Italy, food and sustainability

I am writing this from Italy where I have come to visit my daughter for Christmas. The Italians are a serious food nation, in ways it is difficult to understand without actually being here. Families can fall out over some food detail – she roasts the pine nuts too much, his balsamic vinegar is too sour! Italy is very regional and they complain that you can’t go to that other province, their food is horrible!  The way the Italians shop for food is different to how we shop in Ireland. This has implications, I beleive, for how they will engage with  sustainability over the coming years.

Firstly, the Italian towns have loads of little specialist shops still, not just for food but for all sorts of items. Though out of town supermarkets exist here,  I have always had the impression that the little shops are preferred. So, I checked the facts. In Italy around 40% of the food shopping is with the top 5 supermarkets whereas in Ireland it is about 85%. This means that smaller producers can have a harder time in Ireland getting their food to market because so many people use the supermarkets and the buying habits and demands of big 5 supermarkets are not suited to smaller producers.

Secondly, the Italian relationship to good food has meant that they have always maintained their allotment type culture where someone in the family grows an amazing amount and variety of food on an allotment. The climate helps of course! The harvest bounty means that Italian families often make preserves of all sorts and take real pride in it. The result is that the small producer is  much better respected than amongst supermarket shoppers. The smaller shops tend to stock local produce so it is more available to the consumer. The better informed Italian food consumer values freshness in food over everything else and you can see mis-shapen produce  being sold on the market stalls as the informed consumers see past this issue.

Fianally, Italians also maintain a link to the countryside or ancestral farm in a slightly different way to Ireland. Many city folk in Ireland visit their country cousins for the births, deaths and marriages! In Italy they visit for the harvest. It might be that there are olive trees on the home farm and so they collect those, bottle them, swap them with someone who has pears or sunflower seeds! These habits also mean that they follow the weather and the seasons more closely than those not connected to agriculture.

This all adds up to a better instinctive feel for sustainability than for those of us who have lost the connection to natural cycles and produce. Italy has a lot of other problems in respect of sustainability but their attitude to and understanding of good food may prove a vital vehicle for the changes needed as we move towards sustainability.


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