Healthy Italian diet suffers as economic crisis bites

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Giovanna Azi cooks with her son
Image caption,
Giovanna Azi is one of many Italians who are saving money by baking pizzas and bread at home

Italians have long been praised for their Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables and fruit. But many are turning to cheaper, less healthy foods as the effects of the financial crisis bite, finds the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby.

Giovanna Azi takes a spatula from her kitchen drawer and scrapes up the last stubborn pieces of pizza dough from the bowl.

"A few years ago," she smiles, "that would have gone in the bin, but these days I make sure nothing goes to waste."

Like many young Italian families faced with rising food prices and low wages, the Azi family is having to make cutbacks.

When her electrician husband's work started drying up at the start of the economic crisis, they realised they had to begin budgeting and food seemed like an obvious place to start.

With bread costing between four and five euros for a decent loaf in Milan, Giovanna worked out that she could make her own for about 80 cents. According to Coldiretti, the farmers and agriculturists' association, the price of bread in Italy has risen more than 419% in the past 20 years.

"Then I realised that we were spending maybe 30 euros a week on takeaway pizza for us and our two boys," Giovanna explains. "So I started making pizza at home too."

She hands me a warm slice of her freshly baked Margherita pizza, adding apologetically: "Of course a traditional Margherita is made with buffalo mozzarella but buffalo mozzarella is not for those of us on a budget!"

As she starts kneading dough for her weekly bread bake we talk about how her family's food habits have changed since the crisis hit.

"Take my Bolognese sauce," she says. "I used to make it with 500 grams of best minced beef - now we're lucky if I use 200 grams. We eat a lot less meat and pretty much no fish now because of the high prices but I make sure we still eat healthily."

'Revamp old traditions'

Giovanna is clearly a talented and inspired cook, but not every family is taking such care.

Image caption,
"I fear bakeries will die out in Italy," says Milan baker Oreste Montalto

At her surgery in central Milan, nutritionist Francesca Noli is concerned by her fellow countrymen's steady move away from the healthy Mediterranean diet.

"Since 2008 Italians are eating a lot more pasta and a lot more rice," she tells me, explaining that such carbohydrates, which are cheap, fill you up quickly.

"But people here are eating far fewer fresh vegetables and fresh fish and meat - and when they do they buy discount food which is poor quality."

She shakes her head. "I'm worried now," she says, "but I'm very worried for the future."

Today, one in three young Italians is obese and some 20 million adult Italians are overweight. Obesity is more prevalent in the poorer south of the country and nutritionist like Francesca Noli warn that cheap, calorie-packed fast foods and ready meals are largely to blame.

In a shopping mall on the outskirts of the city, an animated celebrity TV chef, Sergio Barzetti, is showing star-struck shoppers how to save money by bulk-buying seasonal vegetables like tomatoes and then canning them or making them into sauces for the winter time when the produce will soar in price.

Some of the shoppers scribble down his advice on the back of their supermarket till receipts.

"It's true that the price of vegetables and fruit has become very expensive for ordinary families," says Alfredo Gaetani from Coldiretti. "So we are trying to show people here today that there is still a way of keeping a healthy diet if you prepare food yourself."

He smiles. "You know this kind of preservation of vegetables used to be a part of our heritage, part of our Italian culture. So we're saying, yes there is a crisis, but let's revamp the old traditions and live better."

The call for a home cooking revival has worked well in Italy.

According to Coldiretti, a third of Italians are now making pizza at home and 19% are making their own bread.

But not everyone is a winner. According to the CNA, the Italian Association for Small and Medium Artisan businesses, 10% of small bakeries in and around the capital Rome have shut over the past two years.

In their sandwich and bakery shop in Milan, baker Oreste Montalto chats cheerfully with customers while his wife Sabina carefully puts slices of freshly-made pizza onto a tray on the counter. It is noticeable how few customers there are.

Image caption,
Celebrity chef Sergio Barzetti shows shoppers ways of eating healthily on a budget

"Over the past year we've lost 40 maybe even 50% of our sales," Oreste sighs. "I fear bakeries will die out in Italy. Our future is really quite black and I never want to see my kids in this business."

It is supper-time now at Giovanna Azi's house, and her two young sons are clamouring for the three different types of pizza she has made. She places a bread basket on the table and the deliciously comforting smell of fresh baking fills the room.

"If any of the bread is left over," she says, "I'll crumble it and fry it with any old vegetables or bits of meat I find in the fridge to make rissoles. I am now doing exactly what my grandmother did during the war."

Her elder sons reaches out for a third slice of pizza.

"Isn't it delicious?" I say to him.

"It's good," he acknowledges, "but I prefer the takeout pizza we used to buy at the restaurant."