In a land of comfort food, Nutella is king – part of the choc-stained fabric of daily Italian life
Next time you’re on Rome’s Via Condotti or Milan’s Via Montenapoleone, feeling totally inadequate as you find yourself surrounded by flawless Prada-clad locals, all chiselled cheekbones and cultivated airs of disdain, here’s a handy little tip. Simply produce a jar of Nutella and wave it in their general direction. Then watch as they go from pouting catwalk models to helpless meowing kittens in just a matter of seconds. Magico.
In a land of comfort food, Nutella, produced by the Ferrero company, based in Alba, just south of Turin, is king. It’s part of the choc-stained fabric of daily Italian life. Nanni Moretti, in his 1984 film The Sweet Body of Bianca, plays a neurotic, chocoholic maths teacher who falls in love with one of his work colleagues and, in one memorable dream sequence, binges on a huge jar of the hazelnut spread stark naked, while the wincingly cheesy singer-songwriter Ivan Graziani had a hit with the suitably saccharine Your Sister’s Nutella (‘eat, eat the Nutella that never changes…’).
In 2014, the Italian post office introduced a commemorative stamp to mark the company’s 50th anniversary. Last month a thief was apprehended in a Turin supermarket trying to make off with 15 jars of the stuff.
As Italian brands go, it’s up there with Ferrari and Gucci when it comes to international profile. It’s been estimated that 365 million kilos are consumed each year across the globe, though most of us Brits probably know the company better for Ferrero Rocher chocolates (‘Monsieur, you are really spoiling us…’ etc). Originally appearing on the market in 1946, the spread made liberal use of local supplies of hazelnuts, of which – at a time when post-war austerity meant there was little else – there were plenty.
The actual jars didn’t appear until 1964, courtesy of the founder’s son, Michele Ferrero (a man with an asteroid named after him and who, ranked 22nd on a Forbes list of billionaires, was worth €25 billion when he died last year, aged 89).
Italians tend to be very protective of their favourite spread. Last year, the French environment minister Ségolène Royal claimed that the palm oil contained in the spread was damaging to the eco system because creating it meant large-scale deforestation. If people really cared about the environment, Royal told journalists, they should stop eating Nutella. Italian-French relations are generally cordial, but the subject of food can often get sabres rattling on both sides. Royal’s Italian counterpart Andrea Olivero denounced her comments as ‘terrorism’.
Greenpeace jumped to Ferrero’s defence, pointing out that the company was actively committed to protecting forests and wildlife and had always been transparent in its eco policies and sustainability. Royal was quick to offer her apologies on a social media posting, but the bristling among Italian members of parliament took some calming down, with plenty of dark mutterings about foie gras.
However, concerns remain about Nutella’s nutritional values. The notion of La bella figura is a bit of a cliché, but it still holds some truth. The term generally refers to how you behave in public, how you present yourself to the world, but it in a more literal sense it means looking good, keeping yourself in shape, even as middle-age hits hard. The problem now for such a body-conscious country is that the concept may well end up skipping a generation or two.
The World Health Organisation recently declared that Italian childhood obesity rates are among the highest in the world: 36 per cent for boys and 34 per cent for girls. An increased American fast food culture probably has a fair bit to do with it, but the country’s native cuisine is a factor as well.
Italy may be the birthplace of the Slow Food movement (founded in the town of Bra, just a 20-minute drive up the road from Ferrero’s HQ, back in 1989), but that doesn’t mean the wider population isn’t partial to a bit of carbing up. It’s not all sundried tomatoes and extra virgin oil. There’s that jar of Nutella, for a start.
In 2012, a Californian woman won a $3 million lawsuit against Ferrero for misleading dietary information in their advertising campaigns. One jar, according to the lawsuit, contains very high levels of refined sugar and 70 per cent saturated fat. One tablespoon contains 100 calories.
Now the twin forces of US and Italian gastro guilty pleasures have met in one giddy mash-up. Last month, McDonald’s announced that it was introducing a ‘Nutella burger’, the Sweety con Nutella, featuring a thick dollop of the spread sitting between two regular burger buns, warmed up to ensure maximum gooeyness. The Sweeties come in their own dinky little burger box and clock in at a hearty 256 calories per serving. Before they had even been introduced in the country’s McCafes, the Sweety proved to be a huge PR hit, going viral on social (and mainstream) media in Italy and beyond.
The American chain hasn’t had everything its own way in Italy and has looked to adapt some of its offerings to appeal to local tastes (they also do a pretty passable tiramisù, by all accounts). Earlier this year, the mayor of Florence refused permission for the Golden Arches to open a restaurant on the city’s Piazza del Duomo. The miffed American company is now suing the city for 18 euros million.
Despite that little setback, the fast food invasion of Italy, always seen as one of the last bastions of culinary protectionism, continues apace, with Domino’s Pizza now taking delivery orders in Milan and Starbucks is expected to open in the same city early next year.
It remains to be seen what the response to the Sweety is once it’s available; certainly Domino’s has had rather mixed reactions among Milanese pizza lovers. More than a few will doubtless be disappointed when they see the actual size of the Sweety (think more Filet-o-Fish than Big Mac).
Bread and Nutella has been a mainstay of Italian family treats for decades now and everyone has their favourite way of doing it. The concept could easily backfire. Italians who go to McDonald’s tend to do so for its ‘American-ness’, its sense of difference and, dare I say it, its sense of freedom.
The rituals of food and drink have always been taken very seriously and nowhere more so than in the country’s caffès. Most Italophiles know never to order a cappuccino or caffé latte after midday (they’re traditionally breakfast drinks), or indeed to sit down, unless you really want to pay extra. You don’t have to worry about such things in a burger bar.
Equally, Italians are entirely capable of creating their own naughty-but-nice, calorie-heavy indulgences. La Boccaccia, in Rome’s Trastevere district, is celebrated for its white pizza with Nutella filling, while the residents of Bologna, a city famously known as La Grassa (‘The Fat’), are still mourning the closing of the Nutelleria, where you could order a Nutella cappuccino, Nutella ice cream and Nutella waffles (it’s now home to a more standard coffee bar).
Meanwhile, a report earlier this year found that Italians are eating less fresh meat, fruit and veg, mainly due to economic, rather than cultural, factors. It seems that the classic Mediterranean diet is in danger of disappearing, especially among those who have been hit hardest by the country’s financial woes. It’s a worrying development. Enough to have anyone reaching for the Nutella jar.
Matthew Barker is a magazine editor and declared Italophile