The crispy peppers of Tortora, so called “Zafarana”


Discovering the Zafarana or those red peppers, sweet and not at all spicy, with the characteristic shape of a goat’s horn, which once dried and cooked, have the peculiarity of being crispy. It is the tastiest fruit of summer vegetables.

Perhaps some will know the Senise peppers, others the Roggian peppers in the province of Cosenza. But still few know of the existence of Zafarana di Tortora, the first town in north-western Calabria, on the border with Basilicata. Here, for years, the youngest tell, the grandmothers baked “nzerte of zaferana” (wreaths of peppers) when they made bread, to then obtain the powder for use in the kitchen. Those same grandmothers who today look at their astonished grandchildren who return to their country just to cultivate zaferana, like some agronomists come from abroad. Because yes, in Tortora that much-vaunted return to youth farming is anything but a chimera or an illusion. It’s all true, with real names and faces and with a precise purpose: to enhance the Zafarana of Tortora.

Nzerte (wreaths) of Zafarana


Both that of Senise, that of Roggiano Gravina and Tortora peppers are part of the same family, or of those red peppers, sweet and not at all spicy, with the characteristic shape of a goat’s horn, which once dried and cooked, for their peculiarity of being crunchy, are justly called “cruschi” (crispy). Originating in Brazil, they are known in Italy and Calabria after the discovery of America and find their ideal habitat in the mild climate between Calabria and Basilicata, in that special soil of the most hilly areas.

Among the three tipology of peppers (Senise, Roggian and Tortora) there is no competition, on the contrary: there is a constructive relationship of collaboration and mutual support, all the farmers are aimed at making the world know about a product that is still so little known.


What differentiates the Zafarana from Tortora is that, having a slightly thinner skin, it tends to have less water stagnation and therefore lend itself more to drying. The name obviously brings us back to saffron: it derives from the same Arabic root of zafran, because the red color of the powdered zafarana is reminiscent of that of the crocus sativus. The latter is the well-known species of flowering plant of the Crocus genus in the iris family Iridaceae, famous for producing the spice saffron, from the filaments that grow inside the flower.

In reality, however, it is a very different product in terms of taste and cost, this is why it has been nicknamed “the saffron of the poor” because it is always present on the Tortorese tables. Here, in fact, every family has cultivated its zafarana since ancient times, so much so that in a church of the town a fresco of 1628 was found where it is depicted among eggplants and oranges.

Tortora, the town of Zafarana

The association La Zafarana di Tortora, with its president Giuseppe Limongi, a professional ceramist, tries to protect such an ancient product and to ensure that it remains a very small niche production. He told: “I am a deep lover of art and nature, and zaferana is nothing but a wonderful form of art present in nature“.


Tradition has it that the production of zaferana begins in March, during the week of Saint Joseph. Later, in April, when the seedlings are born, they are put in a seedbed until June; then the best are selected and planted in the fields between June and July. Harvesting can begin in August and also end in December depending on the weather.

Finally, once collected, they are twisted making a small hole with a needle one behind the other in the typical “nzerte” (wreaths ), or those braids of peppers that you see hanging in the houses, at the windows, on the balconies. The important thing is that they are ventilated and dry places, not exposed to the sun, but always in the shade and without humidity. So that they can last for months, even a year.

Then it can be eaten either fried (cooking lasts for a few seconds) in a pan, or in powder.


The typical way to cook zafarana is to use the powder (so called “pisata“) for cooking bolied potatoes (the plate is called “patane cca zaferana pisata“). The powder is also associated to consumption of oil, garlic and salt, paired with bread, eggs or dried figs.

Today the peppers are used in many ways in the kitchen, but the most recommended is to taste them alone, fried in a pan.  The second one can instead try the classic combination with cod, just as you traditionally eat the Senise pepper in Basilicata.

Zafarana Powder

Once powdered, however, one of the most traditional combinations is to sprinkle it over pasta such as lagane and chickpeas or spaghetti with garlic and oil, but also directly into fusilli or tagliatelle.

Alternatively, zaferana can also be added during the preparation of bread or biscuits. Also perfect on the second course: on the fried egg, on the meat with a drizzle of oil, or on the fish, since it also favors conservation.

Finally, why not try a nice risotto made exclusively with zafarana?


To taste the zafarana in all its forms, it is worthwhile going to the party that the association La Zafarana di Tortora has been organizing for ten years every first weekend of October, at the end of the harvest.

This is also the right occasion to learn a lot about this product: In addition to food and goliardic aspects, much importance is given to cultural aspects, with conferences on the benefits of zaferana, with interesting projects with schools and so on.

Further, this is also an opportunity to visit the town of Tortora, with a truly enviable historic center, like the nearby and delicious village of “Aieta“.

