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Italian trend worth a look

By William Lee-Ashley

It is no secret that Italians love to eat, and it just may be this passion for food that keeps the countryside alive. This past fall, food and wine producers from around Italy converged on Turin for the third annual Salone del Gusto, an annual showcase of foods from every region of Italy, drawing over 100,000 visitors.

According to Agriculture Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, “This showcase is the obvious demonstration of the fact that Italy is the country of biodiversity in food production, and this is its greatest asset.”

The variation of cuisine and products from region to region is indeed astounding. The number of varieties of pasta alone, not to mention the sauces, is enough to confuse even the most attentive eater. Because of regional loyalty, however, the locals are not confused and know their product. Pici, a thick spaghetti unique to one town in southern Tuscany, is impossible to find in neighboring Umbria. Equally hard to find in the north are Strozzapreti (priest-stranglers), a pasta native to Sicily.

Many city dwelling Italians still have a source in the countryside for their most prized products. In Florence, after the grape and olive harvests, it is not uncommon to see residents lugging gallons of wine and oil up to their apartments.

The Italian appreciation of all things local has given small producers a livelihood in the midst of increasing pressure from agribusiness. Tiziano Rugieri, the manager of a small wine cooperative in Emiglia-Romagna, produces an array of wines including Lambrusco, a bubbly red wine, not made even 50 miles away.

He depends on roughly thirty small producers for his grapes. If it were not for the cooperative, these producers would be forced to sell their harvest to the industrial wine factory nearby, at a much reduced price. The factory that, as Rugieri chuckles, “produces wine from water.”

“People appreciate quality,” said Rugieri, “and they are willing to seek out that quality away from the supermarket.”

In the rolling wheat fields of Southern Tuscany, Ernello Armellini, a cheese producer, is enjoying similar success—still derived from this Italian obsession for good, unique local products.

According to Armellini, his Pecorino di Pienza (sheep cheese from Pienza), gets its unique flavor from the combination of grasses on which the sheep graze. For the handful of cheese producers near Pienza, the label preserves the unique character of the cheese and creates prestige for the product. By law, Pecorino di Pienza can only be produced in a 50 square mile area around Pienza.

Touring his immaculate facilities, Armellini is thorough in his description of how the cheese is made. Then, with a smile, he says simply knowing the steps will not produce good cheese.

“Building this facility was risky, but in the long run I can produce better cheese and make more money than if I were to sell it to one of the big cheese-makers down the road,” Armellini said.

Armellini exports some of his cheese but most of it he sells to shops in the town of Pienza. He can not stock the shelves fast enough.

Without a doubt, Armellini depends on the hoards of tourists in Pienza for his business. Local products, however, such as Pecorino di Pienza, Lambrusco, Chianti, and Pici are every bit as important to the booming tourist industry in Italy as Michelangelo, the Vatican, and the Spanish Steps. And that, as small producers would tell you, tastes very, very good.

Perhaps American producers can follow the Italian trend to create more close-to-home opportunities for themselves and their communities. Producer groups wishing to do so should seek advice and resources from the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development Center.