Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti slammed an article published by the Financial Times which it claims mounts a “surreal attack” on traditional Italian food.
The article, titled ‘Everything I, an Italian, thought I knew about Italian food is wrong’, challenges received ideas about some of the “classics” of Italian cuisine, suggesting that they are “actually recent inventions”.
Coldiretti described the article as “a surreal attack on the iconic dishes of Italian cuisine, precisely on the occasion of the announcement of its candidacy for UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” The article “tries to trivialize traditional national food, from carbonara to panettone, from tiramisu to Parmigiano Reggiano,” said the agricultural organization, adding that many of the claims were “imaginative”.
Coldiretti also warned of the possible economic consequences of such claims, as well as of the damage to image.
“The lack of clarity on Made in Italy recipes in fact provides fertile ground for the proliferation of fake Italian food products abroad,” it said.
I love food. There are no two ways about it. Indeed, my phrase “You have to taste a culture to understand it” has been used by many and varied organisations to promote food as an intangible cultural heritage.
And I don’t go back on that.
However, let’s not get too over-excited about the FT article.
The author of the article, an Italian, dines with Alberto Grandi, a Marxist historian and judge at this year’s Tiramisu World Cup in Treviso. “When a community finds itself deprived of its sense of identity, because of whatever historical shock or fracture with its past, it invents traditions to act as founding myths,” Grandi says in the FT article.
And Tiramisu is indeed a fairly recent culinary invention. When the ‘mamma of tiramisu’ died in 2021, we all wrote about how it had been invented in the late 1960s; only making onto the inventor’s menu in 1972.
And this is fine. It was born from a happy accident, and its richness reflected the post-war boom Italy was experiencing. It doesn’t make it wrong to celebrate it, but let’s not pretend it’s an ancient dish, is Grandi’s argument.
Grandi also argues that the parmesan made and sold in Wisconsin, USA is truer to the original thousand-year-old recipe than that produced in Italy. What he is not allowing for is that all recipes adjust over time.
Is Italian food an intangible cultural heritage?
So, is he right to criticise the Made in Italy standpoint, and Italian government bid for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage bid?
I don’t think so. The world, and its cuisine, evolves. What cannot be argued is the strong cultural link between food and they way we live. Coastal towns develop fish and seafood dishes. The way they prepare them, may adapt over the years, and indeed new dishes develop, but it is still an integral part of the local culture.
To that end, perhaps UNESCO should issue a carte blanche approach and make cuisine an intangible cultural heritage in every country across the globe. After all, we all eat something ‘local’.