BY ROGER WATSON
I have just spent one of several weeks this year working in Italy. As with most countries I visit regularly, after initial impressions are over about similarities and differences, once you get to know more people and to know them in depth, you appreciate more of the differences and begin to understand at least part of what makes Italians the way they are and how very different at least one aspect of their lives is to ours.
Admittedly, I work amongst some of the more privileged social classes in Italy and am usually surrounded by senior health professionals and academics. These represent the middle and upper middle classes of society here. But I am surrounded by the same people back home, and we are not the same.
There is hardly a single colleague here, and I uncover more each time visit, who does not have some close link to the land. Countless conversations uncover the fact that somewhere someone in their family has land on which they grow things, use them for the wider family and sell them locally. They can point to local, national and even international brands of, for example, olive oil which bear their family name and, sure enough, once you know, you encounter these brands in the shops. One specific example is Sasso olive oil; I work with a daughter of the family here. Other families make and sell cheese, wine and citrus fruits.
There is great regional pride in what is produced locally and how it is used in cooking to produce distinctive regional foods. Within Liguria, where I am usually located, you only need to take in a few towns and cities along the coast—for example, Genoa, Bogliasco and Camogli—to see how staple dishes are prepared very differently. Focaccia is unique in each place. Some dishes are unique to a single town or restaurant. I have also seen this in Spain and meet colleagues there with the same family links to the land and to local produce.
It is simply not like that back home in the UK. From Inverness to Plymouth, you will find the same produce in every Tesco, Waitrose or Aldi. The homogeneity of what is stacked on our supermarket shelves does make shopping almost anywhere in the UK a fairly disengaged activity. Each company even lays out its supermarkets in much the same way, so you hardly need think about where items are located. Familiarity is the mother of convenience but it also, as we all know, breeds contempt.
It was not always like this. When I was a boy, our milk and cream came from the local farm (it was not pasteurised); the chickens in the butcher’s shop had their necks pulled in the back of the shop and shots rang out from the slaughterhouse where local cattle were dispatched for local consumption. The strawberries and lettuces (replete with slugs and other creepy crawlies) in my father’s grocery shop came from the man who grew them near our house and honey came from the bees that buzzed in our gardens. We even sold blue veined cheese that was made by local farmers without the strictures of European legislation. I also knew each of the farms from which the food came as I was at school with the sons and daughters of the farmers.
I know this is beginning to sound like a Hovis commercial but the contrast between where I am in Italy and back home is so marked. Of course, if we put in the effort, we can find smaller shops in the UK that are different, but their customers eventually succumb to the lure of the out-of-town supermarkets, and they close. We have farmers’ markets, but few could afford to shop there weekly, reflecting as they do the real cost of food and not that driven down by the bulk-buying and bullying of the major supermarket chains.
The process of losing our links with the land in the UK is probably irreversible. We will continue to live in a society where many, if not most, children do not know if carrots come out of the ground or grow on trees and the only tomato they ever eat comes in a bottle.
It is not their fault. I envy Italians for many reasons: their lovely climate; their excellent food and wine; their beautiful language; and their photogenic Prime Minister. They could work a bit on their punctuality, but that may be a throwback to their agrarian roots in which I take so much pleasure. Viva l’Italia!
Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.