Why does Italy have a beef with vegans?

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.

Why does Italy have a beef with vegans?
Why is veganism so devisive in Italy? Photo: Julia Kilpatrick/Flickr

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.

“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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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.