Exploring slow food and the future of Italian cuisine in independent retail

16 November 2022, 10:14 AM
  • Speciality Food spoke to Italian food experts from across the Italian food industry to find out where the opportunities lie now. Spoiler: the future looks bright for la dolce vita
Exploring slow food and the future of Italian cuisine in independent retail

Italian food isn’t going anywhere as we approach 2023, in fact, it’s only gaining traction as one of the most popular cuisines across the world.

The Slow Food effect
This is no doubt music to the ears of Slow Food, a global movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 to promote public interest in local food cultures and traditions.

“The guiding idea is that food is a prism through which to view the world, and the most effective tool for transforming it, as it links so many other aspects of life, from culture and politics to agriculture and the environment,” explains Marta Messa, Slow Food secretary general. “Through our food choices, we can collectively influence how food is cultivated, produced and distributed, and thus change the world.”

It’s not for nothing that this now global movement – it is currently active in 160 countries – began in Italy. “Italy has a particularly strong food culture: sharing meals together on a daily basis or spreading a table cloth as a sort of unspoken ritual before every meal are examples of how engrained food is in the Italian way of living.

“So Slow Food is an easy fit in the Italian way of experiencing food,” says Marta. “Italians constantly celebrate food and everything that happens around it, and Slow Food has at its core the joy of food as a way to change the food system for the better, for everyone. In fact, food resonates in every culture, well beyond Italy.

Slow Food in fact fits within all cultures, as all cultures are rooted in food traditions. Most importantly, we all need food to live and our movement is about everyone’s right to food. As a global movement, we act together to ensure good, clean and fair food for all. We believe in uniting the joy of food with the pursuit of justice, for the right to pleasure and policies that defend the multitudes from that minority of people who want to turn happiness and life itself into commodities.”

Of course, to butcher John Donne’s phrase, Italy is not an island – it is as impacted by environmental and social factors as the UK marketplace – and one of the sectors most feeling the pinch is honey.

“We are facilitated by a global trend: consumers are nowadays more conscious about the quality of what they buy, especially concerning food. They look at the food products with a discriminating approach, also made possible by the wide range of information that is now available,” explains Emily Mallaby, member of the board for Associazione Ambasciatori dei Mieli (AMi).

“In Italy there has always been an important beekeeping culture, favored by the generosity of our territory, both in terms of landscape diversity and variety of blooms. Bees both benefit from and increase this variety,” Emily says.

“Our country can count on a real wealth in terms of quality and variety of honeys. We can produce up to 40 different single-flower honeys, as well as an infinity of wildflower honeys. This fortune is something we are very proud of and which has always generated an important market, both domestic and foreign.”

“In Italy, a good channel through which local quality honey enters people’ houses are local markets. There, beekeepers directly sell their own products to consumers and have the opportunity to describe to people the terroir of their honeys.”

For consumers who do not have the pleasure of face-to-face interactions with beekeepers, AMi exists to bridge the gap. “The association wants to represent an interface between the world of production and that of consumption, starting from the experience and values underlying beekeeping, to transform them into elements of knowledge and cultural growth,” says Emily.

Thankfully, for Italy’s honey sector as well as the country’s environment, “the number of beekeepers, especially for self-consumption, has been continuously growing in recent years. The increasing awareness of the importance of bees and their role as pollinators, consciousness about environmental issues, the post-pandemic desire to change life or simply to get closer to nature, is leading to a further increase in the number of beekeepers.”

Catering for tomorrow’s consumer
Keeping a foot in the past with an eye to the future is the key to Italian cuisine’s continued success in the UK market. “The future for Italian cuisine is to dig even deeper into our regional food tradition but at the same time be able to innovate and open to new trends,” says Matteo Ferrari, chef and co-founder of White Rabbit. “The real challenge will be to keep alive our roots while building delicious traditional food that everyone/everywhere can enjoy.”

“Italian food is not only associated with a delicious sensory experience, but with tradition and provenance, which has made it famous and also give it a particular quality and authenticity,” says Peri Eagleton – who co-founded Seggiano with her husband David over 30 years ago, – all attributes which must be maintained by importing businesses new and old.

“At the minute it seems a few relatively ‘new’ distributors will have more troubles than the established ones to bring goods in the country,” explains Vincenzo Spalice.

“We might soon find ourselves in a place where there are less distributors but stronger. There will always be quality Italian food – the demand is there, probably customers are now a bit more savvy and tend to buy less but better quality products.”

For Masha Rener, head chef at Lina Stores, a successful range of Italian food and drink should be at once traditional and innovative. “We see it very much as a balance,” she explains.

“There are those traditional Italian products that our customers have been asked for for decades, including fresh, handmade pasta, classic meats and cheeses or San Marzano tomatoes DOP, for example. However, there are also newer products that have become more popular in the last couple of years in London.

“For example, we have been stocking ‘Nduja for decades but have seen its popularity rise over the last decade or so as it’s become more accessible outside of Italy. A spicy salami spread from Calabria, it’s made from a mixture of ground pork and hot chilli and is an incredibly delicious ingredient that can elevate any dish as it’s so versatile. We have also recently seen a higher interest in pistachio products as customers embrace using them in their cooking. Pistachios from Bronte, a village behind Mount Etna in Sicily, are generally considered to be the best quality and we use them in our Pistachio & Olive Oil cake in our delicatessen.”

For Charles Carey, owner of The Oil Merchant, it’s important that fine food professionals maintain a positive outlook despite the current clouds on the horizon. “Let’s move on from the B-word and from the collapsing value of the pound against the Euro,” he says.

“Those are problems that we importers must suffer. Our customers, the lovely shops that we sell to, have many problems too, as do their customers. But there is always a place in one’s life for good food, and good food and Italy are synonymous. That, along with a growing interest in provenance, traceability and Italian farmer’s respect for their land and their produce makes me very confident that Italian products will continue to take up many pages in our list, and those of our competitors, in the future.”

“It is uncertain what the Italian food scene holds,” says Slow Food’s Marta. “While the European Farm to Fork Strategy has laid the foundations for greater sustainability, the pushback has been strong and visible, at European as well as at Italian level.”

The challenges faced by Britons and across the world are just as active in Italy. “In light of the current climate, economic and geopolitical situation, marked by increasingly-frequent extreme weather phenomena, the reverberations of the Covid-19 pandemic, rising inflation, political instability and war, we have all the more reason to work to strengthen diversified food systems and local economies that nourish people and communities rather than feeding the profits of a few multinationals. This is as true in Italy as it is anywhere.”

By supporting quality Italian producers’ mission to promote – and support – the future of the very best of the country’s food and drink, independent fine food and drink retailers in Britain can not only supply their customers with a cuisine they are increasingly hungry for, but push for a better future for artisan makers across the country. The good news is that there’s plenty to sink our collective teeth into.

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