liked cold pasta. He dressed the cooled pasta with olive oil, roasted garlic and peperoncino. Buon appetito!
The peperoncino can be used in an infinite number of recipes, from antipasti to gelato. Innovative dishes are being created all the time. Personally, I love the lasting piquancy of super dark chocolate with peperoncino.
How about trying peperoncino marmalade or honey, peperoncino preserved in oil, creamy peperoncino, spicy tomato sauce, peperoncino olive oil, sausages, salamis and cheeses, tuna with peperoncino, cakes and cookies, digestifs and grappas with peperoncino?
It will get your heart pumping.
This year, the Italian Peperoncino Festival takes place September 5-9, 2018 in Diamante, a lovely town on the Riviera of the Citron in northwest Calabria. Visit the Accademia italiana del peperoncino’s Facebook page for up-to-date information. And don’t miss the beautiful La Casa dei Peperoncini when in the neighborhood of Orsomarso in the Province of Cosenza.
Interested in more of what there is to see and do in Calabria, the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this beautiful southern Italian region.
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