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Barter, Food, and Recession in Italy

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The day after April 25, the national holiday marking the liberation of Italy from the Nazi occupation, an unusual episode attracted enough attention to make the national news.

In Nuragus, a town on the island of Sardinia, the festival committee for Saint Elia, the patron saint of shepherds, realized that there was not enough money to pay for the scheduled talent; the recession has hit Sardinia just like the rest of Italy and the usual fund-raising activities did not reach the planned goal. Instead of renouncing the celebration, the committee asked one of the scheduled performers, Gigi Sanna, a shepherd and member of the band Istentales, to accept sheep as partial payment: eight females and a ram, all from a local breed.

Mr. Sanna declared to a national news agency, ADNKronos: "We Sardinians are a people of heroes, and we must not pretend there is no crisis. So we accepted barter. Music instead of sheep, as they once did, when a liter of milk was traded with oil or wheat." The band is not new to solidarity initiatives. In 2009, after an earthquake destroyed much of Abruzzo, where shepherding is also a traditional activity, Istentales launched "sa paradura," reviving an old Sardinian tradition. Communities donated animals to shepherds who were going through hardships. As a result, 1,500 Sardinian sheep were delivered to the shepherds of Abruzzo who suffered from the earthquake.

This piece of news is noteworthy for several reasons. It highlights the pride and the attachment of Italians to their local traditions, still surviving in some form even after 50 years of fast industrialization, economic integration, and the often traumatic abandonment of rural customs that has deeply changed the country since the 1950s. Of course, traditions get revised -- and at times even invented -- to respond to social and cultural changes.

The events taking place in Sardinia are also interesting because they reveal the depth of malaise shrouding the country in the present recession and political disarray. The growing national debt, the rising unemployment rate (9.7 percent in April, with a shocking 32.6 percent for those between 15 and 24 years of age, according to the national institute of statistics ISTAT), the crisis of the welfare state, the lack of political leadership, and the widespread disillusionment in the public institutions and in politicians, have darkened the outlook for the future.

The consequences are visible also on food consumption. According to the daily paper La Stampa, Italians waste less, making sure to consume more of what they buy. They shop more often and in lesser quantities to make the best use of all the groceries. They buy less beef and more cheap protein, such as eggs and legumes. Some have shifted to less expensive products, especially those on sale in hard discount supermarkets. Most Italians get paid once a month, so planning is crucial. Although inflation is quite stationary -- around 2.2 percent -- and food sales slowly increasing, the Confederation of Italian Farmers pointed out that it will take a long time to recover from the 5 percent decrease that took place in 2008, at the peak of the crisis, also because Italians are bracing themselves for the new taxes that the present government is implementing to finance the national debt.

The apparent contradiction between the rise in total food sales and the increasing frugality among the population can be partly explained by the growing inequalities in Italian society, which are reflected in the polarization of eating habits. According to the 2011 Report of ISMEA (institute of Services for the Agricultural Food Markets), the sales of high-end products with such geographical indication increased 13.75 percent between 2009 and 2010, precisely when all the other food sectors were suffering the most. While the few who can afford to do it still enjoy spending at the table, many Italians might be forced to go back to the Mediterranean diet that their parents and grandparents were relieved to abandon during the decades of economic growth, as a mark of poverty and backwardness. It is unclear how these developments will affect the local food culture. The sheep barter in Sardinia might be an extreme example, but certainly many Italians fear that the times of plenty are over.

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