Lisa Jackson of Eat Drink Travel Magazine explores how five iconic Italian food products are leading a delicious revolution in embodying sustainability and the slow food movement.
Italy has long been a world leader for the sustainable food movement, which celebrates locally grown and made food produced using eco-friendly practices. In fact, it was a group of Italian activists that founded Slow Food International, a global grassroots organization dedicated to preserving local food cultures and traditions.
In Italy, eating slowly and sustainably is driven by small-scale farming and time-honoured production techniques that promote environmental conservation, animal welfare and community empowerment. For your next meal, here are a handful of Italian products that embody the slow food movement and sustainable practices.
Old School Aging: Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO
Known as the “King of Cheeses,” an 800-year old artisanal production process plays a role in making Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO such a delicacy. For at least twelve months, the cheese wheels rest on wooden tables, allowing the exterior to dry and form a natural crust. In fact, the straw-yellow colour of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO indicates the milk used during production has come directly from cattle fed with fresh grass and hay. The production occurs at a slow pace, but the focus is always on quality rather than mass production.
“A lot of cheese-makers still do things with old world techniques,” says Chef Vittorio Colacitti, Italian-Canadian chef/owner of Born and Raised and former Top Chef Canada competitor. “There are no short-cuts and you can taste the difference.”
Once matured, each wheel is carefully inspected and approved by an authorized independent body which work to ensure products meet specific standards to achieve PDO certification. Learn more in our Ingredient Discovery: Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO.
Learn more in our Ingredient Discovery: Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO.
Organic Agriculture: Italian Wine-Making
Across many of Italy’s vineyards, sustainable farming practices are being used to protect the land and optimize the wine’s quality. Grapes are grown without artificial or synthetic chemicals, and rather than spray plants, organic farmers work with nature to protect against pests and plague.
For most biodynamic wineries, adhering to sustainable agricultural practices is just the beginning. More farm than factory, these small vineyards grow only what they need, produce very little waste and respect the land as a living entity. The farmers work with Mother Nature’s rhythms to make wine and achieve balance on the land, and the earthly and cosmic calendar are frequently used as a farmer’s guide. It may sound unorthodox, but biodynamic farmers are known for making phenomenal wines.
Hand-Salting: Prosciutto di Parma PDO
It takes at least one year to make this sweet-buttery cured ham from start to finish; but the slow and steady salting process pays off in flavour.
“Italy’s prosciutto is arguably the best in the world,” says Chef Vittorio. “It’s the process that goes into it. It just goes down to honouring tradition.”
Dating back to the Roman era, the curing process remains very hands-on: rubbing and massaging the pork’s hind legs with coarse Mediterranean sea salt. Next, the ham is cured, dried and aged in a chamber for at least 10 to 12 months.
Explore Deli: The Depth of Heritage.
Slow and Steady Fermentation: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO
It can take a lifetime to make this sweet-tart vinegar, coveted worldwide. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO is naturally fermented and aged in wooden barrels for at least 12 years, with 30 to 50 years considered “excellent.” A tradition dating back to the Renaissance, the grape must is left to ferment naturally for a minimum of twelve years in oak, chestnut, juniper, cherry, and mulberry aging barrels. While a more mechanized or speedier method may yield more product, this time-honoured technique is what richly flavours the vinegar.
“There’s no wavering to fill orders or make a few bucks,” says Chef Vittorio. “There’s a respect for tradition that’s very strong.” It’s a carefully, sustainable process, set by a local consortium and based on centuries-old traditions rooted in the natural environment.
Learn more in our Ingredient Discovery: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO.
Hand-Harvested: Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Many Italian olive oil producers harvest the fruit by hand, each with their own method: some rake olives from the branches into nets spread on the ground, while others host picking parties or wait for the fruit to naturally drop from branches.
“We break the olives by hand,” says Chef Vittorio, referring to his family farm in Italy. “The work is very lengthy: you have to sort all the olives, picking out the branches.”
This hand-harvesting technique is far more labour-intensive, but keeps the focus firmly on making eco-friendly olive oil that’s flavourful and fresh – principles that drive the slow and sustainable food movement.
Check out our Ingredient Discovery: Olive Oil 101.