OPINION: Why Italy’s food crusaders are taking culinary tradition too far

Italy is famous for its culinary pride but secret societies and 'brotherhoods' of food purists are going over the top, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why Italy's food crusaders are taking culinary tradition too far
A new member of the ‘stockfish confraternity' is blessed with a mummified codfish. Photo credit: Proloco Sandrigo

It’s pretty clear that Italians are proud and protective of their cuisine – and they should be – but often they go too far.

In Italy food isn’t just a mouthwatering matter. It’s a serious issue; perhaps sometimes too serious. 

There are dozens of unusual food protection lobbies everywhere across the boot. Secret societies, academies and brotherhoods are out to tell the world that their signature dish and ancient recipes are sacred, untouchable. And that any counterfeit, imitation or adaptation is heresy.

But these purist food crusaders are, in my view, spoiling the spontaneity of Italian traditional cuisine. It would be one thing to add peanut butter to tortellini, which is indeed heresy, but another thing to make the tortellini just slightly larger than the size of a ring finger (which is how die-hard housewives make it).

The ‘Ventricina Academy’, based in Abruzzo, protects an ugly-looking, huge reddish spicy salami – Ventricina – made with pig meat, black pepper, capsicum, chili and fennel seeds. The academy ensures a tight regulation for producers and protects the cold cut at European level, boasting that its region of origin is Abruzzo. But neighboring Molise also claims paternity over ventricina, and is fighting Abruzzo over it.

There are a few differences between the two regional products, how they’re made and with which ingredients. Molise salami-makers add more capsicum while in Abruzzo there’s more hot chili pepper.

An authentic Ventricina sausage. Photo: Francesco Vignali/Ventricina Academy

Regional pools of experts and nutritionists are analysing specific characteristics of their premium Ventricina, while local authorities have waged war against each other with salami propaganda including leaflets, handouts and food fairs where butchers call visitors to offer them a free taste of their specialty. I doubt any gourmand traveller could tell one variant from the other. 

It is a fascinating story that tells us so much about Italy and how so-called provincialism is mainly about food. And the absurdly extreme lengths locals go to promote indigenous delicacies. 


Last time I visited Bologna I met a bunch of real ‘Azdore’: Italian cook-warriors who defend their sacred art of handmade pasta, menacingly waving rolling pins in the air. 

They showed me the exact movements of the hands needed to make a perfect tortello, tortellino, lasagne and tagliatelle, saying that if you roll a tortellino around the middle or index finger to shape it just won’t be.. a tortellino anymore.

In Bologna you’ll also find the ‘Wisemen Brotherhood of the Tortellino’ who are deadly serious about the city’s copyright of this ring-shaped stuffed pasta which, as legend has it, was inspired by Venus’ belly button.

The ‘wisemen’ tell you how to eat tortellino: exclusively in a thick capon broth. If you mix tortellini with meat ragù like normal pasta, you’re committing a sacrilege.

An Azdora preparing tortellini to regulation size. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Even desserts are taken seriously. Treviso’s Tiramisù academy protects the original recipe of Italy’s iconic dessert, which must be without coffee, and claims it was born in the town’s brothels as an energizer for clients. 

However, the Friuli region also claims the paternity of tiramisu, albeit with a different recipe and served in a cocktail glass. Anyway, they’re both delicious, and I doubt anyone would be upset if they’re served a ‘non-original’ tiramisu.

While many neighboring towns bicker over which has the best fish soup – if Vasto or Termoli, for instance – and have set up scientific committees to ascertain this, other places have founded associations to protect their native recipes.

The Confraternity of the baccalà alla Vicentina (stockfish cooked the Vicenza way) is a brotherhood of chefs and food experts in Sandrigo, in the Veneto region, that venerates ‘Viking’ stockfish, imported in the 15th century from Norway. 

Its members, who believe codfish must be cooked in a certain way, wander across Italy and Europe dressed in a stockfish knight uniform in search of followers. 

New brothers are blessed at a yearly ceremony involving a mummified stockfish, and become ambassadors who travel the world – one even on a kayak – to spread the gospel of how to prepare the Vicentina stockfish soup.

The confraternity oversees a chain of restaurants, and they’re very strict: if one chef happens to cook the cod for two hours instead of four, his restaurant gets kicked out of the club. 

Tiramisu on display during the first Tiramisu World Cup on November 4th 2017, in Badoere, near Treviso. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO/AFP

And even panettone remains a sacred treat – in spite of recent wacky twists on the recipe such as adding aubergines and olives. 

The original recipe is fiercely defended by Milan’s Chamber of Commerce, where it was registered over fear of counterfeits. The city hall has a list of approved historical artisan boutiques selling the one and only original panettone year-round, meaning that if you don’t buy it in Milan you’ll be eating a fake. 

But there’s no need to look at extravagant foods to understand how such food fetishism can become a bit ridiculous and obsessive, and even downgrades the importance of culinary tradition.

Take simple pizza. Pizza is like bread. You eat it everywhere in Italy; however, fanatical pizza makers claim the ‘real’ Neapolitan pizza made according to regulations (the crust and thickness having specific dimensions) can be savored only in pizzerias that boast a special label. 

I’ve had great pizzas everywhere in Italy: thin, thick, round, rectangular. I only judged it based on whether I liked it. 

Traditions are important but food must be enjoyed, and you don’t need to be a culinary academic or gourmand to appreciate a good slice of salami.

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Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 


When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.