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FOOD & DRINK

How Italy’s farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

As traditional crops fail, a rising number of farmers in southern Italy are turning crisis into opportunity by cultivating everything from avocado to ‘chocolate fruit’ and coffee. Silvia Marchetti looks at how the landscape is changing.

How Italy's farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise
Bananas are just one of the tropical fruits now being grown in Sicily and elsewhere in the south of Italy. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

We’re all accustomed to seeing the Italian countryside characterized by ancient olive groves and vineyards, but a change in the rural landscape is occurring.

If you drive across southern Italy today you might be amazed to find exotic fruit plantations alongside the usual lemon and orange trees.

In the regions of Puglia, Calabria, and most of all Sicily, a rising number of farmers are adapting to climate change; or rather, they’ve learned how to exploit the impact of rising temperatures and have embraced non-traditional, non-indigenous fruit species.

They now grow bananas, mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, finger limes, pomelos and avocados, alongside lychees and even cocoa beans and coffee, replicating what is being done in tropical areas.

Sicilian bananas are popular among consumers in Italy. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I remember the first time I discovered and tasted a Sicilian black sapote: Italians call it ‘chocolate fruit’ and I love this weird persimmon that has a soft, dark Nutella-like pulp easy to spread on a slice of bread or scoop up with a spoon.

I walked into the supermarket, spotted this weird-looking dark apple, and as I grabbed it the lady at the counter told me I was buying Sicilian produce, which made me happy twice over because it was delicious and I was helping the local agriculture.

But the greatest surprise was when I discovered that my much-beloved Italian kiwi was the first exotic fruit grown in Italy, since the 1970s, particularly in the area of the city of Latina, Lazio, where there is a top kind of variety.

OPINION:

According to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti, there are currently 1,000 hectares of exotic fruit estates in Italy. The number has tripled in the last few years. 

And the great news is that Italians are eating more and more of their own exotic fruit with an annual consumption of 900,000 tonnes.

This ‘fruit revolution’ is good news in terms of cutting food miles and imports from tropical countries, while at the same time reducing the amount of pesticides we eat after they are used in transporting fruit to Italy.

The Italian plantations are still niche and experimental, so farmers are lobbying and campaigning to get extra funding from the state to help them really take off.

I think they do deserve help for the huge efforts they are making in transforming Italian agriculture. 

The ‘tropical experiment’ has been a real success so far and the farmers I spoke to are super satisfied with their results.

Sicilian farmer Rosolino Palazzolo shows off one of his coffee plants. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The Palazzolo brothers are two Sicilian farmers growing bananas, little bananas dubbed ‘bananito’, mango, passion fruit and papayas on the warm coast near the city of Palermo. They’re leading producers of tropical fruits which they ship across Italy and even abroad, and have seen demand for their made-in-Sicily produce grow over the last few years.

“We must thank this superb patch of land where the sea wind acts as a natural balm. We are extremely careful in that we don’t stress our plantations and have adopted a green approach”, says Rosolino Palazzolo. 

There are of course many challenges: first of all making sure that the fruit seeds, which come from the origin countries in South America or Asia, actually grow on the Italian soil. That is why many of these farmers start planting the seeds in a greenhouse and then once the plants start growing, transfer them onto the open-air terrain. 

Another important aspect is that most of this exotic fruit is organic so there’s no use of pesticides or chemicals.

Rosolino says they heal their tropical trees, when needed, with other plants and herbal remedies by applying so-called agro-homeopathy. 

He says Italian customers are much happier to buy Italian exotic fruit than the produce imported from abroad; they trust the domestic origin because it is easier to trace.

Rosolino Palazzolo holding his coffee seeds. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The last time I visited Mount Etna near Catania I could actually spot the yellowish plantations of avocado grown on the volcano’s black flanks where past lava flows of massive eruptions have made the soil extremely fertile.

This summer along the coast between Rome and Naples I discovered a small farm that grows finger lime, which is considered quite luxurious and elite, as well as being extremely expensive. 

It’s even called ‘lemon caviar’ and is used by top restaurants to prepare fresh fish dishes, usually it is sprinkled on top of raw shrimp as a substitute for ordinary lemon.

If temperatures continue to rise and we cannot stop disastrous climate change, at least this is one local positive: eating ‘homemade’ Italian papayas and bananas. And who knows what next: perhaps coconut?

