30 November 2018, 08:55 AM
  • The food and drink of Italy has been long been a favourite with British palates – Hannah Freeman explores the popular cuisine
Italian food in Britain

Britain’s love affair with Italian food and drink goes back far further than the famous Spaghetti Houses of the 1950s. 2,000 years ago the Roman Empire brought us olive oil and exotic vinegars, changing the history of British cooking for ever, and Sir Christoper Wren famously buried his Parmesan cheeses when the Great Fire of London took hold of the city in 1666.

For many, ‘Italian’ has become a byword for comfort food, often featured on the British ‘Top Ten Favourite Dishes’ lists; how many portions of Spaghetti Bolognese are still doled out on weekday evenings across the UK? Thousands, if not millions. However, whereas 30 years ago pesto and pancetta were beginning to emerge as speciality food choices, now people are looking for authentic, ethical and quality products with a provenence – many of these products come from very small regional producers across Italy and Sicily and are made to ageold recipes. So what has invoked this trend for artisan Italian produce and resulted in the Italian food and drink import market being one of the most consistently buoyant in the UK?

There are several factors: the popularity of Mediterranean diets, with their purported health benefits, the rise in high street chains using more unusual ingredients and the supermarkets’ embracing of specialist food lines. The popularity of Italy as a tourist destination also goes a long way in the British embracing of Italian cuisine, lower-cost flights to more obscure areas resulting in foodie ‘discoveries’ and then the quest to replicate a specific meal at home.

Consumers have also tried products in UK restaurants, chains and independents, then actively sought them out at speciality food shops or online. For example, one of this year’s most fashionable Italian products is the N’duja sausage. This spicy, spreadable sausage comes from Calabria in Southern Italy and is based on a 13th century French
recipe. It can be found on restaurant and café menus throughout the country despite being extremely hard to source for domestic use up until recently, and is now available in many delis as well as online – and there are even companies focused solely on importing it.

Italian imports generally fall into four categories: beverages, fresh products, ambient and fermented (charcuterie and cheese), and there are a plethora of importers, many of which deal with only one of two exquisite products, often with PDO (protected designation of origin) status. Italian import companies, however, do vary greatly, from the larger businesses focusing on bringing in bulk products of indeterminate quality, through to those whose businesses started as a passion for a single item or region – like London-based Lavolio, which offers Italian handmade ‘boutique confectionery’; fruit, nuts and jellies encased in a spun sugar shell. Company founder, banker turned food entrepreneur, Lavinia Davolio, has now introduced her products into more than 200 outlets including farm shops, delis and Fortnum & Mason.

Italian beverages are also seeing surging popularity. This summer the Negroni was the on-trend cocktail, a classic combination of gin, Vermouth and Campari. The first ready-made Negroni, Antico Negroni, was produced in 1919 by the Negroni family in Treviso. This trend has, in turn, seen a general rising interest in Italian spirits, artisan Grappa and Limoncello as well as the famous bitters and vermouths.

In Britain, we have our own version of both Grappa and Limoncello, made by the Devon Distillery and amusingly named Devoncello and Dappa. Italian wines in general, rather interestingly form the top and bottom of many a wine list; a drinkable Nero d’Avola or Montepulciano is often seen as a ‘house wine’ whilst a full bodied Barolo or Amarone nestles nicely alongside the famous high end Bordeauxs and Burgundies.

There is certainly a heightened interest in discovering the quality wines of Italy. Italy has over 329 DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines, many of which are familiar household names in the UK. In 2017 the UK imported over 34 million cases of Italian wine, the value of which was almost 800 million pounds, the United States and Germany were the only countries to import more.

However, it has been the sensational success of Prosecco, the UK’s favourite sparkling wine beloved of millennials, which has made its mark on European wine export statistics. In 2014, supermarket sales of Prosecco overtook sales of Champagne. The trend has continued and, although other European-method Champagnes and sparkling wines have made their mark, none has been quite so successful. In 2017 the UK was Prosecco’s premier export market, accounting for one third of all Italian Prosecco production, which equates to over 100 million bottles.

Italian cheese imports are also increasing annually, in 2018 (January-August) over 25,000 tonnes of Italian cheese was imported to the UK. The majority of these being the most familiar – Mozzarella, Parmesan and Gorgonzola – but no longer are consumers content with ‘standard’ cheeses, they are looking for the specialist varieties like buffalo Mozzarella and aged mountain Gorgonzola. The consumer is also seeking out organic varieties; the UK organic market now accounts for over two billion pounds per year and is growing at an astonishing rate.

Consumers are also seeking organic alternatives to alleviate, in their own minds, any ethical doubts relating to the production of these imported foods. Earlier this year there was some controversy in the media over the treatment of dairy herds in the Italian cheese industry, some campaigners even called for a boycott of Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. It was alleged that tomato pickers, supplying many of the highend brands, were proved in some cases to be, in effect, modern slaves. Italy exports 60% of its tomatoes, and for years Italian grown plum tomatoes have been a marker of quality.

