PWk: Prod, Tlk: GS2, Datacash: Live
The toe of Italy, so often overlooked by British visitors, is actually one of the country’s hidden gems and best-kept secrets. With kilometres of white sandy beaches, crystalline waters and mountainous landscapes, it is a favourite holiday destination for many Italians wishing to enjoy tropical-style beaches on their doorstep.
I’ve been lucky to have visited this undiscovered area on several occasions while filming for TV programmes, and have always been taken aback by how beautiful this often forgotten, southern Italian region is. It is a region of contrasts – you can swim in the turquoise waters in the morning, then head off inland in the afternoon for a hike in the scenic hilly areas.
The inland national park of the Sila, a huge mountainous area boasting lakes and dense forests, is often known as Italy’s Great Wood, with some of the country’s tallest trees. Situated high above sea level, it is known for having the purest air in Europe. It is really quite unlike the rest of southern Italy and you could easily be mistaken in thinking this was somewhere much further north – this was certainly my reaction on my first visit, especially when I found porcini mushrooms growing in the wild.
The Calabrian coastline is often referred to as ‘Costa degli Dei’ – Coastline of the Gods – for its outstanding natural beauty of dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches and pretty seaside villages. The largest of these is Tropea, a timeless, sleepy seaside town so typical of southern Italy. The old town is a maze of alleyways, hidden piazzas, ancient palazzi and churches, evidence of Tropea’s once important historical past. For more culture, head inland to the village of Zungri to explore the amazing ancient cave dwellings said to have been home to Basilian monks fleeing prosecution.
Beach life in summer takes precedence and what better way to soak up the sun and cool off in the sea on Tropea’s fine beach or explore other lesser known beaches like Scilla or Pizzo. I love Capo del Vaticano, with its impressive lighthouse where you have a wonderful view of the coastline.
For a day trip, I highly recommend the Aeolian Islands, easily reached by boat direct from Tropea. They’re so close to the mainland, but so remotely unique in character. In fact, on a clear day, you can see the island of Stromboli with its bubbling volcano from the coast.
Calabria’s peasant roots are very much reflected in its simple, regional cooking, but oh my, it is so good! Due to the hot climate, food preservation features a great deal in Calabrian cooking and so much of the produce can be found either dried, salted, in oil or cured. Look out for stoccafisso alla Calabrese, naturally dried cod cooked with tomatoes, potatoes and dried peppers. Also I recommend visiting delis with their array of cheeses and cured meats – my favourite is the soppressata Calabrese, which I love to eat as part of an antipasto or in between a panino for a delicious snack.
Probably one of the most known Calabrian foods, becoming increasingly popular here in England, is the soft spreadable salami known as ‘nduja – I’ve seen it creeping up on menus in trendy pizzerias and restaurants in London.
The Calabresi love chilli and add it to most of their dishes – I adore chilli so when I’m there, I always make sure to bring some back for cooking with at home. Smaller than the regular chilli variety of the rest of Italy, these are pungent little devils, so care has to be taken when cooking with them! There is even an annual peperoncino (chilli) festival held each year in September in the picturesque seaside town of Diamante.
Unlike the rest of Italy, potatoes are a speciality here – grown in the Sila area, they are often included in regional dishes, try pasta e patate ara tijeddra, a baked pasta and potato dish.
Another unique product of this region is the sweet red onion from Tropea. Highly prized as production is minimal, it is usually only found in Calabria and used in the cooking of local dishes as well as delicious eaten raw in salads with tomatoes and olives. Yet another ingredient I take home with me when I visit.
Seafood is popular along the coastal resorts and dishes of freshly caught local swordfish and tuna as well as sardines and anchovies are on offer. Try pasta ca’ muddhca e alici – a simple but delicious pasta dish with anchovies topped with crispy breadcrumbs.
Calabria’s wine is still made in the traditional way and not mass produced, so just as the region, they are not known abroad. The most popular is red Ciro’.
Calabrian desserts, using almonds and honey as their base, are quite ancient in tradition and biscuits are often made in the shape of animals or saints symbolising rural as well as religious life. As in all Italy, cake shops and gelaterie (ice-cream parlours) are numerous and delicious.
Calabria is a region just waiting to be discovered and with direct flights to the region’s airport of Lamezia and Citalia’s expert advice to help you plan your trip, this once remote part of southern Italy is there for everyone to explore and enjoy!