Why does Italy have a beef with vegans?

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Why is veganism so devisive in Italy? Photo: Julia Kilpatrick/Flickr
09:22 CEST+02:00
Battle lines are being drawn across Italy between the ever-increaseing number of people adopting a vegan diet and the proud defenders of the nation's culinary tradition.

From one of the country's top chefs announcing his desire to 'kill all vegans', to proposals to jail parents who feed their kids a vegan diet, Italy's vegans have been on the receiving end of much vitriol this year. And so have those who seek to defend them.

Back in July, Turin's new Five Star Movement council, which won the mayoral election on a wave of popular support, was derided for its plans to promote vegan and vegetarian diets in the city's schools.

But why is there so much animosity towards vegans in Italy?

Much of it has to do with the speed at which Italians are turning their backs on the country's famous Parmesan, prosciutto and polpette.

“There are currently five million vegans and vegetarians in Italy, which is one of the highest figures in the EU,” explained Harriet Barclay, European Outreach Officer for the animal rights association, Peta.

“Today's youngsters are more aware than ever that a plant-based lifestyle is better,” Barclay added, explaining that over the last decade, Italians have become more sensitive to the cruelty of industrial farming, the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture and the link between a diet high in processed meats and cancer.

The pace of change has been startling.

According to the Italian Research Institute, Euripses, one percent of the Italian population in 2016 is a vegan. That's a rise of 0.4 percent on the previous year, and one of the fastest rates of change anywhere in the world.

But the rapid conversion of so many people to a plant-based diet has upset some Italians who see it as an affront to the country's culinary traditions.

“It's like a cult,” said Christian, the 38-year-old manager of a traditional, red-and-white-checkered tablecloth trattoria in central Rome.

“People have been brainwashed into thinking meat and dairy are somehow 'contaminated'. If everyone turned vegan tomorrow I'd be finished,” he lamented, shaking his head.

Given that his menu is based around saltimbocca, pasta alla carbonara, and coda alla vaccinara, he's right.

While his comment may have been throwaway, it raises a serious issue about the future.

As the number of non-meat eaters continues to swell, what will happen to the manufacturers of Italy's traditional foods and the areas and cultures that support them?

In the area around Parma, the production of prosciutto and Parmesan has sustained communities since time immemorial, it is worth hundreds of millions to the region each year and has been supporting a traditional way of life for centuries.

“It's difficult to be a vegan and not end up nutritionally deficient in some area or other,” Christian continued, evoking an issue which has become the cause célèbre for Italy's carnivores, and one which is behind the proposals to criminalize vegan diets for children.

With veganism on the rise, the country has seen a string of high-profile cases where very young children on plant-only diets have been hospitalized with life-threatening severe malnutrition.

“As with any 'restrictive' diet you need to know what you are doing or there could be negative consequences,” explained 24-year-old Federico, who runs Olive Dolci, a vegan ice-cream parlour in Rome.

Olive Dolci is one of many newly-opened eateries offering animal-friendly bites to consumers. The gelato is made from plant-based milks and olive oil instead of cows' milk – but the manufacturing process is the same as that used by all artisans of gelato.

The result is sweet, creamy and smooth as velvet: as good as anything else on offer in Italy.

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“It's fashionable to be vegan now. Of course, traditionalists will grumble, but I don't think Italian cuisine and veganism are irreconcilable at all,” Ranucci said.

In fact, in producing a vegan version of the iconic gelato, Ranucci shows that some of the country's traditional food producers can easily transition to not using animal produce, if they are willing to change.

That said, while alternatives are available, the prospects of finding a satisfying vegan carbonara on our tables anytime soon are slim at best.

“Well, beyond carbonara there are other dishes that will endure,” Ranucci laughed. “We have tonnes of delicious 'poor man's dishes' which are 100 percent vegan.”

Perhaps, if the traditionalists and vegans are to bury the hatchet, the table round which they sit will be stocked with these.

Just imagine: lashings of Sicily's famous aubergine and tomato pickle, Caponata, and plates piled high with those fluffy chickpea fritters, panelle. Then, somewhere in the middle of the table, a steaming pan of the Tuscan bread soup, papa al pomodoro.

Beef? What beef? 

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