Philip Hensher: Why Italians go nuts about Nutella

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Gianduia is an Italian regional speciality, liked by some people. Italians were forever mixing chocolate with odd things – pig’s blood is at the far end of culinary possibility.

Gianduia is an old-fashioned mixture of chocolate with hazelnut paste. In 1964, it was first marketed by the confectionary firm Ferrero under the name of Nutella. Since then, it has been closer to the heart of Italians than the San Remo song competition. But a bullet has been aimed directly at it.

In a story more familiar in its general outlines in Britain, perhaps, than in Italy, an EU directive has been found to threaten a cherished national food. The EU hopes to further healthy eating by forcing manufacturers to list calories, fat and salt levels on packaging. All foods which exceed certain levels of sugars, fat and salt would not be allowed to advertise, but would have to circulate in a samizdat fashion.

The plan might have been drawn up with Nutella specifically in mind. Rumours began to circulate that the EU was, in fact, planning to outlaw the product. But some of the comments coming from Italy suggest that Nutella is rather more than just a foodstuff. La Stampa spoke of “The Battle of Nutella”. The manufacturers spoke darkly of the EU’s unwarranted intervention in the most “intimate” areas of private life. In the intensity and solemnity of these comments, something more than chocolate-and-nut paste could be discerned.

If, like me, you don’t much like the stuff, the power it holds over Italians is hard to understand. And yet the power is undeniable, propelling Michele Ferrero to riches in excess of Berlusconi himself. It goes back to the childhood of the Italian male. For decades now, Italian mothers have kept their sons in check with the promise of Nutella if they are good, and the memory goes with them into adulthood. Mother-love in a jar of chocolatey stuff; to a nation of mummy’s boys, Nutella might as well be crack cocaine. Any hint that production might be briefly interrupted would lead to panic buying and stockpiling. They can’t do without it.

Well, the panic seems to have abated for the moment. The EU official whose weary job it is to issue rebuttals of such scare stories said that there was no plan to ban Nutella. And I really don’t know why Ferrero is worried. It’s honestly surprising that they bother to advertise at all: Nutella must sell itself, passing on from parent to child as a means of control buried in an assurance of undying chocolatey love. The threat has retreated, and somewhere, as I write, an accountant in Brescia, a lawyer in Rome, a plumber in Palermo is happily hunched over the third jar of the week, eating it with a spoon and thinking about mamma.

There’s more to men than cars and sport

Radio 5 Live has commissioned seven episodes of Men’s Hour, a radio programme that promises to do for men what Women’s Hour has done for women over the past 65 years or so. There will be an interview with a “bloke with emotional depth”, discussion of an abstruse subject such as “What moisturiser is Robert Mugabe using?”, a slot for a token woman and a Thought for the Gay.

It’s not exactly new. Radio 4 had a series in the 1990s along these lines, The Locker Room, and occasional online broadcasters have tried to address what they see as an imbalance. Whether there is any need for such a programme depends on your point of view. Some people might say that every hour in the world we live in is men’s hour. Is a designated slot for men to go on about themselves something the world is calling out for?

On the other hand, the sort of stuff that is explicitly designed for a male audience on radio and television generally starts and stops with cars and sport. Not that fascinating – in my widest acquaintance, I can think of about five men who are genuinely interested in such things. So there genuinely could be a place for a programme that addressed the concerns of men and of masculinity without talking down to the audience. At the moment such shows are restricted to the male equivalent of women’s features about cookery and needlecraft. If the first edition of Men’s Hour contains a feature about football or an expensively adorned internal-combustion engine, then we will know to turn off straight away. There’ll be another hour of male-oriented radio along in a minute, I dare say.

Reigning on my parade

We enjoyed Pride in London on Saturday. But heavens to Betsy, how the whole march is run by jobsworths these days. I find it hard to believe that 40 years ago, when the Gay Liberation Front first marched under the slogan “Gay is Good”, that they could have imagined it ending up like this. Well, I’ve been marching for 20 years, and I know it wasn’t like this until very recently.

Halfway through, we noticed a gap of a couple of hundred yards had opened up behind the gang we were marching with, and stood on one side of the road to wait until it livened up a bit. Immediately a surly mincer with a megaphone descended on us. No, we could not STAND THERE. We must keep on moving or LEAVE THE PARADE. Go behind the barriers IMMEDIATELY. No, you could not rejoin the parade at a later point. LEAVE THE PARADE NOW. You must wait until the end of the parade and THINK YOURSELF LUCKY.

Give some queens a megaphone and a spurious job title, and it all goes to their heads. It was a splendid demonstration of the truth that it is not absolute power that corrupts, but minimal. Nothing is more likely to bring out the inner Hitler than a clipboard and a single instruction. The power to tell people that they must GO BEHIND THE BARRIERS is, in the short run, much more heady than any of the promises Mephistopheles made to Faust.

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