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Fred Plotkin on Italy's changing eating practice

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  1. So many generalities. So many outdated thoughts in that little article.

    Plotkin: "Farm to table eating is still possible in Italy,” he says. “But it’s getting more difficult to accomplish..." Where did he stumble on that. It's never been easier to eat farm to table. Yes, the unbelievably stupid bureaucracy in Brussels is very problematic, but it is not stopping those who care about food.

    It appears that he is somewhat oblivious to all the great new small farmer's markets that have appeared in small towns, as well as large cities, in the north. He appears oblivious to all the young people opening new trattorie and osterie that serve both quality food, have good wine lists and really care about their customers.

    Plotkin's original book was good. I don't have the newest addition, but the one before it was really outdated. Basic information about food was good, but the rest was just dribble.

    Unlike Plotkin, I don't worry about the future of food in Italy.

    1 Reply
    1. re: allende

      I don't worry much either, although there has been a major reduction in the number of farms, mostly small and medium, in Italy. On the other hand, 95% of all farms are still family owned and managed, even if farm labor is increasingly provided by foreign workers. Sure, you'll find salmon and Atlantic cod at fish markets in Sicily, and a large part of the Italian processed tomato trade relies on product from China and Israel, but that's the world. There are folks who worry about Trentino apples dominating the southern marketplace, or large-scale Puglian grape growers pushing out local cultivars. Or industrial cheeses appearing everywhere. You can't freeze frame an entire society as golden life on the piazza forever. But in Italy, as elsewhere, there's strong pushback to some of these trends, in food production and consumption and you can always stop by a roadside to harvest some wild fennel yourself. Or find a stand where someone has done it for you. Here's a link to the 2012 farm data.http://www.arc2020.eu/front/2012/08/a...

    2. Interesting, I was in the Veneto for January/February and the "local" market vendors are offering more and more veg/fruits from all around the E.U. Artichokes from Sicilia, Citrus form Spain, Pork from Germany, "fresh" fish from Ireland, etc. Sadly, this is the future of food in Italy and all other heretofor countries/regions that relied on local products in their respective seasons. Now, with overnight air freight commonly used for fresh food stuffs, we will see an ever expanding use of Global Sourcing; at the expense of locally grown/produced foods.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ospreycove

        Sorry to slightly disagree with you about the future of food in Italy. As you say, vendors are offering more fruits and vegetables from all around the E.U.

        To a certain extent, for the great masses of people, supermarkets have replaced small fruttivendelos, but even here there is hope. In my small town, the supermarket actually carries a good selection of locally sourced fruits and vegetables and a great selection of fresh fish. Not nearly as good as our local farmer's markets, but good because there is a market for it.

        In other parts of Italy where we travel a lot (Piemonte; ER; Alto Adige; Lombardia) we see a new (over the last ten years or so) awakening in terms of local produce and certainly much more care in terms of fish. Farmer's markets are sprouting up where none existed in the past and the fruits and vegetables are grown locally by young people interested in sustaining the long tradition of quality products.

        For those who care about food, it has rarely been better... at least that's my opinion.

      2. bob96,
        Yes, you are right "The Golden times", that never were, are gone forever!! Nutritionally, the cucina povera, of the past probably does not offer the balance of the assortments of Globally Sourced foods, available today in Italy, when one considers nutritional value.
        Another anecdotal tidbit, is Italian Bottarga, highly prized and priced commensurately, is actually made from Black Mullet egg sacks that are harvested in the waters near Anna Maria Island Florida, frozen, and shipped to Sardinia for salting, sun drying, packaging and distribution. for upwards of 10 Euro/100 grams. oh, well it is just a big happy Global Family............

        1. Another interesting point. What do the folks here think of the "Big Box stores like Iper Coop,Carrefour, Panorama Superstore, Billa Superstore, etc, that seem to be popping up faster than a fat Porcini after a gentle night shower?

          1. Sometime I wonder if people ever takes care to ask the locals. I live in a rural area. One of my neighbors grows organic khorasan (kamut) and sells it as flour or pasta he makes himself. Another neighbor grows rare black garbanzo beans. A couple of km further we have a new natural wine vineyard and a breeder of free-ranging pigs. In Santa Maria degli angeli we have 2 cheese makers who collect milk daily from the local farmers within a few km radius and make mozzarella and ricotta twice a day, plus pecorino of every age and shape. In Gubbio there is a farm that has started producing gluten free flour from Cannabis. Yes! it says on the lable that has no psicoactive effect and you can make cookies of it. I know more people than I can count who have synergic gardens. None of my neighbors ever buys olive oil at the supermarket because we all make it, one of the best olive oils in the world.

