Yesterday, standing in a field of cardoons with an Italian organic farmer, I finally learned how to grow and cook a crop that has so far defeated me in the field and kitchen. He was as keen to talk as I was to listen; kindred spirits under an impending thunderstorm, frustrated by the lack of a common language. Enthusiastic gesticulation helped but as the raindrops got bigger we retreated to a fabulous lunch cooked by his family. Urbino, the local town of Renaissance fame, has frescos and Madonnas aplenty but for me Italy is this; the home of vegetables, grown locally and cooked simply but to perfection.
I am here with my partner, organic restaurateur Geetie Singh, as guests of the Girolomoni organic co-operative where I am to receive their annual ‘Farmers’ Friend’ award. Their co-op was started in the ‘70s by Gino Girolomoni to protect the livelihood of 35 local farmers who scratch a living growing durum wheat on the steep, stony fields to supply the ultramodern pasta factory they collectively own. I’m inspired by the heroic struggle of the recently departed Gino, father of my host Giovanni; he was a farmer, archaeologist, communist, devoted Catholic but above all a believer in humanity. The award is kept alive by Gino’s children who all work in the co-op or their ‘agritourismo’ (a farm-based event venue with its own restaurant). Previous winners include the environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and Ibrahim Abouleish who transformed Egyptian agriculture, so I’m very flattered.
I have never travelled with someone so discerning about food as Geetie but aside from that of the agritourismos, much of the food on this trip has been disappointing. Maybe we were just unlucky with those chip-filled pizzas and fancy restaurants being clever with global ingredients, but I fear a slide into that over-processed mediocrity exported so successfully by the USA. Then again, perhaps we feel this because standards are rising in the UK. The Riverford Field Kitchen and Geetie’s Duke of Cambridge pub in London draw inspiration from Italy, but we left the country feeling all the more proud of what we have created back home. And why not? Any Italian would.