June 2006
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Day June 4, 2006

Local, how local can you be?

 Happydent
Living here in Italy has made me consider what defines the boundaries of local and how my concept of local is changing.     Here everything is very local – local to a degree I hadnt appreciated to date.  By local I mean within the region we live in Italy (Lombardy) and more often than not the 20 sq. km around us.   People here think local, produce is local, relationships are local.   Many of the people who live in the tiny village we are in have never left Lombardy.  Very few have ever left Italy.  Most people dont speak a word of any language other than Italian.   Considering that we are 15 mins away from the Swiss border, 45 mins from Milan, 3 hours from Florence, this surprised me.    
People seem to relish how local life is here.   Last week someone was explaining to me that much of the milk that we buy here is from cows about 15 mins up the road.   Some friends told us that each year they pick olives from their olive trees and take the olives to Lenno where a local producer of olive oil (great oil btw) weighs them and gives them bottles of oil in exchange for the olives.   There is a trade off made between choice and quality.    There is often little choice, each item comes in a flavor determined mostly by what was available.  What is fresh.   But while daily choice is limited there is more variety.  

There are vegetalbles that we have never seen before.   One day back in Feburary my wife bought at the market a green vegetable that was somewhere between asperagus and an artichoke. Often we cant even get the name sorted for some of these items — different people seem to call them different things — the name for this one was erbetta, another one is called la barba dei priest  (the priests beard).   In the US there seems to be a need to replicate experiences, a need for consistency (are these needs or are they artifacts of a culture of consumption that makes us think they are needs?). Here there is little need for this.    Life maps pretty tightly to the seasons, one month its brocoli the next its appargus and thats about it.  It strikes me that is a lot more texture to a life lived like this.  

Down the street there is a butcher who sells among other things butter. His butter unlike anything I have tasted before. I cant really explain it.   The combination of the texture and the taste is unbelievable – its butter like nothing i have tasted.   Made just up the road.   Maybe I dont pay enough attention to taste — I never thought there could be so much diversity in a thing like butter.  I thought butter was butter, now I differently, so do my kids, they will ask us, butcher's butter please.

 Brands here are hyper local.     Go to a resturant and order sparkling water — what you get wont be Pelligrino,  there is barely a Pelligrino bottle to be seen around here.   Its local carbonated, spring water. And pretty much every restaurant we go to has a different brand.   Go the the supermarket (let alone the local aliementaire) and pretty much everything is local.  Not only produce, the basics — kitchen paper, trash bags, wine, drinks, yoguts etc. etc. most of them are Italian brands.   Glad bags, no can do,  wrigleys gum, no such luck (try Happydent, fabulous branding.) …  Maybe Italy is too small a market, non english spearking etc. for the multinationals to have paid it much atttention.   Most of the trade barriers have been levelled with EU membership.   But local is what people want, its what they trust. People spend a lot of time in their communities and so much is done just the way it has always been done.  

If you expand the concept of local to include a local online community I wonder if this is more what markets will look like in the future.   Another way of thinking about the tail vs. the head, but the tail vs. the head analysis is about how the tail is becoming more accessible from a cost standpoint.  Here the trade off's that are so compelling re: scale and efficiencies have not been made.