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Serve Southern Italy's stuffed figs with dessert wine

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005

The Southern Italy region of Calabria is a remote, sun-baked and arid land with a dazzling, rough-hewn beauty. Despite the breathtaking vistas from mountain roads, beautiful sandy beaches and lovely seaside coves, earning a living in Calabria has never been easy. The hard-working and tenacious locals traditionally have toiled as fisherman, tenant farmers, laborers and shopkeepers.

Because of the impoverished circumstances, most locals always have appreciated the simple pleasures of enjoying good food and wine -- often homemade -- with family and close friends. Being at the table for a meal is to share the joy of just being alive and well.

But in a land that has little, the availability of food has never been taken for granted. Locals attach great importance to keeping small homesteads to supplement the sometimes precarious commercial food supplies. They often raise a few pigs while cultivating a profusion of vegetables and fruits, including figs.

Calabria's intense heat and arid climate provide the world's best terroir for growing the region's trademark Dottato figs. As they ripen in September, the pendulous bunches of figs weigh down the branches of the trees in a joyous symbol of harvest plenty.

Picked at just the right moment, fresh figs have a brownish green color with juicy pinkish flesh. The fleshy fruit bursts with a sensuous delight of fresh aromas and flavors. Wrapped in a slice of salty prosciutto, fresh figs make a heavenly appetizer along with a glass of vino.

Calabria's fig crop typically arrives in such profusion that it cannot be consumed entirely fresh. The ever-thrifty locals use various drying techniques to transform the fresh figs into a much-revered dessert delicacy known as stuffed figs.

The figs are picked in a bunch with the stalk in place before being placed on mats to dry. Still on the stalk in a bunch, each dried fig is cut open and filled with an almond and a small piece of candied orange peel. The figs are baked at low heat until golden brown before being dipped in syrup flavored with orange peel.

The stuffed figs are enjoyed after meals with dessert wines or as a snack with strong bleu cheeses such as Gorgonzola Dolce. The melded flavors of the sweet figs and savory almond combined with a sweet dessert wine make a perfect combination.

Sam Patti, the owner of La Prima Espresso Company in the Strip District and Downtown, recently imported authentic stuffed figs produced by the Brothers Marano in the seaside village of Amantea in Calabria. Visiting La Prima Espresso is the closest experience in Pittsburgh to being in a southern Italian cafe. The stuffed figs add another touch of authenticity.

"When I first visited my cousins in Amantea over 30 years ago, I recall enjoying delicious homemade lasagna before my cousin brought out a large crock filled with traditional homemade stuffed figs," Patti says. From the first taste, he says, the figs' unique flavors and texture worked their magic. He says they embody Calabria's resourceful spirit and its passion for enjoying handcrafted agricultural products.

La Prima offers Marano Brothers' Stuffed Figs "Le Crocette," where the figs are arranged in the shape of cross, for $9.20 per box. They are made in the classic style with almonds and orange peel, and they make an excellent match with the following wines:

N.V. Michele Chiarlo, Nivole, Moscato d'Asti, Italy (Specialty 25146, $9.99 for 375 milliliters): This refreshing little gem greets the nose with lovely, light aromas of peaches, pears and apples followed by sprightly flavors of apples and peaches through a crisp, off-dry yet well-balanced finish. Recommended.

N.V. Bonny Doon Vineyards, Framboise, Washington State (6842, $11.99 for 375 milliliters): This awe-inspiring fortified raspberry wine is made from the three Washington State varieties of Meeker, Tulameen and Morrison for a deep ruby color, a wonderful blast of raspberry aromas, and intense, jammy flavors of raspberry with just a hint of briary bitterness and great acidity to balance a superb, sweet finish. This is a classic bodice snapper from start to finish. Highly recommended.

1996 Royal Tokaji Wine Company, Five Puttonyos, Hungary (Specialty 11481, $36.99 for 500 milliliters): This classic Hungarian dessert wine has a brilliant amber color leading to bewitching aromas of peaches, apricots and caramel before offering rich, elegant flavors of ripe peaches, pineapple, apricots and honey. The wine is beautifully balanced with good acidity through a sweet finish. The "five puttonyos" refers to the number of shovels of super-ripe, botrytis-affected grapes that are used to make this glorious nectar. Highly recommended. Additional Information:

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