Food and Wine in Calabria: legend and history



A legend tells that the Greek athlete Milo of Croton was able to drink 10 liters (2.6 US gal) of Ciró wine each day.  True or false, this story recalls the ancient tradition of a region, Calabria, in the very middle of Mediterranean basin to be devoted to winemaking.

History, instead, tells that this land was first cultivated by the Oenotrians, and then by the ancient Greeks. Does this tradition say that the wine is still made in the same way today as it was in Milo’s time?

A problem hard to solve. Anyway, the Italic tribes, inhabiting the region, were colonized by the Greeks, who, coming to the area, brought the art of winemaking. Greeks called the area Enotria that meant “land where the vine is cultivated high above the earth.”

Nowadays, a lot of wine is produced in Calabria, the DOC wine called Cirò is the most known, even if there are other DOC’s that produce wine, only Cirò has ancient roots. It was used, according to a legend, to produce Cremissa, in a Greek colony known today as Cirò Marina, a beverage offered as a toast to the gods by the Olympic champions of ancient Greece.

Today, there are about a dozen producers of Cirò, bottling about 30,000 hectoliters per year. In the past, there are records from the 4th century B.C. which indicate a vineyard in the area of Cirò Marina, and there is a group of people living today called the Grecanici who allegedly trace their roots back to Odysseus and the survivors of the Trojan War.

The DOC Cirò is located along the Ionian coast, this wine is made also a Bianco (White), and Rosato (Rosè), but it is the Rosso (Red) that is most famous; the latter is made with at least 95% of the wine coming from Gaglioppo grapes, plus  5% of Trebbiano or Greco Bianco grapes.

The very ancient grape is, therefore, Gaglioppo, which is indigenous to the territory of Calabria.

It recalls all the scents of this central Mediterranean land of food and wine, all the aromas of Ionian Sea, due to the close proximity of vineyards to the seacoast, and all the marine fragrances both of the mesoclimatic land of Calabria and of its fertile soil volcanic.



Calabria and its wines can tell the more ancient history of Mediterranean, and especially Cirò wine has been subject to many influences over the centuries.

History of Calabria wine is all stretched between two extremes (the Greek roots and the 20th century revival). In fact, at first, the ancient Greeks cultivated the first wine-bearing vines, and then the wines for many centuries were famous in other European countries, until French regions in 1500 such as Bordeaux invaded the closer both geographically and culturally key markets of London and Amsterdam. In the late 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic wasted Calabria’s vineyards and its wine industry disappeared, until his revival  in the 20th century.

In the middle of this long history, there are many steps where Calabrian wine (especially Cirò) seems a sort a recapitulation of life and culture of many peoples. In the Imperial Age, Calabrian wines were among the most sought-after and were praised by Virgil and the Elder Pliny.

After the advent of Christianity and the formation of the monastic structures, viniculture played a key role in the advancement and consolidation of Calabrian civilization and economy. In fact, a great care was devoted for the vineyards and the production of wine by the religious practices and Christian rituals.

On the other side, the peoples of the Middle Ages and of 1500s are well represented by the quality of local production attested to by numerous documents and reports (for example the appreciations by Pope Paul III and his cupbearer Sante Lancerio).

The medieval history of wine is condensed in the practice to use “palmenti”, very large stone troughs carved in the rock and used for treading grapes. These tools are testimony to the great vinicultural activity that took place over the middle age.

Life and its food and wine had a painful interruption in 1800, the traces of rural life became weak after the great waves of emigration that were brought by the  dissolution of Bourbon Kingdom and by the unification of Italy. The ancient and consolidated tradition universe of wine was lost, and then happened the abandonment of cultivated lands and the marginalization of a production, which nevertheless retained its quality characteristics.

Only in 1970s, farmers and producers dedicated again themselves to the revival of native grapes, saving the cultural heritage of Calabria. Everyone could say today that Calabrian wine is the real historical reminiscence of many peoples of the past.

Cultural Roots of Calabrian Dairy



Calabria has a long history with regard to its gastronomy and cuisine culture. Something that dates back to the most ancient Mediterranean origins of populations, living in the territory and producing food for daily life (dairy, oil, wheat, wine).

Calabria, nowadays mainly renowned for its Mediterranean climate, got civilization historical roots dating back to antiquity.

Due to this antiquity, it is wonderful how this narrow strip of land in Southern Italy, 250 kilometers long, with no point in the area more than 40 kilometers from the coast, created so much variety of food, cuisine and gastronomic culture.

The region is located between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, is the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.”

Here, the presence of humans dates back to the Paleolithic Age (as determined by the Romito graffito in the area of Pollino national park), and maybe about 700,000 years B.C.E. due to many other archeological relics.

The evolutionary history of this place testifies that Homo erectus left artifacts along the coastal areas, that there are artifacts from the Copper Age and the Bronze Age, as well as from the Iron Age (e.g., tombs in Cassano Ionio).


For example, Calabrian history of food is well represented by Cultural Roots of Calabrian Dairy.

All starts in the Neolithic, when it replaced the Paleolithic and hunters changed to farmers, founding the first villages about 3500 B.C. Calabria prehistory ended with colonization about 2000 B.C.