            In Bevagna we have one of the few examples of a wheat farm which also has an antique restored stone mill and bakes the most amazing bread and cookies.

            Of course we do have Lidl, McD and all the unavoidable evil but please, look a bit further than the fancy restaurants. They are not representative of what people does. The countryside is alive with people producing good and exciting foods. You have to know where to find them, but any self-proclaimed expert should at least try.

            For what the opinion of an Italian can count I totally agree with Allende, "It's never been easier to eat farm to table."

            11 Replies
            1. re: madonnadelpiatto

              "The countryside is alive with people producing good and exciting foods. You have to know where to find them"

              Absolutely agree. Amen.

              1. re: allende

                And it always been, even of they were more traditional foodstuffs. My cousins in a smallish city in Calabria take advantage of everything--foraging when it's worth it for fennel, asparagus, and mushrooms; buying local fish from women in Bagnara Calabra; getting seasonal produce and pecorino from the weekly market vendors (some of whom sell cheese made commercially, if locally); making olive oil from their own groves, even if the family mill is in disuse; gathering mandarini and oranges from roadsides, such being the glut economy of Calabrian citrus, and mountain spring water from the many roadside taps; getting meat and salumi from small scale producers; but using neighborhood supermarkets for deCecco pasta, Mulino Bianco biscotti, Auricchio or Sorresina provolone, and an occasional exotica like Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese. They also cure their own olives and get a simple dessert wine from zibibbo (moscato) from home vintners nearby. They only buy bread from the forno a legno and most dolci from an amazing pasticceria. I doubt, though, they'd ever see any need to go looking for kamut or gluten-free pasta. This is of course an everyday domestic world not always open to travellers, but, yes, a lot else is, if we look for it. The rewards can be great, and the information for finding these corners is richer and more accessible than ever.

                1. re: bob96

                  bob96,

                  Perfect. Simply wonderful description of what is happening. It captures it so well. Thanks.

                  One thing you said particularly resonates this evening in our small town on the Tuscan coast. We'll be in Piemonte next week for nine days and my wife was looking for the small farmer's markets, not the large weekly markets. As you said, it has never been easier to find them (on the net).

                  1. re: allende

                    In other words, the small, local, farmer/grower/producer is now falling into the realm of "seeking out", and what do the rest of the folks do........prepared foods, big box stores, and fresh produce sourced Globally. Which, in time, causes more small producers to go out of business, and rely on the government for transfer payments! It is the inevitable evolution of the culture, any culture not only in Italia. The average working couple might not have the time or resources to scour the countryside for that perfect Stravecchio Asiago.
                    The same has happened in the U.S where I divide my time w/a smaller city in the Veneto, One must seek out very small, mostly 'under the radar" producers, at a considerable investment in time and abviously $$.
                    All emotions aside, we are witnessing the last gasp of the generations of local, small batch/flock/acreage, producers falling aside in the path of Global giants. Then all that is left are the "boutique producers", with their astronomically high prices, who will find their niche catering to the elite few among us.

                    1. re: ospreycove

                      Well, I agree that it is certainly getting harder in the U.S. It is not the difficulty finding the producers, but it is costly. I'm of the "so what" variety. I'd rather spend my money on good ingredients, both food and wine, than other things. However, you're right that for most people it is not easy in the U.S.

                      In Italy, I don't think it is so much the small producers going out of business (although you are right in that it is happening), but the fact that there is less interest in food e.g. for sitting down to a proper meal and eating with family. Part of it is what you say, two working parents. Part of it, I think, is just disinterest in good food. A lot of people would rather eat fast food and other junk. You can see it here in the rate of increase in very overweight to obese adults and children. What a shame.

                      I wouldn't go quite as far as you with the we "elite" few, but definitely see your point.

                      In the meantime, today, and let's say for a good number of years, IMO, it is really a great time to eat and drink. The care that is coming from young people in growing vegetables and fruit, raising animals, making wines and cheese is wonderful to see and benefits us.

