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Matthew Fort: Understanding the Italian tradition of 'campanilismo'

One day I was wondering through the pretty but not very distinguished Calabrian town of Cittanova when I fell into conversation with a chap who turned to be a professor of political history at the university in Rome.

What was he doing here? I asked. Cittanova was a long way from Rome. Ah, he said, he was a native of Cittanova. He was born here. Rome was an admirable city, he said, but it wasn’t Cittanova, and so he liked to return to see his family and to ‘refresh my roots’, as he put it. He needed to taste his mother’s food, he added. How often did he come back? I asked. As often as he could, he said; about once a month.

Once a month! This struck me as odd. I thought it unlikely that a native of, say, Reading or Luton would feel the same way about their home towns. In my experience most people of spirit who’ve grown up in small provincial towns can’t wait to escape from them, and certainly wouldn’t dream of returning every month to refresh their roots. I asked him to explain.

Was I familiar with the concept of campanilismo, he asked. Vaguely, I replied.

Every old town had a campanile, he explained, from the top of which you could see the area around that delineated where you were from and who you were. It gave you your family, history, food and dialect. As he said, it was confusing for tourists visiting Italy because Italians talk in dialect and eat in dialect. Local dishes, and the produce from which they were made, were protected with a fierce, sometimes ferocious, loyalty.

Local meant not simply this region, he went on, or this area, but this hill, this valley, this village and sometimes this house. I can remember talking to two butchers who lived ten kilometres apart who reacted in horror at the idea that they should use the wild fennel that grew near the other’s shop in their own identical sausages. This was a few years ago, mind.

Now this may seem a long way from Piano Coffee, but I see a beguilingly meandering connection between the two. Piano Coffee celebrates campanilismo in its own, very particular way.

The sad fact is that Italian food culture is changing. Changing slowly but changing nevertheless. It’s no longer proof against the forces that have impoverished the food cultures of so many other countries - globalisation, homogenisation, social change, the decline of the agricultural communities on which they depended.

I’ve always believed that delight lies in variety and difference. The world, sadly, seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Even before Covid-19, small craft coffee processors and roasters and individual cafés in Italy were vanishing, not quite at the speed that our pubs were closing, but steadily. The pandemic is only likely to accelerate the process. And with the disappearance of the processors, roasters and cafes are going/have gone the individual - campanilismic - styles of coffee they championed.

Piano Coffee was set up with the express intention of keeping the great traditions of Italian- styled coffee alive in the face of formidable international forces.

Of course, the raw material for coffee is produced all over the world and transported to the places where the beans are transformed into the divine drink we know and love. That’s true of all beans. But with Piano Coffee, the beans come to Peterborough, where the masters of Piano Coffee have worked with the masters of Masteroast to produce Luisa and Francesco. From Peterborough it is a short haul to the growing numbers of coffee connoisseurs turning to these coffees for their daily nerve tonic. Masteroast is effectively the campanile for Piano Coffee.

I told you it was are meandering connection, but I hope you’ll agree that it’s a beguiling one nevertheless.

Matthew Fort is a renowned food writer and critic. He has been a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu since the series began in 2006 and was The Guardian’s food and drink editor for ten years. His great love affair with Italian gastronomy and culture has inspired three out of four of his books. We welcome Matthew as an ambassador for Piano Coffee.



Image credit: Marco Lazzaroni