The area around Mount Vesuvius appears to be where apricots were first cultivated on the Italian peninsula. A long tradition has created a legacy of at least a hundred or so ancient varieties surviving on the slopes of the celebrated volcano overlooking Naples. Through grafting and hybridization, the varieties exhibit unique complex flavors and aromas which are perfectly adapted to the local conditions.
Vesuvian apricots grow in great quantities but this is not at the expense of quality. The nutrient-rich volcanic soil is a crucial factor in making the fruit different from that grown elsewhere. The periodic eruptions have led to an accumulation of large quantities of potassium in the soil and this is a key ingredient contributing to flavor. The microclimate of the area where the fruit is planted is also an important element in making these apricots so distinctive. Warm sunny conditions at a moderate altitude not far from the sea are ideal and it is noticeable that the same varieties grown in other locations do not display the same properties as in their place of origin.
But just like other valuable products of Italy’s rich food heritage, these top quality apricots are finding it hard to withstand genetic erosion and market-imposed standardization. Many varieties are disappearing and, as is unfortunately often the case, it is the best ones that are most at risk. Full-flavored but fragile fruit varieties are being replaced by fruit with mediocre flavor which can tolerate being stored in the cooler and transported over long distances. The Pellichiella — an apricot of inferior quality but more widespread — is a good example of a trend which is extending to all sectors of food and agriculture. The Del prete variety, on the other hand, is one of the most sought after by local cognoscenti, but not even its recognized qualities are enough to assure its future.
Until twenty years ago half of the apricots produced in Italy came from the slopes of Vesuvius. New production areas were then added — first the rural areas of Caserta, then Emilia-Romagna and Puglia. The thing is that apricots, even when grown in more recently developed areas, are sent to markets around Naples in order to be sold. By being displayed in these traditional markets, the apricots from elsewhere gain prestige and value — and this is at the expense of the small-scale local produce. Demand always exceeds supply but even in poor years the price paid to growers is low. In extreme cases, which are becoming more frequent, you find magnificent fruit left to rot on the trees because picking them costs 3 cents more than the 9 offered by the market. What is more, the market is distorted by just a few players who — not altogether legally — hold monopoly purchasing rights, making it impossible to push prices higher.
There is a plan to create purchasing groups which would buy directly from the growers in the countryside without using intermediaries, and this could help break the perverse mechanism which leads to exponential increases in prices by the time the apricots get to the supermarket. Buying as close to the grower as possible also means that there is greater control over quality; it assures purchasers that they are not paying excessive prices and protects growers from economic downturns. It will not solve every problem, but can show that there is not just one single market whose rules must be imposed on everyone. It would be important for this virtuous purchaser behavior to be accompanied by wider use of branding to make local products more recognizable. At present local branding is hardly used at all since land holdings are small and very fragmented, making it too onerous to bear the costs of the complex bureaucratic procedures.
Uniting small growers is perhaps the first step in creating a virtuous circle. Encouraging cooperation among growers who cultivate small landholdings is the most effective way of providing a positive future for Vesuvian apricots and restoring dignity to the growers.
First printed in La Stampa on July 18 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards