Italian food expert K came to stay last weekend and he arrived with a plan: he’d been reading about the spicy Calabrian sausage nduja in last week’s Telegraph and thought we should try it out. (I should stop here and and remind readers that K just moved to the UK and possibly didn’t realise the implications of buying the Torygraph. Also he was seduced by a freebie that came with the weekend paper. Let’s not judge, we’ve all done that.) Anyway, by good fortune, I went to the Brighton Fiery Food Festival right after we spoke and came across a Calabrian food stall hawking several different kinds of nduja. Either this was the universe telling me to buy nduja or the Calabrian food lobby has a seriously good PR department.

The nice man from BreadTree told me that Calabrians think it is high time people got over their love of chorizo and recognised nduja as the best spiced pork sausage in Europe. To prove his case, he offered two main types of nduja: Nduja di Spilinga and Nero di Calabria. The first was a satisfyingly deep red colour (on the left below) and clearly rich with oil and dried peperoncino chillies. I liked the look of it immediately. Slightly more expensive was Nero di Calabria (on the right), which is organic and made from the famous Calabrian black pigs. I bought some of each for taste test purposes.

Straight out of the pack, the nduja looks a bit unappealing. It took a while to arrange a photograph of the sausages that didn’t look like a crime scene as the meat deeply soaked in chillies has a kind of bloody appearance. However, visual appeal aside, we were excited to try out the “sensory addictiveness” that the Torygraph story had promised. We decided as a first experiment to make the batch bread recipe by Rose Prince that came with the story (although we ended up tinkering with it a bit). The photograph looked to us like American cinnamon buns and the idea of cinnamon buns filled with pork was perverse and hilarious. We made two batches, one for each kind of nduja.

The comparison had interesting results. At first the Nduja di Spilinga looked like it would have more flavour as it was darker, redder, oilier. But once warmed, the organic nduja turned red and began to ooze oil, so that eventually both versions came out looking the same. However, they did end up tasting a bit different. The organic Nero di Calabria had a more complex flavour, a warmth and depth at the back of the mouth that we all liked better. The Nduja di Spilinga felt a bit two-dimensional in comparison, with a pretty similar flavour but in a somewhat flatter version. The difference wasn’t huge but enough to have us all going back to the organic pork again and again. Despite the extra cost, this is the one I’d buy again.

But what did the nduja actually taste like? It must be admitted that it did not meet with universal acclaim. K thought it had a whiff of rancid pork fat. I grant you this is not the terrible insult it might seem as K is pretty fond of fermented and cured foods with funky qualities. Still, it’s not a rousing recommendation. I enjoyed it more – there was a barnyardy back-of-the-mouth sensation to it that in the right context can definitely be seductive. It’s not really spicy but there is a nice flavour from the chillies. I think the batch buns on their own may not be the ideal vehicle for the nduja. I wonder, for instance, how it would taste as the basis for a tomato sauce? I suspect if you used it in some of the places Italians use guanciale, or indeed in some of the places chorizo can lend depth and character to a dish, it might be really good. We served the buns with two side dishes: slow braised peppers and sautéed chard. When given a supporting role alongside the vegetables, the nduja didn’t seem so insistent and its funkiness became a nice back-note rather than the whole story. Ultimately, I rather enjoyed the heady quality of nduja, but funky is not as crowd-pleasing as sweet. There’s something of the austere simplicity of Calabria in this sausage that I want to experiment with more, but I don’t think chorizo needs to be too worried yet.

Nduja batch buns

  • 700g strong white flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 7g fast-action dried yeast
  • 350ml tepid water
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil and more for rolling the dough in
  • 200g ’nduja, warmed in a pan until soft

First, you put the flour in a large bowl, add the salt and yeast and stir in. Since we’re not drug dealers, we don’t actually have an electronic scale capable of measuring 7g, so we just put in a teaspoon or so. Add the water and oil and knead the dough for 15 minutes. K felt the dough was too dry and we added about 1/4 cup or so more water. We kneaded the Italian way, where you push and stretch the dough away with the heel of your hand, then turn (always in the same direction) and repeat. Perhaps our flour was too strong but we found the dough was a bit lacking in elasticity and tended to break into fluffy edges.

After 15 minutes, put the dough in a bowl, roll in olive oil, and cover with a cloth for at least 2 hours. (The recipe said 2 hours or longer in a cool room. We left it for maybe 5 or 6 hours in a regular temperature room and it wasn’t rising overly fast.)

Next, prepare the tins for baking. We took two 9″ springform cake tins and floured around the inside. Punch the air out of the dough (ours did not rise dramatically although it did rise a bit), split it into two equal halves and roll each one into a rectangle. Meanwhile, heat the nduja in a small pan. Of course, we did two batches in separate pots. Both melted quickly but interestingly the browner coloured organic nduja turned a darker red and became fattier when it melted. By the time they were warm, they were visually indistinguishable.

Spread the nduja over the dough. We doubled the nduja amounts mostly because we were testing both kinds but actually I don’t think we’d have had nearly enough if we hadn’t done so. More spicy pork is the way to go here.

Now slice into thin strips lengthwise – we got 16 strips in total – and roll up into coils. Place the coils into the cake tin loosely, with a bit of space between them. Leave another 45 minutes to rise a bit more.

Finally, bake at 220 C / gas mark 7 for 30 minutes or until golden.

Serves a crowd as a snack or side dish. Recipe adapted from this one by Rose Prince in the Telegraph.

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