The history of gastronomy has always been closely intertwined with the many varied factors affecting agricultural production. During historical periods when agricultural productivity was low and people faced hunger in the daily struggle to feed themselves, they still managed to create a range of simple and resourceful recipes. Methods focused on conservation and saving or reusing leftovers: the recipes have become a mainstay of traditional menus in our osterias.
When another region was able to express culinary excellence – due to its geography and climate, the ability of its local farmers, the presence of high-quality native breeds and varieties in their natural habitat – restaurants and chefs were able to create an extraordinary story of success. The way French cuisine became organized and codified in a national system was also a result of valued ingredients circulating and spreading over the whole country, where they became the basic ingredients of dishes which have made culinary history.
There is a common feature which has always connected these processes. The best producers were identified and the different characteristics of similar raw materials from different locations and regions were recognized and appreciated. There was a sort of competition based on existing biodiversity, whether it was prolific in well-endowed areas or meagre in less fortunate ones. Intensive large-scale agriculture has eroded this beneficial interaction between agriculture and gastronomy.
The rise of the food industry, standardization of agricultural production regardless of territorial differences, the resulting homogenization of taste and the progressive reduction in biodiversity have almost completely severed the link between agricultural production and culinary use at local level. The renewed enthusiasm for traditional cuisine has rescued a situation which seemed endangered. Local dishes have become a major attraction of food and wine tourism, which is enjoying great popularity.
But if you look more closely, you find that local Italian agricultural produce is not in fact so widely used by restaurants offering local cuisine. There may be an abundance of traditional recipes, but the basic ingredients, such as vegetables, frequently come from who knows where and pass through who knows how many hands. Faced with questionable practices, the United States is seeing a new awareness of traceability and the quality of raw materials. Some restaurants even print serviettes with a photo and personal data of the farmer who has directly supplied ingredients.
In Italy, instead, we have a majority of restaurateurs who do not consider it necessary to seek out ingredients from small local producers to provide added value or improvements to their cuisine. And small farmers themselves no longer have an incentive to grow varieties with lower yield but superior organoleptic qualities or to farm animals in a slower more natural way.
There is no demand and nobody pays a fair price. So it is cheaper to standardize production and obey the laws of the market on a national scale. There are many other problems apart from restaurateurs and small farmers. There are also tax issues and excessive food safety diligence, which is always tailored to the requirements of large-scale distribution. It is not only a matter of aiming to promote traceability: it is also a question of shortening the production chain, once again linking small local producers to the needs of gastronomy.
Everyone should be involved in doing something about this, whether restaurateurs, small farmers or the appropriate authorities. It is possible to set up a virtuous circle between agriculture and gastronomy once again. This would have many benefits – shared wealth, environmental sustainability (how much fuel does a potato use up to get to your plate?) and a general qualitative improvement in the standard of our catering and food consumption.
First printed in La Stampa November 12, 2003
Adapted by Ronnie Richards