                      1. re: allende

                        Id say the family structure trend is most troubling to me - not only the two income family but smaller families overall and the loss of mama in the kitchen carrying forward food traditions and expertise (not to mention the lack of sons and daughters to carry forward family restaurants).. In the US its the difference for example, between pies made at home, as an ordinary activity with lots of women knowing the "secret" of making pie crust and pies made by specialist bakers who charge $8 a slice for pieces of "special" pies - or by hobby bakers like me who make them a couple times a year. In Italy, it may be women not having time any more to make ragu, slow cooked stews, fresh pastas or to learn the fine points of braising, preparing artichokes, peeling favas, putting up preserves, etc or men and women not having time to grow their own vegetables, forage, etc... Since the italian restaurant and eating culture is largely based on extension of home principles (vs the chef-driven high cuisine in france) I wonder how long the restaurant eating survives the dilution of the home culture in addition to all of the other changes occurring through mass immigration, EU, etc.

                      2. re: ospreycove

                        I agree that there seems to be a great and growing divide between those who know about and can afford that perfect stravecchio...and the rest of the world. But I don't think it's ever that simple. Living now far from the NYC greenmarket utopia, I happily find local farmers markets selling quality stuff (if not the recondite specialities, which I care little about anyway), and even the local chain supermarkets starting to showcase seasonal fruit and veg from area and regional producers. There has to be a demand, first, and there's a growing chance it will be met. if I can buy organic chicken, wild Florida shrimp, and fresh, local produce, I care little that the middle aisles groan with dozens of frozen pizzas. The choice is not only alas, between a $40/lb "perfect" tuma and a $5/lb industrial monterey jack. It's about for me, overall diversity, quality, and some sense of connection to a sustainable food web. The joys of the greenmarket include some very expensive and rare foods, most of which I see as ornamental diversions, but most valuably welcoming tables of excellent "ordinary" stuff like apples and onions and greens at competitive prices. May these producers and their consumers thrive. We can easily fetishize extreme speciality producers, but they can never be long term solutions. Small producers and artisans in general succeed, I think, not just from personal "passion" but by mastering the art of being successful small businesspeople meeting the needs of customers--and there's nothing wrong in that. Let there be lovingly tended pecorinos crafted by former corporate lawyers. But these stories are not the entire answer. A food economy that allows smaller, mid-size, and family owned businesses to thrive--even with unsexy, everyday offerings--can be. How we get there requires an awareness that consumer demand is the starting point.

                        1. re: bob96

                          Couldn't have said it any better, except for one thing. The vegetables at the greenmarkets in the U.S. that we use when we're not in Italy, look great, but the intensity of the flavors is really lacking. We see this most often with tomatoes and carrots. Soil, sun, water, who knows, but when friends come and visit us here in Italy, there is an "so that's what a tomato tastes like" moment when they taste one from our local farmer's market.

                          That holds true as well for wine in The States both from Italy and France. Unless it travels in a reefer it doesn't taste the same, and even if it does travel in a reefer there is a noticeable difference in the same wine. Those ports in Rotterdam and Bayonne are hot.

                          Best,

                          allende

                          1. re: allende

                            Where are you buying in the U.S? Here on Cape Cod, the soil is sandy and the growing season very short, although we do have a CSA share at a local organic farm. The tomatoes are still mostly green by the first frost.
                            Last spring, though, we were in San Francisco, and the produce was wonderful--as flavorful as much that I've had in Italy.

                    2. re: bob96

                      My relatives in Calabria do the same thing, but the problem is they are in the Crotonese. And eating off the land there has gotten increasingly dangerous: http://www.video.mediaset.it/video/ie...

                      1. re: Bugsey34

                        Thanks for the clip. Unlike Crotone, the area in Reggio Calabria where my family lives is without heavy dirty industry--although rifiuti is always a problem. It's in a dense plain of olive groves and other agriculture, fed by water from nearby Aspromonte mountain springs. I'm sure, though, that my cousins, both physicians, are being more careful than ever.

                2. allende and bob96,
                  great comments, I think all of us basically share the same observations, I hope my darker view is reversed by a new wave of more aware consumers, After all, "you/we are eating it!!!"
                  ThAnks again for your insights.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: ospreycove

                    @ lisaonthecape

                    I agree with you that San Francisco is not bad. Not Italy, but not bad.

                    The Cape, The Vineyard, New York City, Boston are, imo, poor when it comes to the taste of vegetables particularly tomatoes, carrots and asparagus. People should come to Italy in the Spring and try some local asparagini from here and then they will see what asparagus should taste like. Some of the greens (cicoria, field greens, chard etc.) and peas have very little taste, compared with Italy.

                    1. re: allende

                      I spend time on a South West Florida island. As far as veg, South West Fl, in general is "The home of tasteless produce, (except citrus, obviously), the winter tomato season produces mostly red cardboard that looks like a tomato!

                  2. I am grateful for the replies, which are well thought out.