Italy: A Gastronomic Adventure

By Phyllis Koegel, OU Kosher Marketing Director

Imagine opening the terrace doors of your hotel balcony and your room is flooded with the bright Mediterranean sun, a gentle breeze, and the smells and sounds of the sea. That’s exactly where I found myself at the end of a weeklong business trip to Italy. As Marketing Director for OU Kosher, I had the privilege of leading a kosher trade mission of buyers to Parma to attend an Italian Specialty Food show, called Cibus.

Parma is an elegant city with its center of art, parks, and treasures from different ages. It is a very welcoming place, and is an ideal location for events, mainly due to its geographical location. Strategically positioned one hour from Milan and Bologna, Parma is the very center of the food valley. Situated in Northern Italy, it is located in the region of Emilia Romagna, where you can also find other interesting towns such as Ferrara, Rimini or Piacenza; the Cathedral, the Theater Regio and the Theater Farnese are other well-known attractions. But it is the gastronomy that has the world’s eyes focused on Parma.

Cibus, the International Food Exhibition, which was held on May 9-12, is the key event of the Italian agri-food sector, a true “platform” enabling companies committed to “Made in Italy” food to meet the major distributors, importers and professionals of domestic and foreign markets. OU Kosher was invited by the Italian Chamber of Commerce to present the benefits and opportunities for export to major Italian food consortiums, as well as meet with Italian food manufacturers eager to learn about the kosher process.   

The excellence of food and wine products of Italy is well known. Cibus, organized by Fiere de Parma in Italy, takes visitors directly to the source — where these amazing products come from. Our group of kosher buyers was in search of unique Italian products. With centuries of tradition in the production of the highest quality of food, our group was excited to see what they might find. OU Kosher was on hand to assist with the kosher certification of these products.

Our kosher mission was part of a group of over 70,000 qualified visitors, 12,000 of whom traveled from abroad, coming from 70 countries. We were joined by six additional kosher buyers from Italy, France and England, with whom we had the pleasure of sharing kosher meals each day, organized for us by Kosher Paradise, a kosher importer from Milan.

Each day our gracious Italian hosts, who set up a separate dining room for us, greeted us. The men in our group were able to pray together, after which we shared breakfast, and then were transported to the show by bus. At the end of each day as we gathered together for dinner back at our hotel, members of our group shared their experiences of the day, and the multitude of amazing products they found. My colleague, Rabbi Dovid Jenkins and I, were extremely busy following up with companies, especially those manufacturers the buyers met at the show, to discuss the kosher process. 

The feature which best describes Italian food is, in my opinion, quality — quality of the ingredients; quality of the production process; Quality of the presentation (because food should also please the eye). The ingredients: vegetables, fruit, oil, cereals, wine and any other product are produced according to strict safety rules. A recent study on the percentage of pesticides contained in Italian foods has shown that only 0.7% of them resulted in being produced using chemicals. Another unique feature of foods in Italy is simplicity. Italian cuisine is great with just a few ingredients: tomatoes, oil, bread and wine, to name a few. Bruschetta, a classic traditional Italian food, is just bread seasoned either with garlic, oil, and tomatoes. The famous caprese salad, a typical starter from southern Italy, is made with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and oregano.

Healthiness as well makes traditional Italian food so popular around the world. The Mediterranean diet is famous worldwide for its benefits in preventing heart-related diseases. Olive oil, for example, is used much more than butter and cream. Ready sauces are still regarded with a sort of shame among the majority of Italians. Italians believe that any sauce worth using should be rigorously handmade. Moreover, regional and local traditions make foods in Italy so special. Within a few kilometers radius you can find more than one way to prepare the same dish.

Let’s take, for example, a traditional first course from Romagna, cappelletti, a stuffed fresh egg pasta whose filling can be made either with or without meat. You travel 50km westward to Emilia you will find tortellini, a very similar dish, just slightly smaller. The attachment to the customs and traditions of an Italian town can become true competition. The neighboring cities of Modena and Bologna will dispute forever the ownership of the original tortellini recipe. Even today the origins of most foods in Italy are strongly rooted to the working classes. A typical example is polenta, a traditional dish from Lombardy and Veneto made with corn flour. For centuries polenta was the main food of the working class. It is still very popular in their diet, but today is also served in restaurants as a culinary specialty.

  This was my second Cibus trade event, and I found it to be even better than the last. With over one thousand new product innovations, there was an excitement in the air, as manufacturers sought to meet foreign buyers. This year there was a unique focus on kosher products, with a special showcase featuring all the kosher products available at Cibus. Our delegations was proud to see many OU-certified Italian manufacturers present at Cibus, and we were happy to facilitate introductions for them to our kosher buyers.

What can I say about Cibus except that it was an incredible gastronomic experience?

After four days of walking and meeting with hundreds of Italian food manufacturers, I needed a few days of down time for some rest and relaxation. I was in search of an enchanting place to rest my weary head. My hotel in the Amalfi Coast, the Santa Caterina was simply magical. Perched atop cliffs, and sculpted out of the rock face, I arrived to a simply stunning hotel and views of the Mediterranean. Costiera Amalfitana, as it’s known in Italy, has been an “it” destination since the days of Emperors Caligula and Augustus built vacation villas there 2,000 years ago. The magnificent scenery lures tourists from all over the world. Along cliff-hugging roads, the Amalfi Coast is a beguiling combination of great beauty and gripping drama: coastal mountains plunge into the sea in a stunning vertical scene of precipitous cliffs, picturesque towns and lush forests.

  What a wonderful way to end my amazing trip to Italy.