Again a boycott of certain brands was advocated, but neither of these events has made a real dent in the popularity of Italian cuisine in the UK, although they have raised certain questions.

British artisanal producers also have an important role to play in the continuing popularity of Italian food; many of these products have extremely high ethical credentials and their makers have been trained in Italy, using the same methods and recipes. These Italian-style products appear on the menus of some of the best restaurants in the country.

It is the question of ethics which often encourages the consumer the choose British-made products over Italian imports. James Swift of Trealy Farm Charcuterie, based in South Wales and one of the country’s largest artisan charcuterie producers, believes that, “Italy still seems to be the dominant source of charcuterie products in the UK, and a byword for quality, ironically at a time when, especially in restaurants and supermarkets, we are importing charcuterie from Italy of a lesser quality than ever before. The best Italian charcuterie continues to be sensational, of course, but we are relatively unlikely to see it in the UK.

“In addition, we are also relatively unlikely to see Italian charcuterie that does not come from factoryfarmed, commercial breed pork, often raised in The Netherlands or Denmark. This charcuterie has as much in common with, for example, a long matured, free-range, Italian native breed pig such as the Cinta Senese as a £4 bottle of plonk does with a £40 fine wine. And probably, in fact, with a not dissimilar difference in pricing.”

Restaurants are now enthusiastically advertising the origins of their charcuterie and many have a slow food ethical philosophy. Cardiff-based The Dusty Knuckle Pizza Company are an active part of the Slow Food Movement and all their ingredients are authentically sourced; they have also travelled extensively in Italy learning their art and bringing their love of Italian food and enthusiasm back to Wales. The popularity of their restaurant (and the simplicity of its menu) is a testament to the way that the UK consumer cares about their food’s story. And it is this desire for quality that is resulting in spaghetti to be stirred into the sauce before serving, rather than sitting, British-style, on the top before being scattered with dried Italian cheese.

Interestingly, the British consumer has shunned away from pasta in recent years with sales dropping annually – this had been partly attributed to the rise in spiralisation and the consumer regarding pasta as one of the ‘bad’ carbs; nothing could be further from the truth, as recent research has demonstrated that when pasta is reheated its impact on blood-sugar is reduced considerably, bringing it well in-line with the lower GI products touted as ‘better for health’.

The variety of pasta available in the UK is amazing – whether flavoured – infused with truffles, wild mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes or squid ink – or regionally shaped, the Strozzapreti from Emilia Romagna or the Ligurian Troife for example – and these artisan products need to be complemented with fine quality sauces. Bottled Italian pasta sauces vary considerably in price – while a decent everyday bottle can be found for a few pounds, a 25-year-old example can sell for over £100 per 100ml, and it is a growing market.

Whereas once olive oil could only be found as ‘standard’ or ‘extra-virgin’, there are now dozens of varieties to choose from, whether required for cooking, drizzling or dipping, filtered and unfiltered – the list goes on – and many British consumers are now as happy to invest in a good bottle of single estate olive oil as they are a good bottle of Port.

Another area to be explored, when it comes to Italian food, is seasonal specialities and puddings. Take, for example, the delicately-flavoured Panettone or Pandoro; the conical, bell-shaped fruited, spiced and yeasted breads which are sold in distinctive decorative cardboard boxes with ribbon carrying handle.

These are given as tokens of friendship at Christmas in Italy and make excellent seasonal gifts, as do Amaretti and Ratafia biscuits, and biscotti, with their elegant fin de siécle decorative tins and colourful paper wrappers. There are the Tuscan Vin Santos (holy wines) which are often consumed at Easter, Sicilian Cannoli (a ricotta cheese-filled, fried sweet pastry) and the classic puddings, tiramisu and panna cotta, the latter of which is seen with one ‘creative twist’ or another on almost every gastro-pub menu countrywide, whilst tiramisu remains a real comfort food for many Brits. Many British delis offer Italian hampers at Christmas, affording the opportunity of showcasing their products and introducing new flavours to an eager market.

What future trends will we see? Gianfranco Perri believes that consumers will be looking for more vegan-friendly options, high protein/ ancient grain pastas, products with associated health benefits and gluten-free alternatives, with an even greater demand for organic products. Within the Italian food genre trends have come and gone, and in many cases the British put their own stamp on Italian classics: the polenta fashion of the mid-noughties resulted in the trend for polenta fries as a potato alternative, whereas in Italy the traditional ‘porridge’-style recipe is more readily used.

There is, of course, the ever-circling prospect of Brexit and its impact on the import industry, but whichever way the axe falls Italian food will always have its place in Britain. If taxes are increased and imports restricted, it will again become a true ‘speciality’ food, more expensive and considered a luxury choice.