Lizet Wesselman - 23/04/2024


Lizet Wesselman - 23/04/2024

I travelled around Italy for a month and I must say that it positively surprised me in terms of sustainability. And what I liked best is that sustainability is incredibly woven into Italian culture. Of course there are developments on sustainability and less plastic consumption et cetera. But there are certain traditions and customs that are inherently sustainable and are especially popular because it is tradition. Italians love their traditions very much, and that is exactly their strong suit in terms of sustainability.

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A piece of Italian culture

I am a really big fan of Italian culture and the stubbornness of Italians. If you live there, it’s probably not so funny anymore, but there’s a lot to be said about the way they stick to age-old traditions. For example, many recipes have been passed down through the family for generations, so in family restaurants, you really do get authentic dishes “the way grandma made them”. You can also be pretty sure that in every restaurant you will get the same dish when you order something, unless it is a regional tradition to do it slightly differently. Every region has its specialities and they are very proud of them. So a good way to offend an Italian is to ask for variations, such as a different type of pasta. Because each sauce requires a specific type of pasta that best suits the texture of the sauce.

The same goes for wine, by the way. You may think that white wine is especially nice in summer, because it’s chilled, but in Italy, wine is part of the meal, so you only drink white with fish, chicken or vegetarian. Red wine goes with red meat. And don’t even think of ordering cappuccino for dessert, which is a breakfast drink.

They won’t kick you out of the restaurant for it (I think), but disapproving looks and hand gestures are certainly to be expected. Perhaps a discussion to convince you that you really should order something else after all.

As I said, I am a big fan of Italian culture. Because food is actually one of the few things they get excited about. Furthermore, they take their time, trains and buses invariably leave late and you are once again looked at disapprovingly if you decide to run for that train. We don’t rush, you have all the time. And if not, then somehow still.

Sustainable Italian traditions

Since food is such an important part of culture, this is also where I have found many enduring traditions. As I mentioned, recipes and traditions have been passed down for generations. A few generations back, we didn’t have as much on hand as we do now, so many recipes are loved for their simplicity. This is what Italian cuisine is known for anyway, putting something delicious on the table with few ingredients but mainly fresh products. So, for example, a lot of cooking is done with regional and seasonal products to guarantee quality. In fact, Italy is the largest exporter of vegetables, fruit and dairy products, so they use home-grown products.

Raising animals for food was also not at all common a few generations ago, and meat was something for special occasions. You can still see this in some regions. (Although other regions offer almost nothing vegetarian.) In Matera in particular, I found many vegetarian recipes because in this mountain village they used not to have the money for meat. The only reason there is a lot of meat on the menu is for the tourists who expect it anyway.

Bread down to the last crumb

They also eat a lot of old bread here. They have a very specific local bread, which has been baked by the women in the family for generations and eaten to the last crumb. You get bread with everything, and it’s usually old and dry. But great for eating those leftover sauce or for dipping in soup. If it really can’t go any further, it is made into a casserole or croutons. This is simply an age-old tradition that they are very proud of, you see these breads everywhere. But it is also very sustainable because food is not wasted.

There’s a whole philosophy behind this that forms the basis of Italian cuisine. “La Cucina Povera”, cook with what you have, with as little waste as possible. This dates back to when we didn’t have trucks, ships or planes to import and export ingredients. So you had to make do with what was available locally, and with a disappointing harvest, could then be very little. Many classic Italian recipes grew up with that philosophy of simplicity, such as the pizza margetita and caprese salad. But also the well-known biscotti biscuits you get with your coffee.

No to-go coffee

Another very enduring tradition you see everywhere in Italy is the coffee culture. Another one of those things I’m really big fans of. In Italy, to-go coffee is not really a thing. They do have it, but really only for tourists. The Italians themselves order a coffee at the bar, which they drink at the bar and then leave. So when you order a coffee in Italy, you get a saucer placed in front of you and that’s where your cup of coffee comes in. If you want to sit at a table, you usually pay extra. In Venice, for instance, you can easily pay 5 times as much for a cup of coffee because you want table service. Italians mainly drink espressos, so that’s also just 1 sip and gone, a bit of a waste to use a to-go cup for that. But this makes it incredibly sustainable, because you really won’t see Italians walking around with to-go cups.

