/ 27 May 2013

Italy minister’s comments about food leaves chefs simmering

Zimbabwean police clash with MDC supporters at the high court in Harare.
Zimbabwean police clash with MDC supporters at the high court in Harare.

As a junior minister taking your first steps in politics, it is generally thought wise to steer away from touchy subjects. Especially when your brief is culture, your country is Italy – and the subject is food.

Ilaria Borletti Buitoni does not appear to have got that memo. In an interview that provoked dismay in gastronomic circles, the junior minister for culture in Enrico Letta's new government said she judged the performance of Italian chefs "negatively", chastising them for trying too hard to be fashionable and copying the French.

"In Italy we haven't eaten well for a long time, unfortunately. We have chased after the trends, the French, moving away from our idea of cooking," Borletti Buitoni, an MP for Mario Monti's centrist party, was quoted as telling Panorama magazine.

She said some of the best food in Italy was to be had in Umbrian trattorias that were "less fashionable and the better for it".

In a country which rejoiced in 2010 when the Mediterranean diet was included on Unesco's list of "intangible cultural heritage", the junior minister's comments came as a slap in the face.

'The wrong person in the wrong job'
"I believe that this statement, made by someone who should be representing us is proof that they are the wrong person in the wrong job," wrote Raffaele Alajmo, who runs the three-Michelin-star restaurant Le Calandre with his brother Massimiliano, in an open letter to Letta.

"Culture is our country's most precious asset and Italian cooking is part of it besides being one of the chief reasons for choosing a holiday in Italy," he added. "At a historic time like the present, being represented by a person who has not the slightest idea of the extent to which Italian restaurateurs in Italy and in the world act as ambassadors for our country and our products is unacceptable."

Borletti Buitoni (58), a former businessperson who lived for years in Britain and is a former chair of the Italian equivalent of the National Trust, is married to a former heir to the Buitoni pasta empire, which is now owned by Nestlé. In 2002, she and her husband set up the respected Borletti Buitoni Trust for young musicians.

She was not asked to elaborate on her comments. Corriere della Sera's food and wine blog remarked that Borletti Buitoni was "very probably" not referring to the elite Italian chefs but to the average restaurant. "And on this point," it wrote, "there are readers of this blog … who would agree."

Such an argument would be unlikely to hold much water with Filippo La Mantia, a leading chef based in Rome. "If she comes to my restaurant," he told Panorama, "I'll ignore her." © Guardian News and Media 2013