Learning from the Italians

A couple of years ago, in my town of Chico, I had a neighbor who was an entomologist. One thing that crossed my mind back then was whether or not his two daughters had developed a positive, curious attitude toward insects and the natural world due to their dad’s enthusiasm toward the subject.

Reflecting back on that situation now, I ponder how different the girl’s attitudes toward insects would have been if their father had felt fear and aversion towards bugs instead of an appreciation for them.

Recently I traveled to Italy and the issue of attitudes and appreciation came back when, once again, I was surprised by the level of attention Italians give to their food. We all eat and enjoy tasty food though there’s something outstanding in the quality of attention Italians bring to it.

As part of my exchanges with colleagues in Florence, I offered a presentation on a selection of California olive oils to members of Tuscan tasting panels, producers and members of the Chamber of Commerce of Florence. Once we tasted the oils (including oils we made at Pacific Sun that were very appreciated), I was introduced to the work of a tasting panel for chestnuts.

In Tuscany, there’s an area in the region of Mugello where excellent chestnuts are grown. The panel established a chart to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of the chestnuts coming from the region, which has been awarded an I.G.P.  (Protected Geographical Identification) according to EU standards.

The hundred-year-old marrone, or chestnut, woods in the area have been providing an important, irreplaceable source of food and revenue for the local population since the end of the 1950s. The chestnut tree is, in fact, more commonly known as the “bread tree.” Fine flour is made from the nuts, which the Italians use to bake sweet and salty goods.

By looking at the chart, I learned that flavors of mushroom-humidity, musty, or those tasting of cardboard or yeast represent negative attributes. Flavors of vanilla, hazelnut, almond or fresh baked bread represent positive attributes. I stood in awe in front of the poster that explained all this. I noticed myself delighting at the care for details — this lovely, playful, mindful approach to food as culture.

Something similar happened two days after that while I listened to Pierpaolo Arca, the olive oil expert who taught the class I attended in Sardinia, as he talked about Sardinian honeys. The large list of varietal honeys and all the details and nuances Pierpaolo conveyed with such knowledge and grace was an experience in itself.

In its history, Italy has seen many cases like these, in which the highest attention given by its artisans gave it prestige all over the world; that’s the case of coffee roasters, bakers, winemakers, cheese mongers, butchers, the makers of the true balsamic vinegar, bottarga and of course, olive oil makers.

It’s not that all Italians know about these things, though what I did find is that most of them have a positive, thoughtful, attentive attitude towards what they eat. I noticed that even children recognize and call different cheeses by their name or ask for olive oil to drizzle on their food.

I saw it in how often conversation spins around food — it’s quality, origin and history. This attention is something I have not seen anywhere else. Even today when the country is going through an economic crisis, instead of turning towards cheap, pre-made or fast food, most families try to be resourceful and cook more at home; families make their own bread, and brew their own coffee in the best possible way.

Something else they do (and this is quite doable in America) is buy directly from producers in order to get better prices. And they have the added benefit of knowing where their food comes from.

With this awareness in place, it’s no wonder that some regions in the country account for the healthiest in the world.

I have visited different countries and I always feel that the different peoples in the world have created talent and beauty, each in their particular areas. In this one, no doubt, we can learn much about food appreciation from the Italians  — at least I have.


On behalf of the Pacific Sun Olive Oil team,


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