I was interested (and I must admit, a little surprised) to read recently that Italy is the European leader in organic farming. Living here in Tuscany, it’s clear that there is definitely a growing culture of farming and eating more organic food, but I somehow expected wealthier, seemingly more “progressive” countries (such as Germany) to rank more highly. Well, with more than one million hectares of land under organic management, and just under 45,000 organic farms in operation, Italy comes top of the list, followed by Germany and Spain (www.organic-europe.net). Tuscany alone has over 2,300 organic farms which produce mainly olive oil, but also top-notch wines, cheeses, cereals, pulses and meat.
Some of these farms, known as “agriturismi”, rent out rooms , so you can enjoy a quiet stay and see how things are grown. Many let their guests pick fruit from their orchards, so you may be able to taste varieties of pear and apple that you’d never find in local Italian supermarkets, let alone in the UK. For the more adventurous, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) offers people the chance to stay and work on organic and biodynamic farms. In general, for half a day’s work per day, you get bed and board and you can imagine how delicious the food is! Thick cannellini bean soups with parmesan shavings, schiacciata: a flat-bread pizza baked without toppings other than salt, rosemary and green olive oil, castagnaccio: a smoky chestnut flour cake, best enjoyed with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta and honey. Yum.
Many Italian Mammas still go to the market daily and cook fresh healthy tasty meals from scratch for their families. But in the last few decades, families where both members of a couple work outside the home have become the norm, so ready-to-use bottled pasta sauces, pre-cooked rice and frozen pizzas have become readily available in supermarkets. The Slow Food movement was founded in Italy in 1986, as a response to this rapidly expanding fast food (and “fast life”) culture. It is now an international movement involving 80,000 people all over the world. It promotes the “right to pleasure”, especially but not only, the pleasures of the table. With its events, publications, special projects and fairs, it defends local traditions of food and drink and makes them more widely known, celebrating local specialities, promoting artisans who produce tasty, real foods and fighting against mass-produced blandness of all kinds. The Slow Food movement defends biodiversity, and it is in this spirit that farmers, particularly organic farmers, have begun to breed the Cinta Senese pig once more. This is a local Tuscan breed which was shunned a few decades ago in favour of the pink pig (which is easier and quicker to fatten up). There are now incredible Cinta Senese hams and salamis being produced on organic farms around Tuscany.
The ubiquitous but charming Jamie Oliver is a great champion for both organic food and for Italy. “I should have been Italian”, he says in his sixth book “Jamie’s Italy”, in which he explores regional Italian cooking, often adding his own twists, while frequently using and promoting organic ingredients. He is right that Italians treat all aspects of food with the love and attention it deserves. Italy boasts a wealth of distinctive regional cuisines, all with their traditional recipes and local ingredients, such as “cavolo nero” (black cabbage, much nicer than it sounds!) and the tasty, nutty “farro” (spelt) both from Tuscany. Some ingredients are so local that they only have names in dialect and are not even known in the neighbouring regions, such as “stridoli” (a delicious spinach/rocket -like vegetable) used in Romagna, north of Tuscany. And thanks in part to Slow Food movement campaigns, local varieties such as the Rocchetta pumpkin from Liguria are brought back into smallholdings and into the marketplace and will not be lost forever.
Friends (in both the UK and here in Italy) have said to me that they would definitely buy more organic food if it were cheaper. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that here in Tuscany, buying local organic produce in farm shops is in many cases works out cheaper than buying the equivalent conventionally grown food from the supermarket. Everyone who lives in the less affluent countries of the Euro zone will tell you that the cost of living has gone up considerably since the Euro was introduced. Many formerly inexpensive items have doubled in price.
Rising prices have been aggravated by a domino effect of everyone in the production chain adding a little bit extra on to compensate for the extra they have had to pay for raw materials etc. Talking to organic and biodynamic growers, whose prices seem to have remained relatively stable, I concluded that since many of these farms are pretty much self-sufficient, they have not seen their costs go up greatly, and as a consequence, have not had to put up their prices so much. This is of course only true if you buy produce directly from the producer – as soon as it is transported, packaged and distributed by someone else, the cost inevitably goes up. So, once again, the moral is – whether you are in Tuscany or in Tyne and Wear, take time to go slow, buy locally-grown food and savour what you cook and eat.