Keeping Things Local

Try to ask the inhabitants of Sorgà, in the province of Verona, what they think about intensive farming. Many of them probably won’t know what to answer, but they’re sure to be put out by your question. Not that it’s your fault. No, it’s all to do with the terrible stink they’ve had to put up with for some time now. Alas, the animal carcasses from the thousands of intensive farms in the area are literally suffocating the locals. Here in Sorgà they used to make animal meal, but now the dead animals get piled up and they just don’t know how to get rid of them any more. This apocalyptic scenario is just one of the many hidden faces of hyperproductivity. The fact is that many farmers haven’t had it in them to say no to unsustainable, uncontrolled expansion, to the easy multiplication of their earnings, to the temptation to produce more and more with the lowest possible effort – and thereby degrading the land they were born on. All this obviously happens to to the detriment of the quality of food and life, and sometimes the responsibilities are almost criminal.
Though we have now reached shameful levels of productive folly, in Italy it’s still possible to see a good side to coin, the good one. Here, in fact, there are artisans, small entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and producers who have discovered how to achieve quality and how to make the most of their flair and knowhow. These people form a small minority but it’s they who make Italian gastronomy famous the world over, they who patiently cultivate the myth they themselves have built. Exceptional wine, culatello di Zibello, traditional Modena balsamic vinegar, lardo di Colonnata … and so on and so forth. The Italian food world needs these myths;, they are fundamental in adding charm and appeal to our gastronomy. They are the driving force without which Italian agribusiness would be dire straits, at least from the economic point of view.
The men and women behind these myths are people, in many cases, have deservedly achieved economic well-being and popularity. The risk is that their enthusiasm will lead them into a temptation that has been very fashionable recently. I’m referring to the attempt to clone quality, the comprehensible desire for them to expand their companies, to set new activities and extend their virtues and those of their products beyond their area of origin. I’m thinking in particular about many of the big names in wine who, no longer satisfied with 20-40-60 hectares, are starting to buy land elsewhere, sometimes abroad. Fair enough, but is it possible to clone quality ad infinitum? Take, for example, the great French chef Alain Ducasse, who continues to open restaurants but also to whittle away his own legend by attracting criticism from all quarters. I don’t want to reassert the old axiom whereby quality is inversely proportional to quantity. But I do seriously question whether this desire for expansion can be positive for the future of our gastronomic myths. What’s important is a firm link with the terroir, especially when we speak about agricultural produce, which comes directly from the land. I don’t want to sound elitist, but if the land soil can’t be exploited ad infinitum without causing disasters, maybe the same thing is true of people, of their intelligence and of their capabilities. It’s food for thought for our farmers and artisans; maybe it’s better, at times, to conserve one’s identity – which means, above all, maintaining the sense and measure of time.

First published in Agricoltura – La Stampa 24/02/02

(Adapted by John Irving)

Carlo Petrini

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