Botanist sends out an SOS for risotto, lentils and rye

April 2, 1999

Future generations may never savour the manifold pleasures of a "real" saffron risotto, one of the pillars of Italian gastronomic tradition. They may also never experience the delights of eating the small lentils that are the traditional New Year's Day dish all over Italy.

According to Francesco Corbetta, a botanist at the University of L'Aquila, in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, many of the key ingredients of traditional cuisine, both regional and national, are on the brink of extinction because they do not adapt to mechanised agriculture.

"There is a continuous contraction," he warned, "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."

Production costs are high, he says. The lentil market is flooded with the larger, less tasty varieties that come from industrial farming and in many cases from other countries.

"The good, small lentils that are traditionally grown in various parts of the Abruzzo on the island of Ponza and in the Agri valley in the Basilicata region are becoming hard to find. The land surface cultivated with high-quality lentils is today only a third of what it used to be."

Professor Corbetta has written a book, S.O.S Verde, which gives a long and depressingly detailed description of the gradual impoverishment of Italy's gastronomic and agricultural heritage.

His alarm is not limited to lentils and saffron. Many other traditional Italian products, he claims, are also threatened with extinction.

Some of the best varieties of maize, for instance, have practically disappeared, undercut by lesser varieties either grown in Italy or imported.

Grano saraceno, the variety of buckwheat used to make the grey polenta, as opposed to the yellow type made from maize flour in areas of northern Italy, is fast disappearing.

Rye, as used in bread and some traditional soups, is also getting hard to find.

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