Did you know that Calabria is the land of the chilli pepper? Red chilli pepper is the symbol of Calabria. You will find many varieties in different colours, shapes and sizes. Everywhere you go in Calabria, you are likely to see chilli peppers hanging from someone’s balcony.
This is the main ingredient used in Calabrian cuisine and all it needs to grow well is plenty of sun. You cannot help but notice these red fiery fruits dangling from the green leafy plants in people’s gardens.
Chilli pepper is used in most kitchens in the common household. I have been invited often for lunch and always noticed how they have these chilli peppers all tied together on a piece of string hanging out in their balconies. I learnt that this method is called “la collana” which means “necklace”.
They hang them in this way for the sun to dry them out and so that they are readily available to use in the kitchen when needed. I also noticed that most families have their own chilli pepper plants whether they grow them in their gardens or on the balcony, it is fascinating to see them.
They put chilli pepper in almost every dish they produce, even in liqueurs. Just a tiny piece or a few seeds from this pepper turns the dish into something incredibly tasty and spicy. You have to be careful of how much you put, otherwise you could be drinking water for a while.
The spice from them can be very powerful depending on the type of pepper, especially in those Nduya Calabrian spreads. Just one tiny bit spread on bread is enough to make your mouth go on fire. It seems that most locals love this spice and even the spiciest dishes are not too hot for them.
Growing chili pepper in Calabria
Chilli peppers need a hot climate and as Calabria is mostly sunny all year round, it thrives in this climate. It is easy to grow and will mostly grow itself. Once the seeds are in the ground, you just have to water them. It is important that the temperature is not lower than 15 degrees Celsius during the night or they will die.
It is recommended to start planting them in February in a sunny spot. They will be ready to use in July and August. Chilli peppers are grown in most countries, but what make the Calabrian ones unique is the type of soil. The soil in Calabria contains fine sand and clay rich in iron oxides. The peppers when fully grown come in different shapes and sizes.
The most typical one is “il diavolicchio a mazzetti (little devil meaning very hot) and the corno di Soverato which is in the shape of a horn. These are just a couple of examples as there are numerous varieties.
Some people use them as ornamental plants to decorate their balconies. You can see this bright red vivacious colour from a distance and it is always pleasing to the eye. You can buy chilli pepper plants at the markets if you do not want to grow them. You will also see many souvenirs in the shape of a chilli pepper.
Calabrian people are very friendly and energetic. The spicy pepper reflects their personality as they can be quite fiery and lively people. There is an elderly woman who I know who could be at least 90 years old and it is incredible what she does. She still works the land, climbs over walls as well as supporting her extended family. Sometimes, I wonder where she gets this energy. Perhaps, I should be putting more chilli pepper in my food.
Calabrians may seem a little reserved at first, but once you get to know them, they could not do enough for you. I remember when living in other parts of Southern Italy, if it was a Sunday or a holiday, you could not get an electrician or plumber to do anything.
Sunday and the holidays was time with the family. You just had to wait. Here they are ready to come out whenever you call them. I also find it hard to believe that they are mostly on time and when it is a public holiday, they will still work. They are very hard-working.
Calabrians are extremely proud of this incredible ingredient which enhances any ordinary dish in the kitchen. Even the Calabrian philosopher Tommaso Campanella cited Calabrian chilli peppers in his works in 1635.
How to use chilli pepper in Calabrian cuisine
Most Calabrians use dried chilli peppers which is turned into powder or chilli flakes and sprinkle this in pasta dishes, soups, preserved vegetables and pizza. The most typical Calabrian pizza is Pizza Diavola (spicy salami, nduya, chillies mozzarella cheese and tomato).
This is the pizza I always order when I go out for pizza. Definitely recommended. If you do not like the pizza too spicy, you can ask for it to be without nduya and chillies. They practically use chilli pepper in every dish even in ice cream.
Gift boxes and presents
You will find many beautifully prepared gift boxes or baskets with many ingredients containing this magical fruit. They make good presents to take back home.
Every guest who comes to see me ends up going back with several of those boxes/baskets. They are very colourful and contain the most typical spicy sauces, salami, cured meats with that very important local ingredient chilli pepper.