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.

Diamante Citron, a biblical fruit


The Diamante citron is a variety of citron named after the town of Diamante, and there is a museum,  located in such town, in the province of Cosenza, Calabria, on the south-western coast of Italy, dedicated to preservation of  all the tradition of such cultivation.

This fruit has a pluri-millenary history, given that the same Bible mentions this variety, sometimes called the “Calabria Esrog”. “Esrog” is the Ashkenazi transliteration of the Hebrew name for citron.

The connection with Israel is not casual.

In the Old Testament, Leviticus 23:40 makes reference to the fruit of a beautiful tree, or Perì ‘etz adar in Hebrew: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”

The Talmudic tradition denotes the citron or Etrog as the fruit described in this verse. Thus, the citrus has been integral to Jewish celebrations for a very, very long time. The fruit is one the four fruits used in the cerimony of the “Feast of the Tabernacles”, the week-long festival (also called “Sukkot”) which celebrates the unity of the Jewish people and the biblical account of their escape from slavery in ancient Egypt to the promised land via 40 years in the desert.

Historically and for centuries, the farmers of the place have grown citrons that are considered among the best in the world. However, these citrons are among the most requested as etrogim for the festival of Sukkot, – in Israel.

This way, during the summer, several rabbis from all over the world move to the coast of Diamante to harvest, personally, the best fruits and send them to Jewish communities in the US, Israel, Russia, Canada, UK and the rest of the world.

In any case, the rabbis are never considered foreigners in this place, they are very familiar to local people. This is the reason why farmers are aware of the kashrut requirements.

The tradition says the cultivation was introduced by the same Jews, living here for centuries, since the “Diaspora” (70 D.C.) or even before in the third century B.C.. A community of such Calabrian Jews has survived in Rome continuously since then but Jews were expelled from Calabria in the first half of the 16th Century as Spanish rule brought the anti-Semitism of the inquisition to southern Italy.

The community was destroyed but they left many markers, including the Eastern method of farming.

Calabria’s citrons used to reach Jewish communities worldwide via wholesalers in Genoa — until some curious rabbis visited Calabria in the 1950s. Afterwards, the commerce re-started.


Citron fields are it the background of San Michele Castle. These etrogim have been part of these lands for 2,000 years, given that, as said, the tradition tells us that they were brought here by Jews who established themselves in the area.

Diamante’s coast features a unique microclimate, where the warm air from the sea meets the cold air from the mountains, creating the ideal habitat for the delicate citron trees. Further, the region’s friable soil is very suitable for the species’s short roots.

The trees usually flower in June, and the fruit is ripe by the end of July, when farmers, rabbis and etrog merchants choose, cut and pack away the choicest ones.

While there are at least 12 varieties of citron that are kosher for Sukkot use, including numerous strains from Israel, it is a centuries-old Chabad-Lubavitch custom to make the blessing on one grown specifically in Calabria.

The Calabria etrog is often called a Yanover etrog—“Yanova” being the Yiddish expression for “Genoa”, from which the fruits were shipped by Jewish merchants for centuries.

The etrog-growing region in northern Calabria is enveloped between the Tyrrhenian Sea on one side and mountains on the other. Today, citron cultivation takes place in the Riviera dei Cedri, the area surrounding the town of Santa Maria del Cedro.

The Cedro della Riviera dei Cedri, or Calabria citron, grows nowhere else in the world but a portion of this southern coastal region of Italy.

The market became far more lucrative for the farmers when Jewish merchants began paying per single fruit (etrog). Over the years, small farms have mostly disappeared, making way for larger industrial operations of a few hundred trees. Although quality citrons deemed kosher are sold at a good price by farmers, the work is laborious, and it is precisely the ungrafted trees that can suffer the most during the year’s frost.

Citron growing dwindled generally but survived along the Riviera dei Cedri thanks to the favourable coastal micro-climate.


Byron and D’Annunzio celebrated the citron in Calabria, but it was only saved from extinction, thanks to the Jewish tradition.

A Jewish delegation comes from Israel to Santa Maria del Cedro every year between July and August to choose the best fruit to be used in the holiday for the Jewish community.

Once the good fruit is found, the rabbis shows it to the worker who cuts it off leaving a piece of the stalk. Then the boxes are sealed and sent to the Lamezia Terme International Airport with a final destination Tel Aviv.

To be deemed kosher, an etrog cannot be grown on a tree that has been grafted (in order to defend the fruits from frost), which presents many difficulties for the citron farmer. In itself, the citron tree is weak, yet when grafted with the rootstock of another citrus tree, it is able to survive a tougher environment and produce genetically indistinguishable etrogim. As beautiful as they may be, these fruits are not kosher and cannot be used for the Jewish holiday.


The citron (citrus medica, botanical name) is a large, fragrant citrus fruit with a thick rind. Its center pulp is quite small and the wide pith is edible and not bitter like other citruses. In Italian, the word cedro means both citron and cedar tree, which may be confusing for those already familiar with the latter.

Traditionally, the principal culinary usage of the fruit has been in candied form, such as found in fruitcakes or the Christmas panettone. A the contrary, the citrons deemed kosher, an etrog, must not be on a plant that has been grafted. The fruit must be healthy, of a nice conical shape, green in color and with the crown intact.

Citrons sell for about 10 Euros apiece and inspectors usually examine between 10 and 100 individual pieces of fruit for each Etrog selected. Particularly beautiful and perfectly proportioned fruit can sell for hundreds of dollars.


After the selection of the Etrog, the remaining fruit is left on the vine to mature and is then gathered for food products. Cedro candito or candied citron is the most common use.

The Diamante citrons are halved and placed in a brine solution in barrels for 69 days. At the point the rind takes on a crystalline appearance, the citron are removed and seeded. They are then placed in fresh water for several days to take the salt out. Finally, the fruit undergoes the candied phase in a sugar and water solution.

Other little gems from the Riviera of the Citron are destined for artisanal shops that prepare pastry. The delicate flavor of citron gelato or a pastry incorporating citron extract, the tang of citron marmalade or the fragrant sensation of the candied bits is routine on the Citron Riviera. The novel citrus is also featured in numerous savory dishes at local restaurants, in which chefs experiment with this ancient fruit to create new offerings for an ever-curious clientele.

In addition to candied fruit, the citron has inspired a host of edible and very drinkable creations, such as marmalade, syrup, liquors, extracts and cookies.

On top of the lovely flavor of the citron, the fruit’s health properties have been recognized for millennium, such as with regard to stomachaches, the gout, and also as a detoxifying and cleansing agent. The citron is widely used in perfume and cosmetics, as well.