Mapping for Preservation

Some call them niche products. Others, such as the sociologist Corrado Barberis, have defined them as messages in a bottle, reaching us from the past. The Italian Agriculture Minister has baptized them “PAT,” Prodotti agroalimentari tradizionali (traditional food and agricultural products), while others designate them historic local foods. Slow Food calls them Ark of Taste products.


Food is not oil

They are Italy’s traditional small-scale foods. So why have we not yet have come up with an unambiguous definition? The differences between the classifications are not solely nominal, and reflect more than just varying nuances of meaning.  The “PAT” list of 4,500 products has reached its 13th revision and embraces all typical products, large- or small-scale, whether or not they are at risk of extinction, with or without PDO or PGI designations. Barberis’s “messages in a bottle” have an evocative impact, but do not anticipate any kind of mapping of the existing foods. Slow Food’s Ark products, on the other hand, are judged based on a stringent set of criteria, whose salient points include the small size of the productive unit, established ties to a local area and risk of extinction. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so far “only” 700 Italian products have joined Slow Food’s Ark, compared to the thousands on the ministerial list.


But another decisive matter is at stake. To date, everyone who has studied or explored this issue has started from a more or less explicit assumption: that this heritage represents a huge potential economic resource for our country. In other words, it could be our oil. We have heard this mantra repeated many times, the claim that Italy’s oil is represented by our immense artistic heritage and our typical foods. But it is a misleading slogan, conceptually misguided. I won’t go into a discussion of our cultural assets, but I believe that comparing our food heritage to oil suggests that it is an asset which can be tapped into in the same way as oil: just drill into the soil and the precious liquid will gush forth. This is not the case, not just in Italy, but in every country in the world. Traditional products are certainly an asset, and there are many of them, but it is inconceivable that they can represent an important source of wealth without putting in some serious work and resources. They tend to be fragile products, often lacking the necessary authorizations, made by artisans, farmers or fishers who are elderly and demotivated, often underpaid and at the mercy of the winds of globalization.  In their current state, they can represent gastronomic stimuli for curious travellers, be the object of academic studies or journalistic reports and, in the best cases, access local markets; but their fate is sealed: extinction.


The commitment of the network

A great effort is required to raise the profile of these products, to map them. The work must delve deeply, verifying the state of the whole production and distribution chain, not just the existence of the product, testing its sensory potential, recounting its history and characteristics. A little like Slow Food did years ago when it recorded the typical products made in Italy’s nature parks, but applying the method to the whole world, not just to Italy. And here is the other great hallmark of the Slow Food Ark of Taste: the project looks to the world, and entrusts this huge task of taking a census to the network of convivia and food communities. Italy is home to an incredibly rich and diverse heritage of high-quality food products—cheeses, cured meats, breads—but we must also realize that food biodiversity is made up of breeds and seeds, of fruits and vegetables, of fish and shellfish, of everything that over the millennia humans have selected and perfected for their diet. This complex system of food and agricultural biodiversity is today under serious threat from the unsustainable logic of the industrial production and distribution system.


We have to understand how much is left, locate it geographically, and test its sustainability and reproducibility: those are the tasks for the Ark. It will then be up to Slow Food’s national branches, as well as institutions, NGOs and professional associations, if they have the strength and opportunity, to intervene to help local products, improve their production techniques, ensure they can command an adequate price on the market and convince producers to join together and collaborate: In other words, the work of a Slow Food Presidium. But that’s another story. 


The Ark of Taste travels the world collecting small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet: an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats and more



Help us to find and catalog others!


Piero Sardo is the president of the Slow Food Foundation of Biodiversity





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