Member comments

  1. It is incorrect to say the all tropical plants are grown from seeds. Some are cuttings and some are tubers, bulbs or reproduce other ways. More importantly, Oraganic farming does not mean no pesticides! Organic Approved pesticides are used by almost all organic farmers, and unfortunately most are broad spectrum pesticides that also kill beneficial insects as well. Please stop getting it wrong. Organic is better because the farmers care more, not because pesticides are not in use.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Northern cities may consistently top the 'quality of life' rankings, but the true pleasures of life in Italy can’t always be measured, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Italy has a persistent dichotomy that strikes anyone who has travelled it extensively or lived here for a while.

There’s a huge gap between the quality of life as in efficient services, roads, good internet, and the ‘pleasures of life’, which come down to more immaterial and intangible aspects such as the hospitality and friendliness of locals, the beauty of surroundings, and overall cost of living.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns with the best (and worst) quality of life

All quality of life surveys usually rank more efficient, cleaner northern cities at the top, with sunny but less functional southern ones at the bottom – though on the other hand these have stunning beaches and cheaper services.

While it’s obviously not always so simple, there are differences which are clear to see.

To take two examples: in northern Bolzano you have punctuality, shiny roads, higher income levels, but also a bit of the stereotypical Teutonic cold, distant attitude. In Syracuse, Sicily, local food is more varied and most people are warm, open to strangers, but trains take ages to connect places, and the roads aren’t great either.

This makes it hard to say which towns are ‘best’ to live in because you just can’t have it all. It depends on what your expectations and lifestyle already are, or if you long for radical change.

READ ALSO: Why north-south stereotypes aren’t offensive to most Italians

I could never live in Turin, Milan or Venice – because of the weather, the crowds and the prices.

Were I to choose, I’ve always dreamt of relocating to a southern location to telework, either in Sicily (picturesque Palermo) or Puglia (gorgeous, Baroque Lecce). Even a tiny Sicilian island fascinates me, like Salina or Filicudi, but I might find too much isolation there as winters can get really solitary when the ferry boats don’t travel. 

I’ve always envied Sicilians who get to enjoy beach days and warm temperatures eight months a year, have a succulent cuisine and can eat the real ricotta-filled cannoli whenever they feel like it. 

Last time I visited Trapani and stayed there for a while the next door neighbor gave me a tray of pastries on the day of my departure. People welcome you in their homes and say ‘buongiorno’ when you meet them in the streets. 

Human warmth is almost tangible in the south whereas in the north, perhaps because there are bigger cities, you need to be in small towns or villages to find welcoming residents eager to help you or make you feel at home. 

READ ALSO: From coffee to haircuts: How the cost of living varies around Italy

The fact that the value of family is so important in the south, much more than in the north, explains why southerners are more open to outsiders and foreigners than in the north. 

Cities like Naples, Lecce and Palermo also have a more laid-back vibe, people are less frenetic than in Milan and seem to enjoy life more. This attitude affects the way visitors feel, too. 

People don’t just want clean roads, trains that run on time, efficient hospitals. A smile from a passer-by, a gift, or just a quick chat after a morning espresso can really make your day. Cities reflect the nature of their inhabitants. 

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

I remember once I was touring Sicily heading to Noto, we stopped for some water at a bar in the middle of the countryside and my friend tripped, falling down. In less than a second a bunch of elders who had seen the accident rushed to our side and helped my friend back on her feet, making sure I was okay too. 

Taxi rides can be quite enlightening. When you grab a taxi in Milan, Genoa or Trieste, don’t expect the driver to start talking to you unless it’s for specific information. But when I visited Naples and called a cabbie, he turned into my personal Virgil, sharing city secrets and taking me to see offbeat places along the coast. He sang and smiled, which he wasn’t required to do. It was a memorable ride. 

READ ALSO: Why are Italy’s disappearing dialects so important?

However, it’s hard to draw a line. I’m not saying that all northern cities have a poor ‘pleasure of life’ level and all southern ones rank low for life quality, but this is a general trend. 

And I believe Italy’s eternal north-south dilemma is here to stay. 

The European Union’s pandemic funds, partly aimed at reducing these regional gaps, might improve services in the south but they surely can’t turn a gloomy, stressed-out Milanese into a loud, cheerful Neapolitan.

The economic gap (which affects quality of life) between northern and southern cities will always persist. That’s what makes Italy such a rich, multifarious country.

Do you agree with the opinions expressed in this article? How did you choose between the north and south of Italy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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