With more than 1M hectares of crop surface free from pesticides and fertilisers, Italy is the most organic country in Europe, and fourth in the world. But it seems that the Italians, who already enjoy what is generally accepted as one of the healthiest diets in Europe, aren't willing to fork out the extra money for an organic product. A recent survey found that the number of consumers unwilling to pay higher prices for organic products rose 13% in three years. Instead, Italy's main export markets include the UK and Germany, which absorb around 30% of its organic output.
In the Emilia-Romagna region, which this year hosted the SANA natural products exhibition, much is being done on the organic front. One company that is well positioned to capitalise on this growing export market is cous cous maker Bacchini - one of only three plants in the country, two of which are in the Emilia-Romagna region.
The 12,000m2, site is only one year old and claims to be the most modern in the country. It is currently home to one plant and produces 9,000t of cous cous a year (1t per hour). Bacchini has big expansion plans and next year will be adding another line, to double production to 11,000t per year.
Cous cous is made from a mixture of water and semolina, explains Bacchini director Giacomo Ricci. At the plant (above right) the mix is cooked for half an hour at 100°C before being dried for 35-40 minutes at 160/150°C. It is then sieved and separated to make different grain sizes. Any grain that is too large after cooking goes through the whole process again to become flour.
Growth market for cous cous
While Italians are known for their love of pasta, cous cous has yet to really make its mark, and 70-75% of all cous cous produced is exported, says Ricci, although it is still a growth market.
"Like women, cous cous can get married to anything!" he jokes. "It's a very healthy product. There are no chemicals, nothing is added and you can cook it very quickly. We would like to make a product aimed at the elderly, as it is also very easily digested and can help with dietary problems."
Bacchini currently produces several varieties of cous cous, made from: durum wheat, spelt, kamult and wholewheat. It is also experimenting with new types made from rice and corn.
The wholemeal variety is made at the end of production so it doesn't contaminate the white cous cous. Currently, 25% of its production is in organic cous cous, which is made at the start of production every fortnight. It is important that the plant is thoroughly cleaned down before and after this production. "Once we get the new line we will probably just do the organic cous cous on that as [the demand for] organic is growing fast," explains Ricci.
One of the most important aspects of cous cous production is to check the raw material (semolina) when it arrives, says Ricci. "Humidity, grain size and ashes are all checked. The percentage of ashes is very important - 89% is okay, but 140% is too much." Equally, the end product should only have 11% humidity, while protein content and colour are also checked.
The site can currently hold 160t of raw product, but more silos will be needed when the second plant arrives, he says. When finished, the product, which has a two-year shelf-life, is packed into 5kg and 25kg packets for the supermarkets, and a boil in the bag variety is also produced. The company currently exports around the world, including to the UK.
When it comes to a passion for food, you don't get more passionate than the Italians. But at one small factory in the Emilia-Romagna three women (and one man) have an unusually strong belief in what they do - which is to make organic pasta.
La Romagnola has been producing solely organic food for 19 years. "For us it is our mission - it's what we truly believe in," says director Paola Fabbri. Indeed, the team's efforts and quality of product recently won it an award from the region's chamber of commerce, which noted that it was "producing something special"
At La Romagnola, pasta is made from spelt, kamult, corn and rice and trials are under way with oats, millet and barley. The small factory also makes the dried vegetables, all organic, for a brand of Bacchini's cous cous. In total, it makes 30t of pasta and cous cous a year. Products are stored in an air conditioned warehouse because, unlike normal pasta, organic pasta needs to be kept at the right temperature so as not to affect its properties.
But like many, the company is suffering slightly from a certain scepticism among Italians regarding organic produce. Turnover of euro 800,000 is lower than it should be following a difficult last year, but the team is confident the situation will improve as knowledge about the benefits of organic grows.
Scepticism about organic food ...
"In the beginning, people were sceptical about organic production, as there were a lot of companies starting out but then closing down," says Fabbri. This is due in part to the cost of organic production, which is higher (by about 25%) thanks to a rigorous certification process. There are currently 11 certification bodies in Italy, which lay down strict requirements, including no pesticides or chemicals in the raw materials as well as yearly crop rotation.
"The other problem is that some companies just see organic as a way of being able to charge a higher price - they just want to cash in," adds Fabbri. "They then close when they can't cope with the higher production costs."
The scepticism surrounding organic produce also extends to wine, but that hasn't stopped Walnut producer Alessandro Annibali at Villa Rovere from embarking on a project to produce an organic variety. "Italians don't drink organic wine," he says. "We sell it abroad but not here. They don't believe organic is better than normal wine." Aside from the walnut production, Annibali currently produces two types of wine from his San Martino organic farm in Emilia-Romagna, and is also working on an alcoholic walnut drink.
At the moment the vineyard is still a testing vineyard, with 12 different grapes - the best varieties will be selected at the end of the project. The 30-hectare farm, meanwhile, is home to 10,000 walnut trees and is the only one in the country carrying out intensive, modern and mechanised walnut production, claims Annibali. "Our walnuts are different because they are very large and have a soft shell and delicate honey flavour, he says. "The harvesting is done automatically, using a tree shaker, which shakes four trees a minute. The walnuts are then dried in silos and kept moving," he explains.
... but there is market potential
Like others, Annibali recognises the potential in the organic market. Next year £0.5M will be invested to build a new drying and hulling warehouse, and he estimates that in the next few years 150t of product will be ready for sale. "We are also investigating using the hulls for a cosmetics range (similar to those for almonds)," he says.
So it seems that while the Italians have yet to believe in their own organic produce, the country's reputation for high quality food and drink will surely enable it to make the most of the growing organic export market. FM