As 2016 NI's Year of Food & Drink gets underway, I am reminded of the two agri-food press tours I attended last year in Italy. They were hosted by the Italian Guild of Agricultural Journalists in conjunction with the Emilia Romagna’s regional tourist board to coincide with the World Expo, ‘Feeding the Planet’ in Milan. Apart from a suitcase of food & drink goodies, there were a number of interesting marketing and PR observations I took back to Belfast from this ‘busman’s holiday'...
Credible branding – rooted in an authentic provenance
Emilia Romagna (E-R) is the birthplace of household brands such as Barilla Pasta and home to Italy’s biggest tomato processor, ARP. But a regional strategy of focusing on quality products made using traditional practices has created global success stories for artisan producers too. The highly acclaimed Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, Prosciutto di Parma DOP, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO, and Mortadella di Bologna IGP are all made in E-R. These protected, designated origin products have a combined turnover of over €2.6 million. Specificity in sourcing and authenticity in origin of locally sourced raw ingredients gives these brands credibility and a point of differentiation which goes deeper than superficial packaging in my view.
Spread the love - an infectious passion for quality food
A deep-rooted love of good food was evident throughout the two tours. Where there was love, there was passion (we were in Italy afterall) demonstrated by an infectious enthusiasm for offering genuine, warm hospitality. Our hosts took the time to make or share a memorable food product or dining experience, all delivered in a seemingly effortless way. I won't forget the marathon dinner provided by the Emilia Romagna Regional Wine Cellar situated in the bowels of Dozza Castle. It started with a platter of locally sourced cold cuts such as salami, coppa, ciccoli, mortadella as well as cow & sheep cheeses. Commencing our starters at eight o'clock, we led on to a 'primo piatto' of two sorts of handmade fresh pasta, followed by a second course of mixed boiled meats, before ending at half past midnight with a bread cake topped with an amaretto, chocolate and mascarpone sauce.
The way you tell them - the power of storytelling
Our hosts' storytelling skills made a lasting impression too. Stories about a product’s provenance, and the people behind it were conveyed via a captivating collection of memorable, personal anecdotes – wrapped in the beautiful musicality of the Italian accent along with plenty of hand gestures.
For example, when visiting the farmer/chef Massimo Spigaroli’s medieval curing cellars to find out more about his famous Culatello di Zibello DOP, we were told how he was summoned by Prince Charles to find out just what was so good about his particular cured ham. So impressed was the Palace that Spigaroli was asked if he could cure the Prince’s own pig meat to which the chef replied that the pigs would have to come to him not the other way around.
When we visited Battibue farm & restaurant we were treated to a Verdi-inspired traditional menu using local produce that included a slow cooked donkey dish, ‘Stracotto di San Nicolo’. Each course was accompanied by a locally produced wine. The stand-out memory from this particular visit, apart from my inadvertent first taste of donkey meat, was that all the wines were made by women. As each wine was served, the maker would stand and tell her own unique wine story. (A professional opera singer was also on cue in between each course to deliver a Verdi aria, the perfect antidote for a weary day of travelling.)
Take it slow – quality can’t be rushed
Whilst Italian lifestyles are evolving, the country has been a late adopter of convenience meals and fast food. I didn’t see any of our ubiquitous fast food chains as we travelled the full length of the region. To quote the French actor Gerard Depardieu who, like us, visited the 14th century medieval boutique hotel and Michelin Star restaurant, the Antica Corte Pallacivina, ‘it is a temple of the slow trip’. Or Marco Bolasco, editorial director of Slow Food and an Italian food expert when he explained, “Eating fast is not at all part of our culture. Our meals are relaxed, even during lunch break.”
So the lasting memory of the food experience was taking time to enjoy simple yet memorable dishes made from fresh ingredients, celebrating the deliciousness of local produce or one signature product that has matured with the passage of time.
A great example of this was when we visited the Balsamic Vinegar museum in Modena. We left with a high regard for the authenticity of the product ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO,’ which means it can only be made in Modena or Reggio Emilia and has a maturation of at least 12 years and up to 25 years or more. So here our hosts were at pains to point out the need to educate the consumer about labelling and 'me-too'brands posing as the 'real deal'.
The sum of the whole – joined up marketing
I've already written about the sense of collaboration that was evident in the agri-food production and agri-tourism sectors of Emilia Romagna known as Italy's red-belt. That culture of co-operation has given rise to some of the the most exiting food & wine roads in Europe. Terre Traverse for example is a group of 16 farms, country-houses and a castle that have come together as an Association in order to create what they describe as a ‘virtuous circle of agriculture, culture and tourism.’ When marketing points of differentiation they captitalise on their location in ‘Verdi Land,’ so-named after the famous Italian composer who, in addition to his musical accomplishments, was considered to be a ‘shrewd farmer and gourmand’.
Support local - pride in regional produce
We sensed their strong pride in shopping local and supporting local producers. Italy as a unified state has only existed since 1861. Regional allegiances run deep and just as dialect differs region by region so does cuisine. So as our group travelled from the west to east of the province, the cuisine and wine changed quite significantly.
It was an Emilia Romagna businessman, Pellegrino Artusi, who spotted the opportunity to publish a collection of recipes from the disparate regions of Italian to become the first cook book written in the Italian vernacular. It took him 20 years to complete his book, ‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well’. It is now an international best seller. In his home town of Forlimpopoli we visited ‘Casa Artusi’, now a library, cookery school, bookshop, restaurant and wine cellar. We were given a lesson on how to make hand-made ravioli and tortellini for which the area is famous. We then lunched on a recipe straight from Artusi’s cook book. (From whence I coincidentally discovered the aforementioned donkey stew also originated.)
These are just some of the 'stand-out memories of how the Italians went about their business of doing PR and marketing for their agri-food experience. With the local food tourism industry poised to celebrate all the is great about our agri-food offering over the coming year, I hope it is a success right across the supply chain, as well as for the lead government agencies responsible for its marketing and PR. I'm looking forward to having a taste of what's on offer. It may even inspire future blog posts such as this one.