Calabria is one of the food bowls of Italy, producing large amounts of fresh produce for local and export markets. Olive oil, grains and citrus (they are the largest producer of Bergamot Oranges in Italy) are a few of a long list of foods grown in the region. The coastline is pristine and seafood is also abundant. One product Calabria is famous for is the ‘cipolla rossa di Tropea’ or Tropea Onion. It is grown all over Calabria but the ones grown around Tropea and its surrounding villages are renowned for their sweetness.
In 2014, we finally worked our way down the boot of Italy in search of these red treasures. Our visit to Tropea was perfectly timed during the harvest month of May, when fresh red onions are displayed on just about every street corner alongside sun-dried tomatoes, chillies and oregano.
Built high up on a cliff, Tropea enjoyed significant prosperity over the centuries and was founded in Roman times when it was used as a commercial port. The Duomo is a 12th century Norman cathedral and worth a visit, but the most famous structure is the Monastery of Santa Maria dell’Isola. The Monastery of Santa Maria dell’Isola sits on what was a small rocky island just off the town’s coast.
During summer, Tropea comes alive with beach going tourists coming to laze along its stretch of coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea called the Costa degli Dei, the ‘Coast of the Gods’. Ancient streets are dotted with pottery shops, food stores selling “Prodotti Tipici” (local produce and wine) and old fashioned pizzeria and restaurants.
In the low season Tropea morphs back into a town of yesteryear. The pace is slow and the crumbling facades remind of harder times. Our visit was during this time and I must say that I was much happier to see Tropea this way. There was a real feeling of authenticity about the place, a connection with the past and a sense that little has really changed over the years.
As mentioned, there is no shortage of places to eat in Tropea, but our dining destination was Ristorante Da Cece. Cece and his family run their small restaurant and are famous for great seafood and ‘pasta with Tropea onion sauce’. During our meal we were entertained by all family members and the pride that they take in their restaurant became evident over the night.
We started with a selection of seafood; swordfish thinly sliced and dressed with olive oil, tender white fish, mussels topped with bread crumbs, marinated octopus, prawns with aioli and freshly marinated sardines. Fusilli with Tropea onion sauce and seafood risotto was next, followed by swordfish sitting on a bed of thin potato slices, char grilled vegetables and more onion sauce. To finish we had fresh local strawberries in red wine; tart and sweet at the same time and a perfect way to end the meal. During our meal, I set about prying the recipe for the Tropea onion sauce from Cece and he was quite cryptic with his information. These onions became a staple during hard times and the locals have created many dishes using these onions as a stand alone meal. The recipe for this dish is kind of a guarded secret and Cece and I’m sure the rest of Tropea are not giving it away easily.
I came away with a rough idea of how to make it and after some online research, sourcing seeds in Australia, growing them (which took one year!) and experimenting with the recipe, hey presto, here’s my version of the dish! Click here for the recipe.
Ok, Tropea onions are probably quite hard to find, so you can easily substitute them with any other sweet onion. Ask your greengrocer for the best alternative.