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It’s no secret that Brits love Italian food. From the oozing Mozzarella of a sourdough pizza to the simple yet impactful power of popping open a jar of pesto, the familiar flavours of Italian cuisine make it a perennial favourite across the nation. After all, in the UK, the Anglicised dish Spaghetti Bolognese was found to be a favourite mid-week meal among 42% of Brits, according to Cuisinart’s The Eating Habits of a Nation 2021. Lockdown scratch cooking experimentation moved from the kitchen to the garden over the summer, and sales of pizza ovens at John Lewis soared by nearly 200% over the last 12 months. For the first time ever, the shop’s best-selling pizza oven sold more units than its best-selling barbecue.
But Italian food is not only a favourite in the UK. Indeed, the whole world recognises the satisfying qualities of the nation’s cuisine. A 2019 global survey by YouGov, which included more than 25,000 people in 24 countries, found that Italian was the world’s favourite cuisine, with pizza and pasta among the most revered foods in the world. In fact, the proportion of Britons who said they like Italian cuisine (91%) was equal to the proportion who said they liked British cuisine.
While Italian cuisine is always popular in the UK, there is reason to believe the nation’s go-to meal of choice saw an uplift due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only were dried pasta and tinned tomatoes among the top products hoarded in stockpilers’ cupboards, but the pandemic was a time for Italian food to shine thanks to a few of its best qualities: simplicity and comfort.
The home cooking boom led more Brits to find solace in the delicious ingredients and simple preparations that Italian cuisine offers. “Italian cuisine is special for many reasons,” says Linda Bianchin of CaterItaly. First, she says, while recipes are simple, they’re simultaneously rich, hearty and full of flavour. “The authenticity of Italian foods is experienced by the absence of processed ingredients and a general handmade process.”
Sergio Raglio, chairman of Rowcliffe, agrees. “Italian cuisine is popular the world over because its entire culinary lineage was built on the very simple premise of letting the produce do the talking,” he explains. “The unfussy, laidback style of Italian cooking is also a primary reason for its popularity with home cooks.”
During the pandemic, CaterItaly created a range of traditional Italian ragù targeting such cooks: laidback but focused on quality and authenticity. “Our products target a market of Italian food lovers burdened with a lack of cooking time,” Linda explains. Yet, the versatility of Italian cuisine meant it also suited scratch cookers down to the ground, as Linda explains: “Let’s just think of a lasagne, for example. The concept is simple: layers of bechamel, ragù, cheese and pasta. However, the ‘making from scratch’ of this dish can easily take a full day. So, it’s not the kind of dinner you cook every night. It’s special.”
Simplicity does not only describe Italy’s best dishes – it also defines its most famous ingredients. “Most dry pasta is made from just durum wheat semolina and water, and from these two simple ingredients hundreds of different shapes are formed,” says Sally Assinder, UK marketing manager for Garofalo Pasta. “From these many different shapes the meal solutions seem endless, from the complicated filled and baked pasta dishes to simple dishes, such as pasta with olive oil and garlic,” she says. “A pasta dish can be ready in as little time as it takes to cook the pasta and heat a sauce, or it can take several hours like a slow cooked ragù served with pappardelle ribbons.”
The flexibility of classic Italian dishes also plays to their favour in a world where tastes are changing. “Pasta dishes can be vegan, vegetarian or made with meat,” Sally continues. And importantly, it is not expensive. “It may vary in price depending on the quality of the pasta, but even a 100g portion of premium-quality pasta dressed with a simple sauce is a tasty, low-cost meal.” Indeed, Italian storecupboard staples which might be deemed expensive in comparison with cheaply made alternatives are still affordable within most shopping budgets, Sergio says.
In Italian cuisine, simplicity and quality go hand in hand – and for fine food retailers, taking the quality up a few notches may be a good way to go to secure sales. “The biggest change we’ve noticed [since the pandemic] is that products previously used in high-quality restaurants are now becoming popular with home users,” explains Matthew Blakely of online Italian food retailer Blake & Tate. “Sales of truffle-based products such as truffle oil, truffle and mushroom sauce and even truffle and honey have tripled year on year, so although the pandemic was around this same time last year, it shows our customers have clearly adapted to using high-quality ingredients in their home cooking and don’t plan to stop anytime soon.”
For Skoulikas Bedford, which sells some of Italy’s premier brands in the UK, quality is inherent in the food and drink products they source and sell. Quality is at the heart of “the ingredients used, the traditional recipes and the consistency of the products,” says Paul Garrod, managing director. “We seek out these unique products from Italy to give customers an authentic Italian experience. Good-quality Italian food that’s made using traditional methods, as well as working with some of the best manufacturers in Italy, such as Fraccaro (who also produce our own label Pasticceria Venezia), Melegatti, Battistero, Baci and Vicenzi.”
“Italians are fiercely passionate about having the best-quality produce, be it cheese, ham, vegetables, lemons, vinegar, etc,” Sergio adds, and this can be plainly seen in authentic Italian food and drink products. “Although certain products are replicated across the world, there’s definitely something unique about Italian products,” Matthew says. “You can really feel the love and passion that’s gone into making it and that’s why you’ll see some of their finest ingredients have certification attached to them. For example, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is widely used to ensure customers know they’re buying genuine products made in the founding regions, so they’re never left disappointed.”
