Prosciutto di Parma, pecorino Romano, Pachino tomatoes, Sicilian tuna and oranges, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
One of the joys of traveling through Italy is discovering hyperlocalized foods like these on your plate. In fact, the country arguably set the standard for mouthwatering, farm-to-table cuisine.
But in recent years, Italy—with its growing population and membership in the European Union—has begun to import not only foods that aren't part of its core culinary traditions, but also foods that are.
Serena Bordonaro, a beekeeper in Tuscany, says trade agreements threaten to destroy the little producers dotting the countryside. Part of the work of local apiarists, she says, has been to educate against the use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture. Now, though, the majority of honey in the region comes from Eastern Europe and China. She feels the quality is low and the tradition of local farming is slipping away. It’s a vicious cycle. The more foods are imported, the less Italians study their own land—and the less they know what to do with it.
Greek Oil and Chinese Garlic
It's a familiar tale of industry and agri-business usurping the need for family-run farming and gardening, which had been the norm for most Italians living in rural areas for centuries. Up until recently, fruits and vegetables weren't items to be purchased in markets. People ate with the seasons because they ate what they had.
Just as in other countries, family size decreased through the decades. It became increasingly difficult to work the land. People began to work in cities and rely on grocery stores. Now, those stores carry products from all over the world. To keep up with demand, olive oil, that most Italian of staples, is imported—mostly from Greece and Spain. Inexpensive citrus fruits also come from Spain. Garlic comes from China. Dairy products come from Germany. Italians today are torn between the convenience and low cost of these items on the one hand and their history of bountiful local cultivation on the other.
What does this struggle mean for a country whose identity is so defined by its food? Here’s what a few ordinary Italians are doing to keep their traditions alive.
'The Taste Justifies the Price'
Isabella Dalla Ragione has made it her life’s work to maintain culinary traditions. She’s written several books on cultivation and cooking, one of which describes a dish called mezzo reale that uses the last of the winter cauliflower and the first of the wild spring asparagus. It's a recipe that's enjoyed for only one week a year, connecting tradition with an awareness of each season's bounty.
For Lorenzo Bianchi, a former lawyer in Rome turned farmer in the region of Le Marche, the garlic coming from Asia and South America was "not in line with traditional Italian cuisine." Italian garlic is only available during March, he explained, and it's ten times the price of the imported stuff. But, "the taste justifies the price."
This is why, with business partner Alessandro Guagni, he converted abandoned land bequeathed to him into rows of production for garlic and wild cherries.
The garlic they sell through their company, KissinGarlic, is a long-forgotten varietal called aglione, or "big garlic," that's ten times the size of common garlic and leaves no garlic breath behind. But for Bianchi, it's not just about the taste but also the nutritional value of his products. Through his other venture, Wild Cherry, Bianchi cultivates rarely produced sour and black cherry varieties with high levels of polyphenols and anthocyanins, found to decrease cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Bianchi knows that there will always be imports, but he encourages his friends and neighbors to shop in small markets where there are fewer imports and more "high-quality homemade products.”
This sentiment is shared by Chiara Bordonaro, a restaurant owner in Turin, a birthplace in Italy of the Slow Food movement, which works to preserve heritage foods. Bordonaro and her sister Francesca maintain an organic garden for vegetables and eggs and buy meat and cheese directly from small local farmers to supply their two restaurants, built under the tenets of health and conviviality. They use the famous Porta Palazzo market and local shops to pick up sundries not grown in their area. Bordonaro doesn’t attach any upside to buying imported foods, but she understands that it’s necessary. Even so, she believes that Italy must first promote its own local producers and augment with imports only where it’s imperative.
Dalla Ragione wants Italians to return to their traditions. Her property in Umbria is covered with 150 varietals of fruit trees, including otherwise abandoned varietals of pears, apples, figs, and quince. She says an important aspect of her work is to redraw the connection between people and their land. Instead of selling her fruit, for instance, she sells clippings from the trees so people can cultivate their own. “Everyone had 20 to 30 tomato plants; that was normal,” Dalla Ragione recalls from her childhood.
While imported foods are becoming a normal way of life, even in Italy, farmers markets are also seeing a resurgence throughout the country. Why? “Because," says Dalla Ragione, "the people are asking for it.”
Jill Donenfeld founded The Culinistas, a weekly chef service in L.A., New York, and Chicago. She's written cookbooks and food- and travel-related magazine articles. Harper Collins published her most recent cookbook, Better on Toast, in 2015.