Just like in India where food habits and culture change every 200km, Italy, too, experiences a shape-shifting culinary identity from one region to another. Often considered the greatest mecca for food, Italian cuisine is beautiful and highly complex. But globalisation has ensured that some its greatest culinary exports—pizza, pasta, spaghetti or gelato—now belong to the world, often in not so savoury ways. To showcase its rich and deeply rooted food culture which champions a field-to-fork ethos, the Embassy of Italy organised the seventh edition of the 10-day World Week of Italian Cuisine in India spread across New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. Apart from introducing agri-food products like Red Gold tomatoes from Europe, there are Michelin-starred chef demonstrations from the likes of Cristina Bowerman and Adriano Baldassarre.
As the World Week comes to an end on December 10, Vincenzo de Luca, the ambassador of Italy to India, speaks to THE WEEK on the lamp-bulb shaped Tomato San Marzano, its alternative nutritional labelling scheme and the many Italian dishes India can easily embrace beyond pizza, pasta, risotto, spaghetti or lasagna.
Q/ What makes the seventh edition of World Week of Italian Cuisine in India special compared to previous iterations? What does it hope to achieve?
A/ The World Week of Italian Cuisine (WWIC) was launched in 2016, one year after Expo Milan, by the Italian government in order to celebrate and promote excellence not just of the food and wine traditions abroad but the Italian agri-food chain as a whole. This year we celebrate the 7th edition of WWIC specifically focused on its conviviality, innovation and sustainability. With this edition, we hope to demonstrate how Italian cuisine is suitable for Indian palates, how it is healthy and sustainable, how it is fitting not only for starred chefs but also for everyday family cooking. We also aim at showing how the quality of its ingredients matter. We know that often some dishes like pizza, spaghetti and meat-balls prevail in the collective imagination in versions that we would never find in Italy. We want to showcase the real essence and the incredible variety both in terms of ingredients and dishes.
Q/ In terms of exchange of agri-products, which Italian ingredients are set to enter the Indian market in larger numbers? There's already been the formal launch of canned tomatoes from EU. Can you elaborate more on how this particular variety of tomatoes is special and which market category would most benefit from it?
A/ Canned tomatoes that have been shown both in our events and at SIAL represent the basis for many of our dishes. They are cultivated and processed in Italy in the most sustainable way, meaning there is low use of chemicals, optimisation of water-use through very advanced satellite-based systems and reduced wastes. There is not only of one kind. You can find, for instance, the most known lamp bulb type – The San Marzano, which is very juicy and excellent for pizza-making. Or the red and yellow cherry tomatoes of which many varieties exist. All are tasty, easy-to-use and healthy as they are rich in vitamins and low on calorie content. Moreover, our cheeses represent a very interesting product for Indian consumers but their import for the most part is not possible at the moment because of non-tariff barriers in place. In addition, we consider wines an essential accompaniment for a good meal. We also believe that our good wines play a large part in shaping our most loved landscapes—from Tuscany to the Prosecco hills in the northeast which is one of the UNESCO sites in Italy. Good wines have nothing to do with heavy drinking but at the moment they face both high import tariffs and heavy taxes. Citrus fruit could also be another product that Italy can be exported in massive quantities. And going into processed food, Italy has a good performance worldwide in not just cereal derivatives like pasta but also baked and confectionary products.
Q/ In what way is Italy championing the cause of sustainable food practices through the Milan Charter? What are some examples or the ways in which it is being realised?
A/ I have already given the example of the use of smart technologies for water use for tomatoes but there are many others. About one fifth of our land area is organic and we have a 25 per cent target by 2030. Organic pastures are very important for our dairy products such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana and Pecorino, just to quote the most known ones. We have 53 cheeses with denomination of origin that constitute the excellence of our production. These products are sustainable because they are based on the rich biodiversity of pastures in our mountain and hill regions. They also benefit the rural communities to which they belong. Besides organic pastures, our agriculture is oriented to smart input use and we are helping farmers substitute their tractors with new ones based on precision methods. Sustainable innovation is the keyword in agri-food processing, too. This is increasingly based on renewable energy, water-recycling and zero wastes. Many advanced bio-products can be obtained from tomato processing, such as films, biomolecules that are used in the chemical and pharmaceutic industries, bio-fertilisers and many others. And this concept applies to the whole Italian food processing industry from wine and olive oil to processed cereal products, fruits and vegetables.
Q/ Could you elaborate on defending alternative nutritional labelling schemes to expose mechanisms that penalise the Mediterranean diet and traditional European industry?
A/ There is a discussion going on in Europe on the best way to inform consumers on how healthy the stuff they eat is via the front-pack label. Our position in proposing the NutrInform battery system is that we have to look at the diet more than a single ingredient. A varied and balanced diet is a fundamental requirement for good health and that individual foods have relative importance in the context of the diet as a whole. The application of nutrient profiles as a criterion is intended to avoid situations where the nutrition or health claims obscure the overall nutritional value of a given product and can therefore mislead the consumer who seeks to make healthy choices within the framework of a balanced diet. Our scientifically-based “Guidelines for a healthy diet” specify that there is no "complete" food, containing all the necessary substances and in the right quantity and capable of satisfying all our nutritional needs. For this reason, an adequate and balanced diet can be achieved with a combination of different foods, each with distinct nutritional characteristics, which ensures all the necessary nutritional elements and energy intake. These principles are at the core of a typical food model under a Mediterranean diet recognised as intangible UNESCO heritage. No food, with exception made for allergies and intolerances, should be excluded from a proper diet.
Q/ Which lesser-known Italian dishes do you feel should rule the global culinary landscape?
A/ By showing our tomatoes, we have celebrated here the Eggplant parmigiana, a much loved dish in Italy, and also the rice suppli’, one of the most celebrated street foods in Italy. All our dishes can be loved by Indians. Risotto and pasta are the basis for an infinite number of plates and we make it with all sort of vegetables or with seafood. Also, our soups, for example the Ribollita from Tuscany or the Acquacotta are vegetarian dishes that Indians would love. All our stuffed pasta, tortellini, agnolotti and ravioli need to be mentioned here. Also, we must not forget our incredible variety of dessert—from the traditional Panettone and Pandoro, very popular around Christmas that come from the north of Italy, to the cannoli from Sicily and a lot more. I also think Indians would love Italian ice-creams made with fresh, natural ingredients.
Q/ How do you feel Indian and Italian food are similar in their sensibilities?
A/ Definitely, they have some commonalities and potential for cross-pollination. Our cuisine is based on seasonal products and there is a strong vegetarian basis in the form of wheat flour, rice, tomatoes, all the vegetables. Then there is the way food is prepared at home with love and passion. Finally, the way food is consumed both at home and in restaurants with friends and family without any rush. Slow food was born in Italy. Conviviality – together with sustainability - is one of the keywords of the seventh edition of World Week of Italian Cuisine.