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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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LIVING IN ITALY

Where can you celebrate Thanksgiving in Italy this year?

For Americans craving a taste of home with minimal effort, here's a look at the restaurants hosting Thanksgiving dinner in 2022.

Where can you celebrate Thanksgiving in Italy this year?

Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and many Americans abroad are looking forward to a taste of home during the festive season.

If you’re spending your first festive season in Italy, have no fear: with a little effort it’s perfectly possible to create your own authentic Thanksgiving at home.

But perhaps the idea of sourcing for the all right ingredients for a home-cooked dinner makes you feel exhausted; or maybe you plan to celebrate with a large group.

So what are the options if you prefer to dine out? If you’re in a major Italian city with a sizeable American expat population, you may be in luck.

Here are some of the restaurants where you can book a Thanksgiving dinner in Italy this November.

Although a wide range of Italian restaurants have held Thanksgiving celebrations in the past, we’ve restricted our list to those venues and groups that have confirmed they will be hosting an event this year on Thursday, November 24th.

Milan: 

7.30-11.30pm Milano Culture Club, DOT Chianti Restaurant. American-Italian fusion dinner, €35-€45. Book here.

7.30-10pm God Save the Food, Piave, Brera and Tortona locations. €38 includes water, coffee and a bottle of wine per 2 bookings. Booking details here.

No time given, 24th-27th November, Erba Brusca. Drinks not included, €45. Details here.

No time given, 24th-26th November, Route 66 Diner. €29; €1 extra buys a litre of beer. Book here.

8.30pm, California Bakery. Locations across Milan. Booking details here.

8-11pm Scopriamo la tradizione del THANKSGIVING in cucina! (‘Let’s discover the tradition of Thanksgiving in the kitchen!’) event. Specifically targeted at singles, €86.58. Book here.  

Rome:

7-9pm or 9.30-11.30pm Hard Rock Cafe, Live Pearl Jam tribute act. €26.40 for one or €37.90 for two. Book here.

7pm until late American Club of Rome, Emme Restaurant. €50. Book here

6:30-8pm Highlander Pub. All you can eat buffet. €50. Book here

7.30-10.30pm or 8-11pm on Saturday, November 26th, Expats in Rome, Expats Club house on Via Portuense 104 in Trastevere. €40. Booking details here.

8.15pm or 9.45pm, Bakery House, Corso Trieste, EUR and Ostia locations. Drinks not included, €40. Booking details here. Takeaway Thanksgiving dinner also offered for €33; book here.

No time given, Hummustown takeaway (or stand around) Thanksgiving kiosk lunch. €20 for first course, €5 drink, €5 pecan pie. Booking details here.

7pm on November 23rd, Joel Nafuma Refugee Centre bring-and-share Thanksgiving meal. Entry is free and turkey provided; bring your own side or dessert and drinks. Book here.

Florence:

9-11.30pm Hotel Savoy, Rocco Forte Hotel. Drinks not included, €65. Booking details here.

12-10pm Hard Rock Cafe, €26.40 for one or €37.90 for two. Book here.

7.30pm until late Ruffino’s Poggio Casciano wine estate, American-Tuscan food in the hills outside Florence. €40. Booking details here.

No time given, Ristorante Accademia. Booking details here.

Venice

No time given, 24th-27th November, Hard Rock Cafe. Live performance on stage at 9.30pm. €27.90 for one or €39.90 for two. Book here.

Naples

8.30pm, Birdy’s Bakery, Thanksgiving turkey burger, sides and cake. Details here.

Do you know of any other restaurants we should add to this list? Please leave a comment below or let us know by email.

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