I am not Calabrese, and not being Calabrese means that I only discovered ’nduja late in life, as it was very much a regional and local food. I may have been late, but I did discover ’nduja much earlier than those living in Australia, who are now celebrating its use in a big way. Better late than never, because ’nduja is a fabulous salume (smallgood).
Featured photo is Tropea, Calabria.
So what is ’nduja?
We can thank Richard Cornish for his full-flavoured description of it in his Brain Food column in The Age on 10 November: A fermented sausage, originally from Calabria in Italy, that has a texture like sticky pate and a spicy kick on it like an angry mule. Pronounced en-doo-ya, it is a mixture of pork fat (up to 70 per cent), pork, salt, spices, culture and chilli peppers, which are ground together until smooth, wet, unctuous and deep red. It is stuffed into large-sized natural animal skins and slowly fermented and air-dried. The lactic acid bacteria in the culture ferments the sugars in the mix, making the ’nduja acidic enough to keep it safe from bad bugs. The name is Calabrian slang and is said to derive from the word for the smoked French sausage andouille.
Is it nduja or ’nduja? You will find that in certain references the spelling will be without an apostrophe.
The apostrophe before the nd (as in ’nduja), does not appear in the Italian language and I spent some time looking for the why it is spelt that way. It appears that in Calabrese, nd is proceeded by an apostrophe. Think of ‘Ndrangheta, as the mafia is referred to in Calabria, and ‘ndrina, the different families or clans, usually made up of blood relatives that are part of the ‘Ndrangheta.
Like most Calabresi, I usually spread ’nduja on fresh bread (like pâté) or I have used it as an ingredient in pasta sauces – it can fire up a tame ragù (a meat-based tomato sauce). I have also added ’nduja to sautéed cime di rape and Italian pork sausages, and to squid or octopus for a pasta sauce or on their own to be mopped up with bread.
I first encountered this spicy, spreadable sausage about forty years ago in the home of a Calabrese family who used to slaughter a pig and make smallgoods. They covered all of the smallgoods with chili. To their taste, food without chilli seemed flavourless, but also that the coating of chilli acts as a barrier, repelling flies (and bad bugs as Richard says) and is therefore a powerful and natural preservative. It’s the chili that gives this soft spreadable ’nduja salame its distinctive red colour.
Years later (about 23 years ago), I had some ‘nduja in the Sila mountains in Calabria, but I did not know then, that this peasant food product was to become the taste-sensation outside of Calabria that it is now.
My addition of ’nduja to seafood came much later in my cooking after I tasted a pasta dish of squid and fried breadcrumbs spiced with ’nduja, in a restaurant in Marin County, in California in the northwestern part of the San Francisco Bay Area of the U.S). Years later, I had a similar dish in a London restaurant. Both blew me away.
Probably the first dish I tasted with ’nduja in a Melbourne restaurant (Baby octopus with ’nduja) was at Tipo 00 when it first opened and later at Osteria Ilaria.
Originally, ’nduja was considered peasant food. It was first made by contadini (farmers/ workers on the land) who raised and butchered pigs and being poor, would sell the prime cuts of pork to upper-class families who could afford them. as is the way of the frugal, offal, excess fat, and off- cuts of meat were blended together, seasoned intensely with chilli, stuffed in a casing and transformed into a soft salame that tasted good and did not spoil easily.
These days ’nduja is probably made with better fats and cuts of meat and with its popularity, the price has also risen. ’Nduja originated in the Vibo Valentia province in Calabria, and much of it still comes from the town of Spilinga but it is now showing up as an ingredient all over Italy and in many restaurants in UK, US and in Australia – imparting a chilli kick on pizza, in pasta dishes, seafood dishes, burgers and even with Burrata; I would have thought that fresh cheeses are far too delicate to go with the strongly flavoured and spicy ’nduja. However each to their own. ’Nduja is no longer just found in specialist supermarkets and specialty butchers, but also in some fairly ordinary supermarkets. I have liked some varieties much more than others, so it is worth experimenting.
For those who like chillies, recipes that include ’nduja on my blog: