Friday, September 18, 2009

Pickle Passport: Sardella and Her Fella

We raced into Crotone with dreams of a three-hour seafood feast as reprieve from Calabria's oppressive heat. Sidelined by fishmongers slinging eel, sardines, and octopi, we talked into the siesta hours until every dining option was closed. Frankly, we could stand to miss a meal at that point.

This happy accident introduced us to sardella—Calabrian caviar—one of the most obscure flavors in Southern Italy. Keeping with the paradigm of simple Italian dishes, this paste is made of very few ingredients: salt, the region’s sun-baked pepperoncini piccante, and baby sardines, which are left to cure for six-seven months.

Actually, make that newly hatched sardines.

It’s a cruel world, but what can I tell you? It’s a delicious one too.

Sardella paste is sold from plastic buckets at weekly markets. My favorite pasta during this trip (this time I really mean it), was al dente spaghetti, finished in olive oil and sardella. It was at once sweet, salty, earthy. Six Euros of humble bliss.

We also ate simple crostini spread with sardella all over Calabria. Its boldness an arm wrestle with the toe's fierce Ciro wine. Sadly, this nuanced, umami flavor was not available in cans or jars for the trip home. What I would give for some right now.