Showcasing some of Italy’s best new food producers, Gusto Italia is a unique event organised by the Association of Professional Italian Chefs in the UK to promote regional Italian food and wine. I went along to find out the stories behind the businesses, and to discover their opinions on Italian gastronomy in the wake of globalisation and fast food. Though I learnt that Venetians are going mad for sushi, I was told in no uncertain terms that traditional food remains at the heart of the Italian diet, and that high quality produce is a key concern for consumers. The highlight of the experience (beyond sampling innumerable Italian delicacies) was when I asked stallholders about their favourite local dishes. Inevitably their eyes would light up, and they told me about the foods that were most special to them. Here are a few of my encounters:
A start up created by three friends who wanted to share the best of Sicilian produce with an international audience. They focus on niche products not found in the mass market, such as their bright pink prickly pear jam.
Nino explained the story of the seasonal sweets known as frutta di Martorana – almond paste moulded to look like fruit. ‘It’s particularly common at this time of year, as it’s traditionally eaten on All Saints Day. We like to offer seasonal products because they simply taste better.
‘Eating habits in Italy are changing; because of the economic crisis people eat less, but what they eat is of a higher quality.’
I ate: sundried tomato and walnut pesto (which tasted of sunshine), and creamy baked ricotta. Then I went back and tried Piparelle Messinesi – tiny Sicilian biscuits with almonds and spices.
Already based in London, Etna Coffee was created by two friends who wanted to bring the best of Sicilian street food to the UK. They left their day jobs and set up a thriving business in Victoria, offering cannoli, arancini and coffee to Italian expats and Londoners alike.
‘Globalisation is making a big impact on the food industry in mainland Italy,’ company founder Gaetano explained, ‘but in Sicily it struggles. While Sicily has its negative aspects, its food is definitely one of its positives. Traditional food is still the most popular thing to eat there.‘The best part of my job is when people come to the café, try the food and and say “I feel at home.”’
I ate: Cannoli. Obviously.
Alessio spoke seriously about his company’s commitment to ensuring the highest quality produce:
‘Just yesterday I was in the fields overseeing the sewing of crops – quality control is very important to us. To create our products the raw materials are harvested in the morning and processed in the evening, to ensure the highest freshness and best taste.
‘Fast food is making an impact in Italy, particularly in cities, and consumer habits are changing, but traditional food rituals are still preserved. The links to the food of your family remain very strong. Our aim is to provide novelty through tradition.’
Alessio’s favourite traditional product: Vino Pecorino ‘made from a delicious grape that had been forgotten about until 20 years ago, when it was served to one of my colleagues in a restaurant. When he asked for the name, the waiter told him they called it Vino Pecorino (Sheep wine) because it was so rarely harvested for wine that the sheep ate all the grapes. Now it’s one of our most popular products.’
I ate: brown bread dipped in delicate olive oil. Twice.
Claudio and Simona, a married couple, spoke enthusiastically about their organic farm near Catania in Sicily.
‘Having a family business is important because it allows us to look after the entire production process from start to finish. After the harvest, we ensure that the plants become hay and feed for the animals.’
The Carusi’s favourite traditional dish: Cassata Siciliana
I ate: Pizzuta and Romana almonds (Claudio carefully explained the difference between each) and a light, fragrant olive oil that tasted of lemons.
I spoke to Silvia, who explained how this Sicilian company merges modern business knowledge with recipes handed down through generations.
‘The food culture in Italy is definitely changing; the trend of organic and vegan food is making an impact on what people choose to eat. In the South of Italy I think traditional food remains more important than modern habits.
‘For us, using family recipes that have been passed down is important because it preserves the genuineness of our products and keeps these traditions alive.’
Silvia’s favourite traditional dish: Cassata Siciliana
I ate: a filetti di mandorla biscuit – the squishiest and most delightful almond-based thing I have ever tasted.
Michele and Giulia talked about the importance of creating healthy as well as tasty food, emphasising the fact that they sought the advice and experience of medical professionals when starting their Genoa-based company.
‘Tradition is still the most important part of eating in Italy. A busy lifestyle isn’t an excuse to not cook properly – it’s our responsibility to make traditional food fit around our modern lives.’
Favourite traditional foods: focaccia and baccalà with taggiascha olives
Francesco is one of three Sicilians based in Edinburgh who decided to launch a company championing traditional Sicilian cuisine.
‘We want to change stereotypes about Italy and Sicily. We don’t just eat pizza and pasta, otherwise we’d all be enormous! Our mission is to show how eating Sicilian food is both delicious and good for you, hence our slogan: A new way to eat well. We want to educate people about the Mediterranean diet.
‘Tradition is at the heart of Italian food.’
Francesco’s favourite traditional dish: Pasta con la mollica
I ate: almond and basil pesto and sweet pistachio spread – like Nutella, but better!
Photographs by Lucy Rahim and Francesca Marchese