The Calabrian Caviar: the “Sardella” or “Rosamarina”


There is a goodness inside Calabrian cuisine, the so-called “Sardella” or “Rosamarina”, it comes from a cream of pilchard, a mixture of newborn fish, which in local dialect is the “nunnata” (namely a newborn fish).

Even if the ‘nduja (a very spicy cream of salami) is the identifying product of Calabria, especially abroad, we could consider this cream of pilchard as the sister of the famous salami’s cream, but in a fish version.

The names of this caviar of newborn fish can vary, indeed this is called “rosamarina” on the Tyrrhenian Sea, while on the Ionic coast it is called “sardella”.

A fixed couple: Tropea onion + Sardella


It is mostly certain that that the pilchard is a revisitation of the ancient “Garum” of which the ancient Romans were delighted. This was a fish-based sauce, but less refined than the version made in Calabrian homes.

– The Garum is mentioned 20 times by Marcus Gavius Apicius (in his famous cookbook “De re coquinaria”), who was a Roman gourmet and lover of luxury, who lived sometime in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Tiberius.

Pliny the Elder in Naturalis historia (XXXI, 93 ff.) said that the best garum was the garum sociorum, made with mackerel and coming from Spain, produced by a Tunisian society of Phoenician origin, which it exported mainly to Italy. This was expensive as a perfume. There were also famous garum factories in Italy, Campania, Pompeii, Clazomene and Leptis Magna.

Soft bread (pitta) with sardella

Seneca in a letter to Lucilius (Epistulae ad Lucilium, XV, 95, 25), launching his arrows against food excesses, especially against the garum: “illud sociorum garum, pretiosam malorum piscium saniem, non credis urere salsa tabe praecordia?” (“And that sauce that comes from the provinces – is the garum sociorum of which also Pliny spoke – an expensive mess of dead fish, don’t you think that you burn your guts with its spicy rot?”).

– Describing the dinner offered by Trimalcyon in Satyricon (36, 3), Petronius describes in great detail a huge tray, in the center of which a hare in imitation of Pegasus prevails, and at the corners four statuettes of Marsyas, from whose garnets flow garum sauce and pepper on a fish placed in a canaletto supported in such a way as to seem alive and to swim in the sea.

– Finally, Martial – in Epigrammata (XI, 27, 2) – he praises a friend of his called “Flaccus” who can resist the smell emanating from a girl who drank six measures of garum. Further, in the epigram III, 77, 5 he criticizes the use of “putris allec” (putrid herring) in dishes.

Conclusively, this quick list of historical testimonies speaks a lot about our sardella, like a fantastic legacy of ancient gastronomy and returns with a pinch of nostalgia a precious tradition.

Sardella rustic puff pastries


The Calabrian sardella is a delicious heritage of Mediterranean cuisine, but it is cheap and good.

Instead, the garum derived from the entrails of the fish which were treated together with a large quantity of salt (indeed, the mixture was macerated in the sun for long periods, releasing the liquamen, very similar to the current anchovy sauce) and it was expensive. Garum was a product for rich families who could afford the product by paying considerable sums, and it was used as a condiment.


The main problem for the preparation of sardella, this wonderful fish cream, is to find the raw material, that is the juvenile sardines. Their fishing is regulated by very strict laws and can only be carried out between January and March, giving exception to the article 15 of the European CE 1967/2006 regulation, which prohibits this fishing.

Therefore, a good substitute is on sale, easily available: the so called ice-fish that is found, defrosted, in the fish market or, frozen, in the supermarkets. However, it is not suitable for the preparation of our sardella of pilchard, that obviously needs newborn anchovies or sardines, and has a color tending to gray as opposed to ice-fish, that is white.



  • 1 kg of newborn pilchrad
  • 50 grams (minimum) of ground hot pepper
  • Dry wild fennel

If you want, you can add sweet ground chilli.


  1. Wash the newborn fish well until the water is clean.
  2. Put the fish in a container with salt and put a weight on the cap.
  3. Squeeze the fish sauce and season with the red pepper and wild fennel.
  4. Homogenize and place in glass jars with a layer of olive oil.


The pilchard can be eaten purely on the bread or it can be used to flavor pasta. It is also excellent with eggs, as an omelette, or on a fried egg. Good in potato boats or in the typical “pitta”, a soft bread.

Puff pastry rustic, full of Sardella


Sardella is a versatile product. The only care is eating it in small quantity because it is particularly spicy.

Crucoli (KR) is the town of this Sardella, but also Cirò Marina (KR), Cariati (CS) and Trebisacce (CS) claim paternity. Crucoli promotes this typical product with a festival that takes place continuously in the historic center since 1970, every second Sunday in August.

It is protected as Traditional Italian Agri-food Product (so called PAT). The Pat are products included in a special list, established by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, Forestry and Tourism Policies with the collaboration of the Regions.

Considering that the ban on fishing may make it lose its production, consumption and tradition, if you come to Calabria it would be a shame not to try it!