‘Nduja, Susannah?! I hear you cry. The Calabrian delicacy so swanky it has an apostrophe in its name? Are you MADE of money?!
Well, taking a look at my bank account – absolutely not, so much so that for this cash-strapped summer I’ve pressed pause on buying meat. But last weekend, at Herne Hill Market, I came across the wonderful Mercanti di Calabria, who sold me 120 grams of ‘nduja for an extremely reasonable four quid.
120g for £4 doesn’t sound like much of a bargain, until you factor in that a very little of this spicy flavour-bomb of a spreadable sausage goes a very long way in adding heat, substance and depth to otherwise basic, inexpensive meals. (And of course a lot can go an even longer way – be careful of this. In Tropea one summer I spent an evening happily eating an entire packet of ‘nduja with my fingers – I was not so happy the next day.)
In fact, I made the following four dishes out of that 120g and probably could have been more sparing. More to the point, the origins of ‘nduja – as with most sausages - can be traced to a necessity to use up the least fancy parts of the pig, or the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) after the four most lucrative parts had been sold. In Rome’s tradition - but some gentle googling suggests this stretches to elsewhere in Italy, including Calabria - the hierarchy of who-gets-which-bit-of-pig went like this: the finest quarter to the nobles, the next finest to the clergy, the third to the middle class and the fourth to the army. The fifth quarter – usually offal by this point – would go to the workers.
Quinto quarto has spawned a wealth of tasty, cheap meals in Italy, and I recommend Rachel Roddy’s 2013 blog post on the subject.
Nowadays, ‘nduja is made with fancier things like neck fat, pancetta, lard and even occasionally guanciale. It’s gained itself a DOP (ooh la la) and is slathered on pizzas, whizzed into arancini and beaten into mayonnaises across the world. It’s perky, fiery, and vividly aesthetic – and again, a teaspoon will do wonders.
The massive heat and high fat content make it an almost perfect way to reduce the use of other ingredients. It can dominate if you let it, but with balance it can give a useful undertone and depth to cheaper flavours – for reference, see the Secret Ingredient Curry, which shouldn’t work but really does (unsurprisingly, the secret ingredient is ‘nduja).
Yes, I wish I could have done an ‘nduja clam flatbread as Thomas Straker did in a transfixing reel on Instagram last week. Yes, I would love to stir it through mussels, or squid, or pile it over a burrata. But this was a budget week, and ‘nduja was deservedly the star.
A big shout-out to the artichokes tumbling out of their crates in the markets right now. I associate them with sunny French lunches or Mediterranean salads, but there are so many around in the UK this summer. I like the thoughtfulness of eating them whole, a ritual in each leaf as you peel it back, dunk in a rich spicy aioli and drag your teeth across it to rake at the tender flesh. It always feels like summer to watch the pile of discarded petals grow, seeing all the textures and colours change and soften until you reach the hairy choke (inedible) and the meaty heart (very, very edible).
A small amount of ‘nduja beaten into the aioli elevates this simple dish, punching through the richness.
But also - this aioli is a bit of a fix-all. Dip your chips, slather your chickens, pop it in a sandwich with crunchy lettuce - whatever floats your boat.
True comfort food for this rubbish July, with roasted garlic to smoke things up. Add or reduce the ricotta, depending on how spicy you want this to be.
I used elicoidali because I wanted this to be chunky, but use any dried pasta you fancy.
So this week I saw these beautiful, slightly gnarly finger aubergines and could not resist picking up a couple. And I wanted to eat them with coconut milk and Thai basil and heat – and I thought why not use ‘nduja as a base? Which sounds weird and a bit capital F Fusion, but I gave it a go and it…worked really well?!
Blended with onion and garlic as a starter for the curry, the ‘nduja reduced the number of spices I had to use, and gave it a porky, glossy oomph of heat.
The spicy Calabria-Provence mash-up you know you wanted. It miiiiiight have been an error to turn the oven down so a friend and I could nip out for pre-dinner negroni sbagliati, but once we got over the (admittedly tooth-cracking) crusts this was a punchy flavour bomb.
I’ve made this recipe for a pissaladière before (without the ‘nduja) so have set out the recipe I know doesn’t turn the crusts into concrete. Also, since it uses tinned anchovies and jarred olives, it’s a pantry fridge-raid classic.
Served with a lemon and black pepper crème fraiche.
Let me know, as ever, how you get on.