Italy’s list of iconic PDO, Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) food and drink is illustrious, with hundreds of genuine Italian food and wine products, including no less than 42 PDO olive oils alone. Assurances are also made around British favourites, like Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano. These labels protect and communicate the provenance of real Italian food – and the Italian Government has introduced strict rules about the labelling and packaging of products such as olive oil as there are growing numbers of ‘Italian-sounding’ products hitting the market. According to The Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the UK, it’s a lucrative market worth €100bn worldwide, so protecting tradition has never been more important.
For Italian food makers, tradition does not equate to an old-fashioned and inflexible outlook, but rather a way of life that is in tune with nature and the seasons and which pays homage to a rich heritage. “Italian dishes present a high degree of variation as recipes follow the seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables, allowing for many adaptations and for many different flavours,” explains Linda. Vegetables, fruits, wines and cheeses, she says, have important local connections. “The best example is bread: in France or in Britain, it seems like there is just one bakery for the whole country, the bread is the same everywhere. In Italy bread is different everywhere, from town to town. The same is true for cured meats: every region has its traditions and its habits, different from its neighbours.”
It’s important for retailers to know these products inside and out, and to understand the passion and pride behind them. “We believe that knowing your product and having a passion for what you’re selling helps boost sales. If the retailers are passionate, they will want the customers to have the same experience as them,” Paul says. “If they are knowledgeable, they will share their passion with confidence.”
Tradition may be a cornerstone in Italian cuisine, but innovation and reinvention are still encouraged. Patricia de Middel Puch, creator of SWICILY, a liquid sweetener made with heritage organic grapes grown by small Sicilian farmers, explains: “Italy is all about ingredients talking by themselves, about simplicity, quality and a deep sense of belonging. Those are the pillars of the most acclaimed and innovative restaurants in the world. I actually believe the ‘Made in Italy’ brand is more than ever at the forefront of the positive and joyful approach to food we are experiencing,” she explains. “Young Italians are having fun reinventing their grandmother´s classic dishes. It is a happy, creative place to be in.”
How do innovative, trend-led products complement traditional and often protected food and drink? According to Patricia, the industry has always been changing, but often this goes under the radar. “Positive change often feels organic and is totally in tune with what the consumers are looking for; this is often why it goes unnoticed.” However, products must be able to stand alongside the classics, which is no mean feat. “Nowadays, any new good product or innovative food does need to embrace quality and the know-how accumulated by former generations. It is a matter of respect towards the products, the environment, our community and our bodies,” Patricia says. “The ‘Made in Italy’ brand is synonymous with the highest standards of quality, transparency and respect. Once you know you have to give your best, the peace of mind and pride are worth the ride.”
With innovation clearly another prong of the Italian food story for retailers to sell, what’s the best way to go about adding products to well-stocked Italian shelves? One way that Matthew of Blake & Tate is refreshing his shop is by looking within the UK’s own borders. While this began thanks to logistical, Brexit-related reasons, he has been pleased with what he has found. “Post-Brexit, our business model has changed. Previously we’ve only focused on imported foods, however in recent months due to customs and HGV driver shortages we’ve been left with no alternative other than to source British producers of Italian staples to fill the void, and our customers really seemed to take to it.
“Our range of British charcuterie, such as Pancetta, Salami, Pepperoni, Guanciale and many more by Capriolous in Devon has been the stand-out success,” he continues. “Mixing the traditional Italian soul with a British twist – it’s really opened our eyes to the amazing produce we have right here in the UK and offers our customers something they won’t have tried before.”
Elsewhere, Sergio says Rowcliffe is developing and introducing cheeses that “answer the consumer’s need for added value, premium products, and single dairy offerings. Our Ambrosi Parmigiano Reggiano Julienne is the first of its kind to appear on the market,” he explains. “It holds the unmistakable delicate flavour and quality of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, however, it is shredded for the user’s convenience. Unlike similar products in the market, it is 100% cheese, and 0% rind.”
The business’s development of a 40-month matured Parmigiano Reggiano is a success story in premiumisation of an already loved product. “The 40 month has a distinct, strong aroma with spicy and smoky notes. It has an intense yellow colour verging on amber with very visible tyrosine crystals.” The group also launched a spooning Gorgonzola into its independent retailers to “great success”. Sergio says, “At nearly 6kgs, and served with a spoon, it really is the definition of a ‘theatre’ cheese. It creates a talking point in stores and is easy to sample with customers.”
Creating a talking point in your shop is a great way to open communication with customers, and CaterItaly’s Linda says retailers need to do just that, especially when launching new Italian products. “Having just released a new product, which is a re-think of the classic meatball dish Polpette al Sugo packed in a jar, I can say that it can be a stressful process,” she admits. In her case, the innovation was packing a traditional dish into a jar without the artificial flavours or added sugars commonly found in the supermarket ambient aisles. “They are just like Nonna made, and all you need to do is heat them up.” But, she says, “The general public initially responded negatively, labelling food in a jar as unhealthy, leaving us the knowledge that we have a myth to dismantle with our products.”
Sally agrees that fine food retailers can boost sales by educating their customers to the difference of authentic Italian products. “Still in the UK there is the perception that ‘pasta is just pasta’ and why would you pay more for one pack of pasta than another?” she explains. “Talk with customers or have information on why not all pasta is the same. Explain how the pack of pasta in the fine food retailer is different and better quality than the supermarket pasta and worth spending a little bit more to get the quality pasta experience in the dishes they make,” she advises. “I love hearing when people have tried Garofalo pasta for the first time and are surprised that they can taste the difference between the quality Italian pasta and their normal pasta.”
Sitting at the crossroads of innovation and tradition, of comfort and exploration and of quality and simplicity, it is no wonder that Italian food continues to be a favourite around the world.