In Conversation : Dr. Alessandro Liberatori
Italian Trade Commissioner, Embassy of Italy, New Delhi
by Neelima Agrawal
The significance and importance of international trade between nations was summed up perfectly by the EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, in her speech at the Bruegel Annual Meetings 2019, where she said, “Trade is about economic prosperity, but it is also about culture, people, values. It is about lifting people out of poverty, and it is a way to promote peace and trust between countries.” The significance of her words became clearer in my interactions with the Trade Commissioners at the Italian Embassy in New Delhi, India, who serve their tenures in different geographies across the globe, moving from one country to another every four years. So, even as Dr Alessandro Liberatori, bid adieu to Indonesia to take charge as the new Italian Trade Commissioner, Embassy of Italy, New Delhi,Coordinator of Italian Trade Commission offices for India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Dr Fracesco Pensabene, the erstwhile Trade Commissioner in India hosted his farewell in October 2019, to take up the new posting in Moscow.Freshly arrived in India, Dr Liberatori, wasted no time in moving the agendas forward
My first meeting with Dr Liberatori was at the culinary event hosted by the Italian Trade Commission at Hotel Hyatt Regency, to promote Italian cuisine in India. It was a well thought-out event on cooking pasta and its health benefits, wherein the Italian Chef gave a live demo and the nutritionist explained the goodness of Italian ingredients. A very informative booklet on Pasta was gifted to all attendees. In the backdrop of this event, I got the opportunity to interact with Dr Liberatori at his office, and the conversations and queries centered on many aspects about the food industry in Italy and its popularity across the globe.
Why do you feel the need to promote Italian food at all? People already love it.
Yes, people probably love Italian food, but it is important to make people aware of the authentic way to cook it, how to eat, how it should taste, in order to get the best benefits from it. The pizza sold by international chains is different from the authentic Italian pizza.
Pizza is actually a much healthier food. There is a need to educate people to be aware of what authentic Italian food really is. People should know about its health benefits, its connection to our well-being, also to our sociality, to our conventionality, because Italian food is also in our culture and our tradition, it is not only eating, or food, but it is part of being together, sharing food, meeting friends and family. This is not so different from Indian culture as well. India is a big country with a long history and its own food culture and tradition.
We already have in India Italian cheese products like Parmesan, Mozzarella etc, manufactured locally. Some well-known producers have trained in Italy.
I am happy when someone is learning to make Italian products. However, the name should be different. What is being sold is cheese, and it is probably very good in taste too. But it is not authentic. The cheese sold here as Mozzarella is a different kind, very hard. Mozzarella is a soft, fresh cheese, best consumed on day one, or at best within the first three days. It does not last more than 6-7 days. It is not just pizza topping. Fresh mozzarella with tomato and olive oil is very popular. There are many kinds of Mozzarella, the normal variety and the buffalo mozzarella or Mozzarella di Bufala, which is from an area close to Naples in Italy. Europe has strict regulations about regional indication. There are special cows, strict requirements and old traditions that are involved.
We have been fighting against the Italian sounding phenomenon – an example is the Parmesan terminology. Parmesan cheese is an imitation of the real Parmigiano Reggiano. According to the trademark laws in Italy, the cheese cannot be called “Parmigiano Reggiano” unless it is made in Italy according to a specific requirements, ingredients, food-processing methods etc., in the area of Parma-Reggio Emilia. There is a consortium that monitors all the produce that is needed for the manufacture. The milk is from a certain kind of cow from that region, what it is being fed, what type of water. A mix of factors contributes for the final product’s high quality. There are many Indians, particularly from the Sikh community, who own farms in this region and are very skilled.
I have read reports that most Olive oil being sold in the market is fake. While olive oil is imported from many countries, how do you combat this?
We are the second largest exporter of olive oil to India. Because of the superior quality of Italian olive oil, the price is more. Manufacturers from other countries use Italian sounding names, sport Italian flags on the label to mark up the cost of their products. This is having a bad impact on our industry. The goal of our promotion is to point out the Italian sounding name phenomena, which is borderline of counterfeiting. There is also the question of sustainability and organic, you do not know where the olives are coming from. The very high duties here, do not help. The Italian virgin olive oil sold here is ten times more expensive than in Italy.
Why have gelato brands not arrived in India?
Gelato is a very good product for India, though it is not to be confused with ice cream. For gelato conservation, it is essential to have proper cold chain. The base technology is essential. I do not see any obstacles for popularity of gelato in India. Gelato is very popular in not just Italy, but all over the world. There are thousands of gelato shops in every Italian city, where it is a daily pleasure.India is a very big market, the sixth largest grocery market in the world. For the Italian industry, it is an opportunity to be here.
What is the extent of the Italian food industry? What is special about it?
Finished Italian food products are good and increasingly matching the new trends and demands from the global consumer with various innovations in the food processing industry. Italy is not only number one in the world for food production, but is also a global leader in food processing technology. Especially in the region around Bologna, which we call the‘food valley’,there are many companies that are producing machinery technology. Many food-processing companies are there in the Emilia-Romagna region. The Italian food product is so good because of the advanced technology behind the finished product. Also, despite the fact that Italy is a small country, it remains a mix of tradition and culture. The units are mostly small and medium sized and the companies are sharing their knowledge between them. There is continuous product and process innovation. The secret is that normally the founders of these companies have gained experience by working at some larger firms, and they bring this knowledge, passion, blended with tradition.
What makes Italy so very diversified in its culinary traditions?
The different culinary traditions date back in history prior to Italy’s unification in 1861-1870. Before, there were many small independent states and countries, which developed their own traditions. Of course, before that was the Roman Empire. After that, over thousand years, each area developed its own regional culinary specialties. Mainly it is pasta, wine, olive oil and cheese. There is olive oil from Tuscany, Puglia, Sicily and all over Italy. There are food specialities from all regions. The wine production is widespread across the country, there is Piedmont near Turin, there is Tuscany, there is Umbria, Puglia, Sicily, and so on. As a government, we are uniformly promoting each area, and the regional bodies can promote together with us.
Will there be more such food event planned here?
There will be other events on Food, but we will also have several initiatives on different sectors, renewable energy, infrastructure, medical devices, not necessarily all linked to food sector. Technology makes up 40% of Italian exports to India.
Italy is very advanced in technology. The biggest part of the GDP of Italy is coming from technology. Nearly 40% of our GDP is coming from machinery and technology, 13-15% of GDP is coming from food sector. We are the number one in food processing. In the automotive sector we have Ferrari, Lamborghini, Vespa, Fiat, Piaggio.
What do you think gives the edge to Italian design?
There is a long tradition and culture dating back centuries. Each of the regions has clusters of artisans, handicrafts, specialization dating back to the middle ages. They were sharing their knowledge, and competing with each other. With industrialization, the technology was incorporated. Italian companies are small, which can be good or bad. On the one hand, they are innovating for a small-scale production providing creativity and innovations. Unlike large corporations, there is no standardization. On the other hand, they are able to comply with every customer’s specific demand. There has been innovation and technology sharing through generation. It is not something that one cannot start from scratch. The information is handed down from father to son or daughter. It is part of the DNA, it is just a part of our human development. It is true we like beauty and things well done. We prefer to do less but better.
I was previously working with Italian Confederation of Handicraft and Small and Medium sized companies. I experienced Italy with the companies, what they are able to express in terms of quality. Sustainability is natural, as they are a part of the community, not just a detached industry. They try to do the production in the best way, less polluting, more sustainable way, because they too live there and are part of the community.