‘Nduja in Spilinga: history and myth
The first thing you need to know about ‘nduja is its pronunciation. All Italians read it as nduya, but the “j” should really be pronounced à la française, like in “garage”. In its phonetic spelling: [‘nduʒa]
This adds some weight to the theoretical origins of this humble Calabrian salami. According to legend, it was a “gift” from Joachim Murat, then King of Naples, to the local people. L’andouillette, it was called: an extremely rustic piece of charcuterie made of tripe and other bits of animal, usually cow.
‘Nduja has an incredibly distinctive taste, especially pleasing to palates that enjoy the older, more ancestral flavours. It was immediately seized upon in Calabria, but its ingredients remained vague: within the sausage skin you could find the most gristly scraps of pork, including the rinds, along with a generous dollop of fat and a heap-ton of chili, which functioned as a preservative and made the meat keep for longer. It is this that gives ‘nduja its bright, unmistakable orangey-red colour.
But it was in the municipality of Spilinga that ‘nduja inspired a quasi-religious devotion. Even today, virtually every family there has its own pig: they rear it, and it gives them some superb charcuterie, up to about half of the animal’s weight. As for the rest? Well, that goes into making the best ‘nduja imaginable. It remains an almost sacred job, taking the cuts from the “nobler” parts of the animal, removing any hard bits from the rind, and then mashing the whole lot over and over again until it becomes creamy. Then the chili is added, maybe up to 30% of the eventual weight. The resulting paste is then stuffed into the sausage skin and fed into a smoker. This harks back to the familial production of yesteryear, when the sausages would be hung in the home, absorbing aromas from the fireplace. This too is an important stage in the conservation process.
Today, ‘nduja forms a potent counterpart to a great many recipes, as a guarantor of extra flavour; but in contemporary cooking it has blossomed into an ingredient in its own right. With one important caveat: it must never, ever be cooked on the gas.