Fierce debate in Italy’s southern regions over special status for tomatoes

The humble tomato has sparked a fierce debate between two of Italy's southern regions, which are arguing over the right to claim the foodstuff as their own.

Fierce debate in Italy's southern regions over special status for tomatoes
Tomatoes on display at an Italian food fair. File photo: Guiseppe Cacace/AFP

The row kicked off when Naples requested an IGP (Protected Geographic Indication) denomination for Neapolitan peeled tomatoes. 

After Naples, the capital of the Campania region, submitted its request to Italy's Agricultural Ministry, which decides which regional foods are deserving of special status, the neighbouring region of Puglia objected.

“Puglia is vital to the southern tomato industry, and it's our duty to protect our producers,” wrote Puglian councillor for agriculture Leonardo di Gioia on his Facebook page, explaining why the region would not endorse the label. 

Di Gioia said the decision was “not merely parochial, but based on merit”, adding that the majority of southern Italy's tomato production took place in Puglia while Campania's tomato industry was more processing-based. 

The latest Istat data, from August last year, shows that 174,240 kilograms of tomatoes were produced in Puglia, compared to only 23,887 kilograms in Campania. The vast majority of southern Italy's tomatoes are harvested in the Puglian province of Foggia.

In December, the two regions were engaged in a similar debate, this time over the status of mozzarella.

Italy's farming ministry granted the special DOP (protected designation of origin) label to the Puglian cheese, prompting anger in Campania, which has been home to the country's only DOP mozzarella since 1996. 

While the disputes might seem trivial to the casual observer, in Italy the IGP and DOP labels act as a clear confirmation of quality, and any products holding them must be made using specially designated ingredients and techniques. The key difference between the two is that for DOP-marked food and drinks, each step of production must be carried out in the specified region, which is not a requirement for IGP status.

Campania is home to 25 DOP and IGP food products, compared to 21 in Puglia, though the latter has more wines of designated origin: 38 compared to Campania's 29.

Online sales of falsely labelled products are estimated to cost the Italian food industry millions of euros each year.

In the case of the mozzarella, the Campanian variety is made using buffalo milk, which is three times more expensive than the cow milk used to make Puglia's version. They feared that the introduction of another, cheaper DOP mozzarella would damage the reputation and sales of buffalo mozzarello.

Further north meanwhile, a ruling last summer that tiramisu originated in Friuli and not Veneto opened an old wound in the two northern regions, both of which lay claim to the creamy coffee dessert.

READ ALSO: Italian buffaloes treated to jazz and massage to ensure tastiest mozzarella


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.