Being a vegetarian in Italy is not particularly difficult. Although the locals are often mystified as to why anyone would voluntarily give up the ‘pleasures’ of meat and fish, I am at an advantage in being able put my eating habits down to English eccentricity.
In the 15 years I have lived here, I’ve found that while my options may be more limited I have never had to resort to the dreaded standby of omelette and salad.
One of the main irritations, though, is that menus rarely show which items are suitable for veggies. There is no equivalent of the UK Vegetarian Society’s simple ‘V’ symbol to make life easier. Even in slow food eateries where the politics and principles of consumption are fundamental, the focus is more likely to be on the provenance of the ingredients than whether or not they contain any dead animals.
A few dedicated vegetarian restaurants do exist but these tend to be in the larger cities. Out in the sticks, you may be lucky and find a macrobiotic place or, a relatively new trend, those labelled as BIO. ‘Bio’ is short for ‘biologico’ which in English would normally be rendered as ‘organic’.
Leaflets about ‘bio’ products emphasis the care and attention dedicated to the cultivation methods where respect for the rhythm and fragility of nature is high on the agenda. You can even find wine made from grapes deriving from land reclaimed from the Mafia.
What is being promoted is a politically correct lifestyle which combines healthy eating, ethical shopping and environmental friendliness. Not surprisingly, ‘bio’ shops and cafés are more veggie-friendly although the tendency for sandwiches to be made with ham exists even here.
In general. Italian businesses still seem reluctant to risk promoting wholly meat-free alternatives.
Take, for example, a café/restaurant/shop called Alce Nero (Black Moose) which has recently opened in my adopted home town of Cesena. This is a company which was established back in 1973 with a mission statement promising “good, clean, correct” products.
This makes a welcome change from the previous ‘whole food’ stores which looked more like pharmacies. In these you would encounter a huge stock of vitamin tablets or body building products alongside bags of soya chunks that resembled dog food.
The food at Alce Nero at least looks appetising but the salami, würstel and ham looks incongruous and a 100% vegetarian establishment would be even better.
Promoting a vegetarian lifestyle would also be more consistent with the ‘bio’ philosophy. Organic farmers give prominence to the need for sustainability but using land for animals and feeding them cereals hardly strikes me as a model of efficient food production. The same land could be used to grow fruit, vegetables and cereal and fed directly to Homo sapiens.
In Italy there is a reluctance to link diet with a wider-ranging ‘alternative’ lifestyle. Bio, like Slow Food, is fundamentally a statement against mass production and short-term economic planning. It requires no giant leap to extend these principles beyond food and drink to cover everything we buy. ‘You are what you eat’, is a tired phrase that should perhaps be updated to ‘you are what you consume’.
As it stands, ‘bio’ is not the revolutionary alternative we are led to believe it is; promoting a meat-free diet would be a far more radical gesture although there is less guarantee of commercial success and there, as always, is the rub.