Britain’s love affair with Italian cuisine explained

20 November 2020, 12:12 PM
  • After the bulk buying of Italian products left supermarket shelves bare earlier this year, Speciality Food investigates the story behind the UK's love for la bella vita
Britain’s love affair with Italian cuisine explained

As lockdown hit in the spring of 2020, few could have been surprised that some of the first products to be purchased in bulk – leaving supermarket shelves across the UK bare – were Italian. Dried pasta, tinned tomatoes and hard cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano have always been strong sellers, but as panic buying kicked in they were the first to sell (and in vast volumes).

Indeed, “pasta sales started getting back to normal at the end of August, only to see a sharp rise again at the end of September as restrictions were reintroduced,” according to Sally Assinder of Pasta Garofalo. Familiar and delicious, high quality yet simple and versatile, ambient food sourced from Italy was the undisputed food of choice for comfort-seeking shoppers wanting to stock up their cupboards, but the history of Britain’s love for Italian food and drink goes back generations.

“Italian food has been popular in the UK since the first Italian immigrants arrived on these shores and opened cafés and restaurants at the end of 19th century,” explains Ferdinando Pastore, director of the Italian Trade Agency. Soon Britons started travelling to the country themselves, and “discovered new ingredients which they brought back with them to recreate the dishes that they tasted while in Italy. This increased the domestic demand,” he explains.

“I am adamant that there is a strong underlying connection with tourism,” agrees Claudia Galetta of Bellavita. “Brits love both Italy and the Italian lifestyle, and eating elegant and tasty Italian food makes them taste-travel. In fact, this is what makes Italian food popular worldwide.”

TV star chefs hailing from Italy – such as Antonio Carluccio, Massimo Bottura and Giorgio Locatelli – served to boost appetite, too, demonstrating the ease with which
Italian food could be produced at home. “Italian cooking can be as easy or as challenging as you want to make it,” explains Antonio Zoccola, founder of Il Fattore. “Ingredients are very readily available and the majority of the food is enjoyed by all. It has also been able to adapt the best over the years, especially in the current market where dietary requirements and free-from recipes and products have such huge popularity and demand.” 

“Italian cuisine is seen as traditional, genuine and simple, yet made with few and flavourful authentic ingredients,” agrees Camilla Cairo from the Italian Chamber of Commerce. “Once perceived as exotic, it is now part of the British culinary landscape, as witnessed by the several restaurants and chains that were opened in the past years. Many consider some dishes as comfort food, while the majority thinks of Italian cuisine as part of the balanced and healthy Mediterranean diet, thanks to its quality ingredients.”

“Italian food is a big part of our food culture, and that’s only set to continue to grow as more producers diversify and innovate to bring truly authentic products to British tables,” says Gianfranco Perri, founder and director of Just Gourmet Foods. He continues, “In the early days, Italian food was considered easy to make offering high-profit margins and this translated into retail too, but for a long time, what consumers could purchase wasn’t at all authentic.

“As the end user has become much more food savvy, those brands really doing it well are shining. Yes, pasta and pizza is still easy, convenient and versatile, but add to that really good tasting olive oils, vinegars, antipasti, snacks, even coffee and ice cream, and Italian food has every dining touchpoint covered.” A veritable Aladdin’s cave for food lovers, Italian food culture is ripe for discovery. “Italian gastronomy benefits vastly from all its traditions and different regional cultures, which differ immensely from the north to the south. The list of regional recipes is endless, with something for all seasons, palates and pockets,” explains Antonio.

An appetite for quality

The British public is only too happy to explore the plethora of Italian food and drink products on its doorstep. “Nowadays most households have a selection of Italian food in their cupboards, and during lockdown it has become even more so. That wine, those cheeses, that pizza, those five different pasta shapes and that extra virgin olive oil were made in Italy. Without Italy, one would miss a lot of good food and drink,” explains Claudia.

Indeed, a recent YouGov study named Italian cuisine as the most popular in the world. “91% of British consumers who have tried Italian food report that they like it,” explains Sally Assinder of Garofalo, “and year after year, for decades, pasta dishes have been in the UK’s top 10 favourites. To put this passion into no uncertain terms, in 2019 Italy exported €2,133.02 million worth of food products and €1,020.27 million worth of beverage products to the UK, according to Camilla from the Italian Chamber of Commerce.

“Italian food has been popular for many decades now, and all indications are that quality, Italian food will continue to increase in popularity, particularly as consumers have become wiser to what true Italian food is. Instead of cheap ‘Italian’ pasta sauces, shoppers want authentic Italian produce that’s high quality and offers real experience,” says Jess Bartkowiak, brand manager of RH Amar, which imports quality products from iconic Italian producers Mutti, Monini and Drogheria.

The fondness of British consumers for quality Italian produce is nothing new. Indeed, says Jess, “Our chairman, Henry Amar, recalls that when he joined the company in 1960, we already had several suppliers in Italy, so Italian food has been a speciality for more than 50 years now. Back then, canned tomatoes and tomato paste made up a large proportion of our imports from Italy, and we also imported canned fruit, especially cherries. In those days the most highly prized canned Tomatoes were the San Marzano variety, which were gradually replaced by cheaper (and less tasty) varieties, but today, as we know from selling Mutti, San Marzano tomatoes are making a strong comeback.

