Italian ‘free from’ is thriving. Alex Gazzola reports from Cibus 2018, a two-yearly Italian event, with over 3,000 participating exhibitors, held in the northern city of Parma in May, where he discovered a number of innovative new products heading to the Italian market – and perhaps to the British one too!
It has always been easier to eat gluten-free in most parts of Italy than to eat vegan.
Show up at even the remotest osteria with your coeliac translation card, and there’ll be a wild mushroom risotto or rabbit stew and polenta on your placemat before you can shrug off your rucksack.
Turn up as a vegan and chances are you’ll be met with quizzical looks and a doubtless still tasty but hardly innovative pasta al pomodoro e basilico (tomato basil pasta) – but don’t be surprised if you still find yourself having to wave away the Parmesan.
In the cities, it’s improving, albeit slowly. But while the restaurant scene may not be experiencing rapid change in vegan eating, the manufactured food market certainly is.
Italian pork charcuterie is of course well renowned, and the most notable trend I spotted at Cibus 2018 was for alternative vegan ‘cuts’ as analogues of famed Italian hams. Bologna-based soya brand Valsoia, for instance, were showcasing their ‘Bresaola’ and ‘Speck’ based on pea and wheat proteins, and coloured with beetroot; while vegetarian brand Natura Nuova also offered a new vegan ‘Bresaola’ as well as a ‘carpaccio’, based on wheat, chickpeas, and potato, with carrot and beetroot as colouring, both in their Alibio line.
As far as dairy-free drinks go, Italian brands seem to be more daring in blends and flavours – Almond Hazelnut and Pistachio drink from Mand’Or and Almond Drink with Sicilian Blood Orange by Condorelli, being two examples.
Most innovative perhaps were two new rice ‘milks’ made from venere nero (black venus) rice – a hybrid of Emperor black rice and an Italian variety, which is grown in Piedmont and Lombardy. Vivibio’s Riso Nerone Drink – just black rice, water, sunflower oil and salt – was a chocolate milk colour with a delicate carob taste, but Riso Gallo too were launching their variety, and it is this that is far likelier to make it to British shores first. Rich in the dark antioxidants called anthocyanins, black rice milks are likely to be marketed for health benefits, but it will be interesting to see whether they succeed beyond a niche interest for use in smoothies, perhaps.
As far as cheese alternatives went, most interesting were Verys’ sprouted wholegrain rice-based line of cheeses (including ‘Cheddar’ slices), which came in spreadable and firm varieties, including smoked. Verys also offered sliced-bread sandwiches – known as tramezzini in Italy, as opposed to panini which are rolls – filled with their cheeses. These are often sold in chiller vending machines in Italy, and vegan sarnies based on tofu and seitan were also on offer from Natura Nuova’s Alibio.
Although gluten free tramezzini don’t appear to have arrived in Italy yet, the country is generally well stocked with coeliac-friendly foods. Good selections of staples are found in chemists and even in motorway service stations, and I’ve seen ‘free from’ sections given priority at the entrance to supermarkets, alongside fresh produce. Coeliac awareness is excellent, perhaps in part thanks to a previous childhood screening programme which ran for some years.
The most exciting trend was for grain-free couscous. This north African staple is more common in France than Italy, but there are some traditional Sicilian couscous recipes and its popularity is increasing. Corn-based varieties are common in the UK, but chickpea, pea and red lentil varieties by Martino, mixed legume and buckwheat versions from Molino Flippini, and Bia’s buckwheat, and chickpea & red lentil varieties (as well as some mixed corn, rice and chickpea blends) suggest that free from couscous is more developed on the continent than in the UK.
Pizza options were good. A ready-made cauliflower pizza base by Paren was an innovation, while two other noteworthy options were the Joyens and La Pizzeria di Capri free from margherita pizzas: the former came in an oven-safe tray with a peel-off lid, and the latter in a biodegradable oven bag, both of which effectively protect against any cross-contamination with non-free-from products sharing oven space.
There were too many unusual gluten free pasta shapes to mention, so will highlight just one – La Fabbrica della Pasta’s extraordinary ‘caccavella’ basket, which is so large, just one is served per person (see it filled with a mixed seafood tomato sauce here).
Ditto gluten-free and grain free crackers and other snacks, though I particularly liked Fiorentini’s ‘Si & No’ black and white rice crackers.
The market for ready mixes and flours seems more advanced too, as evidenced by Molino Filippini’s gluten-free gnocchi mixes and Agugiaro & Figna’s gluten free fresh pasta flour mix, but ready meals seem less developed – with one notable exception being Natura Nuova’s Alifree ‘FODMAP free’ line of veggie burgers and bites. Given the low FODMAP products being launched elsewhere tend to be sauces, soups, dressings and seasoning products, it was a pleasant surprise to find awareness in Italy and a more practical, ready-to-eat offering for IBS consumers.