Local, how local can you be?

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.

  • nic

    No wonder that the SLOW food movement that made it to the US several years ago originated in Italy in response to fast food and global pressures. SLOW is associated with higher quality (ie time and expense) and authenticity. Though, in the US, I tend to think of this more as a wistful longing for “locality” in reaction to a history of extreme mobility.

    Intriguing thought as to how this may mirror future markets. Are you suggesting that the corollary to the creation of the “Italian-local-market” (a population that has stayed in one place for generations) in the online world going to be determined by the length of time of membership within the “local” online group?

    Seems like many forums and trading groups have already taken on this structure complete with the requisite suspicion toward outsiders and new entrants.

  • John

    Yes, this maybe a component of community — living in NYC for so many years cut off this aspect of what local meant to me. Interesting slow food came from Italy — didnt know that — thks Nic

  • http://napsterization.org/stories mary hodder

    I like how each restaurant or oseteria, cafe, bar, panneteria, has its own matches, napkins, cups and saucers, plates, little pieces of shear paper for putting on a plate with a roll, all with their brand printed on them. It’s such a big part of their identity. It feels like it’s how they know they are somewhere, verses our nowhere and everywhere brands. What is the difference if you eat at the Target cafe in Iowa or Florida? But Oseteria Castelvecchio.. there is only one, in Sienna. And it’s slow food. And there are only 8 tables. And the food is etherial. But you could never repeat it exactly. Good food is not scaleable. Italy isn’t scalable.

    Local does mean inconsistent. When I was in Italy for a couple months (May through July) a couple of years ago, a friend asked if she could come for three weeks. I double checked that she was okay with traveling and variety, and inconsistency, and she assurred me that she was and had traveled through out Asia extensively. About 2 weeks into her stay, after seemly having a wonderful time, she totally broke down and cried. Everything we had was amazing and great, but inconsident. She just wanted to eat something where she knew what it would be before going into the establishment. And that’s impossible in Italy.

  • John

    The inconsistency is something you need to adapt to and work with. And thats not by any means easy. Another dimension of inconsistency, relates to time — time is understood in Italy as a uneven landscape — you think you understand what happening, and then just over the next peak is a huge drop. The most extreme example of these large cultural gaps was one that needs more space to explain, this short version wont do it justice. But let me try — there was someone who worked at the villa we lived in, he tended to the garden. He spent a day a week, or sometimes two days, working the garden. He also spent a fair amount of time in the garden just sitting and looking at the lake and the garden. After months we figured out that no one paid him. He tended to this garden because he loved it. I will write more about him and the garden at some point but all to say that while Italy can seem and feel very familiar — life there is profoundly different to the way we live here in the US.

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