The wine also well represents this boundary between pre-history and history, given that the term “Italy” derived from King Italo of the Enotrians or Arcadians, the first colonizers, and the name eventually was spreading to the entire peninsula. Nevertheless, the term “Enotrians” embodies the idea of the land of wine and lasts since the beginning of 720 B.C.E., when various city-states from another peninsular, that of Greece, founded rich colonies, meriting the name “Magna Graecia”.

Inside Magna Graecia, Calabria was renowned for its fertile farmlands, as well as for precious minerals and silks.


Dairy products were Calabria richness, until the time Italy became the center of the Roman Empire, which began its conquest of Calabria in about 275 B.C., defeating most of the Calabrian tribes within a few years. Then, when the threat of Hannibal and Carthage ended, the Roman conquest of Calabria was completed in 211 B.C., but Romans made a mass deforestation, which initiated by the Romans, marking the first serious environmental challenge to the area. The land was devoted to a more massive milk production and this event is embodied in the development of a dairy tradition.

In the next centuries, Goths and Visigoths invaded the area, and dairy production was altered. Towns were sacked; much of Calabria’s Greek and Roman legacy inside the culture of food went lost.


After the fall of Rome in the 4th century C.E., Byzantines dominated the area and named it “Calabria” in the 7th century C.E. Eastern Orthodox monks recovered the lost tradition of gastronomy and a sort of “renaissance” happened with the Byzantine rulers, who established monasteries and building shrines in the secluded mountains.

Byzantine rule recovered a large part of Greek tradition of dairy and lasted until the 11th century A.C.., then followed by that of the Normans, who arrived about 1050 A.C., creating the Kingdom of the South. But the Swabians conquered the Normans in 1194 and produced another kingdom, the so-called “Kingdom of the Sun”, then followed by others, specifically Anjou in 1266 and Aragon in 1435.

The intensive cultivation of land was abandoned and Aragon left a feudal system as their legacy to Spain, which conquered the area in 1503, then substituted by Austrian domination 1707, followed by Bourbon rule in 1734. The latter “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” of the Bourbons exploited the local natural resources, especially the forests. However, a major earthquake destroyed many buildings and other cultural artifacts in 1783. Afterwards, when Garibaldi unified Italy, the local gastronomy was well preserved.

Conclusively, the ancient roots of Mediterranean culture of food were not completely lost in Calabria. This explains why Keates (2001) has called Calabria a “savage Europe”, a place where the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were largely unknown, a place resistant to the Europeanizing process and, later, to industrialization, and why the Calabrian artisan of dairy and the related culture was preserved.

Effectively, these notes of Keates are not completely generous and right, but it reflects as artisan productions remained untouched by the production base provided by industrialization. Many of the local agrarian based customs, including folk health practices, remained. Maybe remoteness of Calabria was responsible for neglect by the forces of modernization. However, Calabrian institutions and culture have been deeply influenced by Roman Catholic traditions and this was really preserved into actual production of Calabrian Dairy.


The notes of Keats are not right because, since about half a century, the Sibari plain hosts the densest agglomeration of modern capitalist enterprises in Calabria, centered on small number of leading agricultural and agrifood firms, which organized broader cooperative structures.

Those firms operate in the field of collection, transformation and commercialization of agricultural products – to which hundreds of smaller firms associated themselves.

The cooperatives provide agronomic assistance to their members, to standardize their production and its quality.

Thus, dairy and the agrifood Sector, employing thousands of workers from the plain and the villages at the foothills of the Pollino, enhances milk production.

In the past twenty years the leading firms have diversified – often with success – into the production of milk and dairy products, wine, energy, and, more recently, distribution, direct sale and gastronomy.

At the same time, these firms innovated their production processes and internal organization through partnerships with local and national firms. The production of this cluster of businesses covers also peaches, oranges, tangerines, vegetables, grapes, and represents a wide share of Calabria’s exportations.

In the Sibari plain such assets and resources are maybe not completely employed, but there are margins for improvement, in the quality of its production, in the whole value chain, production and commercialization of dairy.


Another land of milk production and dairy is that of the medieval settlements at the foothills of the Pollino. Here traditional cultural values and civic norms persist in these villages, favoring social cohesion, and most of them rely on small, largely self-contained economies based on traditional products and informal codes of expertise.

Traditional foods and artisanal productions are the basis of local agrifood sector, where is crucial the production of the most important cheese of the area: Caciocavallo Silano, a semi-hard cheese, made with vaccine milk, seasoned 15 days minimum.

This cheese is characteristic of the upland of Sila (in the Calabria region), but it can be bought in good “salumerie” (shops that sell cheese and cold cuts) all over Italy.

It has an oval or log-conical shape, with or without “head” (according to the local traditions), with inlets located nearby the strings, its weight varies from 1 to 2.5 Kg. The caciocavallo has a typical thin and smooth rind, straw-colored, homogeneous and compact paste; with very light white eyes rather than straw colored ones towards the outer side and less deeply colored inside.

This product is aromatic, pleasant and has a delicately sweet taste, becoming gradually stronger as long as it is seasoned.