"The isolation set by geography reinforce the local identity, and henceforth also the culinary differences" - This sentence, said to me by V.'s uncle Giovanni on the welcoming stage of yet (another) family dinner.
I cannot think of a better way to crystallize our third day's experience in Calabria.
Right upon arriving in Mammola (pop. around 2750), a somewhat isolated community on a mountain slope south of Lamezia Terme, a bunch of older people introduced us to the town's rules. When we asked if we can park where we wanted to, they answered cheerfully: "Don't worry, nobody pays for parking in Mammola." A great welcome. We strolled around the churches - there are about 7 of them in this small place - and admired the flags of Norway as they flutter in the light wind. You know, as you would expect in a small South Italian town.
Wait, what?! Why there are so many Norwegian flags around?!
Apparently, the produce Mammola is best known for is Stocco, or Stoccafisso, which sound very Italian, but in fact, it's a derivation of the way-way northern Stokkifsk, or simply in English - Stockfish. These dried cod arrived in Sicily already around the 11th century together with Normans who had to carry concentrated sources of protein on long-distance voyages. As everyone knows, plundering requires a lot of energy.
But only at the 16th century, when contacts between the Borbonic Kingdom of Two Sicilies, which capital was Naples, and the united kingdom of Sweden-Norway were established, started a continuous import of dry fish.
Now see, the main difference between the Stocco and Baccalà is that the latter is dried in salt instead of in the open air for three months, usually at Q2 of the year, when it's still freezing but already not snowing. Roughly as they do with Prosciutto around Parma. Very roughly.
Of course, it's impossible to eat the dry fish like that, so it had to be soaked for a long time in the water. Lucky for Mammola, its water's composition happens to soften the fish very fast, and that's why large amounts of the stick-like cod went up the mountain.
'A Piazzetta has been run for 20 years now by family Bruzzese, recognized as one of Italy's Slow Food institutes serves Stocco in any way possible.
We chose to start with some fresh and fried nibbles that gave us a glimpse at the span of textures the fish can be treated. Of course, this leitmotif followed to the local rye flour pasta, called here Jermanu, with smoked ricotta flakes for the first course, and portions of spicy tempura-like fried Stocco and also "Mammola style" - with potatoes, tomatoes, and olives - for mains.
Look. We are fond of trying, but somehow the Stocco didn't reach us. The fish smell - no worries, it wasn't a "fishy" fish smell, but as it should be - reached us alright, but almost all our plates suffered imbalance: either they lacked salt or were too spicy, the fish appears for a second and disappears again.
We got out a little perplexed, and since everyone told us that our notion is very strange, we wonder whether we would have a better acquaintance with Stocco in another restaurant.
Still a bit perplexed we continued to Gerace (pop. around 2600). Only 10 kilometers divide between the two towns, yet you'll have to drive at least three times this distance, around 40 minutes of very light traffic day to get from one to another. Both towns are about the same size, standing in their isolation high on two peaks of the mountain range, in both there are at least 5 churches (of course), and there's a group of cheerful older people at the main tiny square.
And here we go back to Giovanni's sentence.
Although the distance between the two is trivial in Mammola is all about dried fish, I dare you to find one in Gerace since here it's all about Bergamot. Yes, the bitter-lemony that most people know only as a key ingredient in the Earl Grey tea mixture.
After visiting the impressive cathedral we sat at Bar Cattedrale which is located right next to it (you couldn't think otherwise, right?). This bar is known for its granite, so besides the classic coffee - with cream! - and the intriguing roasted almonds, I picked the Bergamot granita. Even before being served the scent swarmed in waves from the glass cup, and tasting a spoonful of the icy treat left no doubt. There is fresh Bergamot in here, in its full bitter-lemony refreshing presence, and if you wish to moderate it the best way is with the help of tiny brioche. Highly recommended.
We couldn't leave the city without some refreshing memories as Bergamot-scented olive oil from Sapuri Calabrisi ("Calabrian Flavors"), and 100% lemon juice from Sapiri e Sapuri ("To Know and To Taste") which functions also as the HQ for an association which promotes Bergamot, and local business in general. Here we also had a very nice chat with the local activist who gave us a nice portion of sourdough starter, a blessing for the newlyweds (that's us!)
Concluding with Giovanni's observation, Mammola and Gerace are perfect examples of how many small towns in Calabria behaved along the years. Until Italy's unification, only about 160 years ago, connections between such communities were invisible, or just there weren't. Having the need to create a local identity, you can find in a 10 km distance two towns whose pride is dry fish - without Bergamot, and Bergamot - with no dry fish.
And that wasn't the last small town we visited…
Previously, on Going South:
Going South, Day 1 - Rome to Calabria
Going South, Day 2 - Holiday lunch in the farm