Train travel in Italy

Train travel has also traditionally been the way to get from A to B. It is quite common for people to live in city A and work in city B, with considerable distances between the 2. Italy’s train network is really fantastic, despite the fact that they never leave on time (always a few minutes late, but rarely with a 20-minute delay). There is a whopping 29,000 km of track and 9,000 trains a day. By comparison, from Amsterdam to Sydney is 16,000 km. There are fast connections between all major cities. And I really do mean all major cities. You can board in Venice and get off in Lecce in the south. Or from Milan to Rome. And people take these trains daily, because driving is really not doable in many places, with all the narrow streets from Roman times.

Preserving Italian nature and history

But this strong sense of tradition is not just related to food and coffee. Italians generally have a strong sense of preserving things as they are. This can work against them quite a bit in some cases, but in some cases it also works in their favour. Nature and the old centres of cities are also protected with all their might. Italy has the most UNESCO sites of any country in the world, and if it is on the UNESCO list, it must be protected. And they do so with love, because as with everything, they value that history. One example is Alberobello, with its cute trulli.

And the same goes for nature. I visited several nature parks during my tour, most of which require you to pay an entrance fee. Sounds maybe a bit weird, why do you have to pay to be in nature? But by charging tourists, they make sure there is money for maintenance ánd they have control over the number of visitors and what they do there. You’ll be fined in no time if you get the idea of throwing your rubbish in nature, because there is security everywhere.

This may not be the most relaxing way to enjoy nature, but it does help preserve it, which in turn is very sustainable. In fact, Italy has the most nature per square metre in the whole of Europe. And you guessed it; they are proud of that.

Is the Italian culture a model for sustainability?

Whether Italy is really that progressive in terms of sustainability, I do not know. So they also stick rigidly to traditions and are probably hard to change their minds in some areas. I really had to return plastic bags several times at local markets because swishing my reusable vegetable bag still didn’t make it clear that I had my own.

And also because of this coffee culture, where you normally just drink your coffee at the bar, it was very confusing that I had my own reusable cup. Several times, I got it placed in a disposable cup in front of me, with instructions to pour it over myself. Another beloved Italian philosophy says “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. So try to convince them that certain changes do have a negative impact, and do need to be fixed.

Of course, Italy is also working on sustainability and there have been major developments in sustainable machines and techniques for agriculture. So all kinds of things are happening, but no country is perfect. For you as a traveller, at least it is good news that you can enjoy Italy’s sustainable culture quite easily!

Make your Italy trip sustainable ánd more fun!

Want to make the most of Italy’s sustainable culture? With these tips, you can make your next trip to Italy considerably sustainable, as well as incredibly fun!

  • Travel by train, of course. This is really easy to do and you can get pretty much anywhere.
  • Stay in agritourisms, which are locally run accommodations usually located outside the big cities. In Tuscany, for example, you will find many of them.
  • Opt for small, family-run restaurants and bars. You’ll often recognise them by their authentic interiors (the checked tablecloths in particular are a hit or family photos on the wall) and regulars hanging out at the bar.
  • Do a tasting at an organic vineyard, rather than the first tourist hotspot
  • Renting bikes to explore Tuscany, for example
  • Trying local delicacies. Every region in Italy has unique dishes. From breads and pastries to pastas and seafood. A quick google search and you’ll know exactly what to try. Or ask at the restaurant or local bakery.
  • Or make them yourself! There are endless opportunities in Italy to learn how to make your own pasta, pizza or limoncello, for example. Or go truffle hunting in Umbria.
  • Buy souvenirs such as pasta, truffle products or olive oil at a local farmers’ market instead of “made in China” junk in a tourist shop.
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