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A day in the life: De Calabria

Categories: Behind the stalls

Luke Mackay goes behind the scenes at De Calabria, to find out what makes it tick

On Saturday, my wife and I had a rare day without the children (thanks mum) so we headed directly for the badlands of central tourist hell, Piccadilly Circus. “Blimey it’s busy,” I said. “It’s like Piccadilly Circus round here.” My wife laughed and laughed and laughed. She loves my jokes. As we ambled down to Trafalgar Square past 30 or 40 ‘floating’ Yodas and more pavement chalk artists than you could throw a stick at, I tried to get excited about our destination, the National Gallery.

I ‘tried’ to get excited because to my shame I have an emotional block when it comes to paintings. As hard as I try, I can barely raise within me a flicker of interest. On Saturday I stood inches from Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Constable’s The Hay Wain, which I am reliably informed are two of the good ones, and felt dead inside. “I like the yellow,” I mumbled. The only reason I know that I’m not a psychopath is the deep emotional reaction I get when I place a morsel of food in my mouth that is so transcendent, so delicious and so perfect that my eyes roll back in my head and a small tear forms in the corner of my eye. My wife recognizes ‘the look’ and laughs at me (for real this time) and I can’t speak for a bit.

A poet and philosopher
It usually happens once or twice a year, so imagine my surprise when last week it happened three times in as many minutes at De Calabria, tucked away in Three Crown Square in the ebullient presence of Giuseppe Mele. Giuseppe is another of the extraordinary characters upon which Borough Market is built. A true original, a poet, artist and philosopher, he has been trading here for 12 years and was the first employee of another company to get his own stall. And what a stall it is. A gift to the world, a treasure trove, so crammed with deliciousness that it seems almost ethereal.

As you may well imagine, everything comes from Calabria, which for ease of explanation is the ‘toe’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ and the land of Giuseppe’s fathers. You can feel the passion he has for the land and the produce with every anecdote that springs forth between his wild gesticulations. He is a joy to talk to. It’s hard to describe, but he is a like a region made flesh; he has for want of a better word the ‘terroir’ of southern Italy bursting out of him.

After we had talked for a few hours he disappeared to the back of the stall and returned with a huge jar, filled with damp sea salt. He scraped the top layer away and extracted the least appealing looking anchovy I have ever seen. He tenderly scraped the fillet from the bone and I laid it on my tongue. “Leave it there,” he said, quietly. Lord above, the ANGELS sang inside my very head. It was as if the ocean itself had been reduced to an essence and then draped over my tongue.

Why is it so good?
And then exactly the same thing happened with his n’duja—the best I have ever tasted, silken and rich, with the perfect balance of fat and chilli heat. “But why?” I stammered. “Why is it so good?” Giuseppe shrugged and told me that the farmer who raises the pigs also grows the chillis on the farm, smokes and cures them and makes the n’duja himself. That’s why.

A lot of very clever people come back to De Calabria again and again—there are regular customers for the superlative olive oil and for his flagship product, Sun Ra sun-dried tomatoes, named with characteristic eccentricity after an American jazz composer. You will never taste better—chopped, mixed and sealed with extra virgin olive oil in Giuseppe’s kitchen at home. There are no recipe and no measurements, he just knows. Boy, does he.

Try Luke’s gurnard with wild garlic mayonnaise, Sun Ra tomatoes and asparagus, inspired by his day with Giuseppe.