Just Gourmet Foods’ Gianfranco has seen first-hand the ever building shopper desire for quality, provenance and story, and has shaped the business’s range accordingly. I have carefully selected each of the brands within the Just Gourmet Foods product range because of their unique and inspiring stories that I can really relate to from my own family experiences, and I know many independent retailers can too,” he explains. “Each has cleverly combined the old with the new in a combination that sees them remain true to their roots and philosophies yet innovate and progress and most importantly, meet the increasing demands of today’s food savvy consumers.”

“With the continued growth of vegan and ‘free from’, I have noticed a particular interest in our range of gluten-free products and vegan/meat-free sales growing
steadily,” says Il Fattore’s Antonio. It’s not only trending sectors which are proving especially popular with consumers – instead, classic, quality produce is also being celebrated: a valuable opportunity for fine food retailers. “As people are cooking a lot more at home, due to lockdowns, etc, they are taking time to understand what they are buying and eating,” he continues.

“The money saved from dining out is being spent on premium produce. People are wanting to experiment and try something that they may not have before and with provenance and sustainability playing an integral part in their decision making.”

“There is also a noticeable growing demand for high-quality artisanal dry and fresh pasta. Wine from small producers is also in high demand,” agrees Claudia from Bellavita.

Also increasingly popular are Italian habits and traditions around food. Antipasto is one such example. “Having little gourmet nibbles before lunch and dinner is one of the most popular habits in Italy, and it is picking up pretty well in the UK,” she continues. “It includes all the most sought-after Italian products such as the best Mozzarella di Bufala, prosciutto, Gorgonzola, Taleggio, Parmigiano Reggiano, mortadella with pistachios, the best olive oils and bread with a glass of Prosecco, sprits, wine or beer.”

The true value of protected food and drink

Already firm favourites in the speciality food sector, there is work to be done in the wider market to educate consumers on the value of Protected Food Names. “[They] are very important to guarantee the origin and genuinity of a product, but unfortunately the average consumers is still not very much aware of this certification and its meaning,” says Ferdinando Pastore, director of the Italian Trade Agency.

“Protected Food Name products play a huge role,” agrees Claudia. “They preserve tradition and provenance, protect artisan producers and cherish the land they come from. Each protected food is a celebration of divine food, and in Italy we have huge respect for such products and their producers.”

Speciality Food readers can play an active role in supporting this campaign. “It is important that resellers and consumers alike remain aware that behind every protected food name there is a lot of passion, dedication and many hard-working artisan to deliver the best product they possibly can,” says Claudia. “Choosing an inferior quality, fake product is a stab in the back to those producers and they don’t deserve it.”

“The protected status for food products is something that I feel strongly about,” says Il Fattore’s Antonio. “It’s something that protects the consumer and the producer from lesser products and for me is something that we must continue to promote and respect. Not only is it something that can be easily recognised by the consumer, in what can sometimes be an overcrowded or confusing market, they also act as a benchmark.

“You know that if a particular product has a protected status it reaches, at least, the minimum standards required to produce that particular product. There is also an argument to say that producers that go further than what is legally required should be recognised in some way; in order to educate the consumer and justify why their product differs from others.”

“The Italian Chamber of Commerce is part of the True Italian Taste project, aimed at raising awareness among consumers about the importance of reading labels when food-shopping, supporting Italian producers and recognising the PDO and PGI symbols,” says Camilla of the Italian Trade Agency. “We strongly support these products and producers, as part of tackling the Italian-Sounding phenomenon (i.e. those products that seem Italian because of their name or packaging) that damages the reputation of the products and the producers, and that also misleads consumers who think they are purchasing an Italian product.”

Quality, provenance and passion – fine Italian food and drink has it all.

The chef’s perspective

Elia Sebregondi, of OFFICANA 00
“Italian food is so popular because so many of the ingredients and dishes are simple but do not compromise flavour, making it accessible to a wide range of people. In the UK we are fortunate enough to access an incredible amount of Italian products which are organic and sustainable, and I think this has helped its long standing popularity – especially in recent years.

“Whether you have a simple taste in food or you prefer complex flavours with interesting combinations, Italian food will always have something for everyone. Italian food comes with a wealth of tradition and history, and as a nation we have loved Italy and the food it has to offer for so long it is now part of the UK’s culture and history. The variety we see across the country, and especially in London, is amazing with restaurants sourcing directly from specific regions of Italy, making it one of the most authentic cuisines.”

Masha Rener of Lina Stores
“Italian food is a huge part of this world and it’s particularly important in the UK food scene. There are so many Italians who leave Italy and settle in the UK and America, and so there’s a huge community over here who love great Italian food and products.

“We also created one of the most loved and celebrated dishes in the world – pizza! Italian food is loved firstly for the flavours; the unique mix of Italian flavours stands out compared to other cuisines, and you only need a handful of ingredients to create a truly sensational dish. For example, at Lina Stores the quality of ingredients is so key and can really make a dish. For example, for our burrata ravioli, we use really creamy burrata, plus the sweetest datterini tomatoes, fresh basil and pine nuts. Together, all of these ingredients create something very unique and full of flavour.

“Italian diets are something that you can live on everyday.”

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