The end of polenta as we know it

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The Independent Online
POLENTA, a favourite of foodies from Islington to Inverness, is on the verge of extinction, according to Italian scientists.

Just five years ago, few Britons would have known what the traditional Italian paste was, but it has rapidly become a staple of restaurants and middle-class dinner parties. Now it is among a range of traditionally produced foodstuffs threatened by modern farming methods.

The suggestion that small lentils from Abruzzo and Basilicata, as well as specialised varieties of saffron, rye and maize could soon disappear, will disappoint discerning diners.

According to professor Francesco Corbetta, a botanist at the University of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, the loss of such key homegrown ingredients means future generations may never experience the joys and subtleties of regional Italian cuisine.

In a new book, S.O.S. Verde, Professor Corbetta argues that traditional fare, such as "real" saffron risotto, grey polenta made from buckwheat and the New Year's Day dish of high-quality small lentils could soon be consigned to gastronomic history. This is because the recent expansion of industrial farming in Italy, with its emphasis on quantity rather than quality, threatens the survival of native crops which do not adapt well to modern methods.

"These are types of cultivation that cannot be mechanised so the only people still growing these products are a few old people on small plots," he said.

Demand is kept alive by a small number of wholesalers and retailers who deal directly with the growers and supply niche markets.

But as Philip Contini, managing director of Valvona and Crolla, Edinburgh's acclaimed Italian delicatessen, points out, the fine-tuning of British palates may have come too late. "The number of independent delis and specialist shops in Britain has more than halved in the last 10 years. Despite the best efforts of a small number of family growers, the sources of supply are drying up," he said. "We may now be on the cusp of a revival as people tire of the supermarkets and small grocers reopen, but what could happen in the interim is that the products will be lost."

Valvona and Crolla now sources most of its own products direct from suppliers, but even some of these companies are keen to get a foothold in the supermarket supply chain, with the consequent changes to cultivation that may entail.

The increasing domination of the supermarkets across Europe, as well as tighter EU legislation on production methods, has accelerated the trend towards standardised foodstuffs.

These days, shelves groan with mass-produced olive oil, grown in Spain and bottled in Italy, imported peppers packaged in Spain, and endless varieties of grains and pastas. But, according to Antonio Carluccio, chef, broadcaster and proprietor of The Neal Street Restaurant in London, such "delicacies" are often watered-down versions of their former selves.

"My battle is to protect the heritage of good Italian food but I'm worried that people will lose their sense of taste and smell because the big companies make so much rubbish," he said. "Small lentils need more care to produce and are more expensive, but they are fantastic. Saffron from Sardinia has incredible colour and flavour, whereas the stuff that comes from the Middle East tastes of nothing."

Although many Italians continue to visit specialist stores, Mr Carluccio says there is a growing tendency for them to shop "American-style" with trolley-loads full of mediocre produce. Britons, meanwhile, succumbed to the introduction of industrial farming methods in the 1950s and 1960s with barely a whimper.

Seed patenting laws in the 1980s saw hundreds of British varieties of fruit and vegetable vanish overnight and it is only recently that the benefits of organic farming have penetrated public consciousness.

"For a long time I don't think we valued diversity, unlike France where peasant farmers put up a stubborn defence of traditional artisan produce," says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Independent on Sunday's restaurant critic.

"There are signs of a revival in Britain, with a growing number of people prepared to pay for premium produce and a resurgence in farmers' markets."

But agriculture is slow to respond to changing fashions, and the lamentations of campaigners such as Prue Leith on the scarcity of morello cherries and fresh walnuts may come too late. "If we lose the old recipes we lose the reason for growing the ingredients," says Ms Leith who, together with several colleagues, is setting up a national centre for the culinary arts.

"Cookery has become a hobby for the middle classes but, partly because it was taken off the school curriculum and partly because people have less time and buy pre-prepared meals, the old skills have been lost to much of the population."