Montebello: The Intersection of Tradition, Innovation, and Identity

Organic food production and the Slow Food Movement are very popular in Italy. Europeans are extremely concerned about food quality and the long-term health impacts of GMOs on the human body. While there are many groups of individuals in the US pushing for fewer GMOs and eating seasonally via farm to table or CSAs, those initiatives do not have the same reach as biologics (organic) and locally sourced food initiatives found throughout Europe. Italian regulations prevent GMO (OGM in Italian) companies or products from entering the agricultural market. This is done for both health reasons and in the interest of protecting Italian identity preserved in the country’s traditional agricultural practices. In support of learning about the various arguments for and against locally grown food, GMOs, and the Slow Food Movement, we visited Montebello, an organic farm that produces pasta and a vineyard/olive oil producer called Il Conventino di Monteciccardo. I will draft a second post about Conventino to prevent this one from becoming too long.

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Beginning the tour of Montebello/Girolomoni farm and factory

Montebello’s founder was a man named Gino Girolomoni. He started his professional life as a public affairs liaison. However, over time he became very passionate about protecting traditional farming methods that displayed Italian culture and restoring the monastery of Montebello. The logo of the company is actually the outline of the monastery and the adjacent church. Through community outreach and partnering with the remaining farmers in the community of Montebello, Gino revived traditional farming methods, established a museum of agriculture for the area, and revitalized the virtually abandoned town just a short distance from Urbino. Farmers returned to the valley as a cooperative was formed to raise grains for organic flours and pasta. While the Girolomini/Montebello team and the leaders of the cooperative use traditional methods of farming like crop rotation, they still incorporate modern tools and technology in manufacturing their pasta and growing their cereali (grains). The company views innovation and traditional farming methods as complimentary versus adversarial. Modern day trucks and tractors assist in efficient harvesting. Massive mixing, cutting, pressing and shaping machines make the pasta in the small factory. Montebello utilizes several grains with roots back to Antiquity: Graziella Ra wheat, Triticum Dicoccum Emmer wheat, and Senatore Cappelli durum wheat. Graziella Ra is a grain originally from Egypt that was brought to Italy in the 1970s by an Italian archeologist.[1]

As we toured the factory, our guide Daniele explained that pasta takes approximately eight hours to dry properly. We sampled some rotini that had only been drying about five minutes. It was still warm, very soft in the mouth, and absolutely delicious!

We ended our tour by visiting the monastery and partaking in a scrumptious lunch of Marche cuisine utilizing the pasta we watched be made and other locally sourced foods.

One repeat theme of the day consisted of the important ties between identity, agriculture, and place. During the factory tour, this came up many times in describing the company’s mission and perspective on the production process from seed to table. As a historian, it amazes me how culture and memory are so well preserved in every day items like food. Often we overlook the important history that can be read from our plates. The flour produced by Montebello/Girolomoni beautifully combines the heritage of two important players in the Ancient Mediterranean world: Egypt and Italy. For centuries, both peoples prepared fields with beasts of burden, carefully nurtured the growing grains with manure, cultivated the right microorganisms in the soil, and creatively found ways to add minerals such as nitrogen into the earth to ensure it yielded a good harvest. Gino’s childhood attachment to Montebello and its monastery  was one of the factors that caused him to select the location for his farm and factory. He valued the history of the monastery and the pleasurable memory of viewing the ruins from his home.

Throughout time, grain production helped shape communities and their identity. Successful harvests meant community populations could grow due to improved diets and health. Excess grains may be traded with other communities or be turned into products eventually sold at market improving individual and community economic status. Increased wealth led to innovation in architecture, education, societal practices, art, and technology. Lack of grain limited the ability of a population to grow, bread/grain shortages frequently caused riots or worse yet death, and a ruler who could not procure grain through war or other methods frequently found themselves ousted. Some of the greatest political and military battles in the Ancient Roman world centered around farmland and grain stores. Infact, it is ironic that Montebello’s favorite grain Grazielle Ra is from Egypt as the provinces of Egypt and Africa served as the Roman Empire’s breadbasket feeding the people of Italy for centuries.

Grain agriculture in Marche pre-dates the Romans per many local websites and sources. Cereali farming was popular as regional soils were conducive to growing them. In Montebello itself, the soil cannot support other agricultural products. Peasants could afford to grow and eat grain. They frequently paid their taxes or tithe to church, local overseer, or state in grain rations. Le-Marche.com notes that “Marche cuisine is deeply rooted in peasant cooking traditions” The regional culinary style and agricultural products pass on the memory and identity of the past to the current generation. This is important as the commoner’s voice is more often than not left out of written narrative. Social history simply wasn’t valued until more recent times. By combining archeology, written literature, artwork, traditional cooking, and farming methods we can gain some insight into the life of the average person living in Montebello or Urbino during different historical periods. Marche agricultural products allow outsiders visiting the region to experience its history through their nose and mouth in addition to their eyes and ears. By incorporating all of the senses into a touristic experience, stronger ties can be made across ethnic and geographical lines in a way that words alone simply cannot construct. There is little translation error in smell or taste as there can be with language. Furthermore, locals and outsiders  can experience a phenomenon strongly tied to time and place called transcendence. This is the ability to experience the culture, tradition and history of a place through an emotional or spiritual like experience that leaves behind the present and familiar. It is frequently accompanied by a sense of euphoria and nostalgia. The flavor or smell of food is powerful in surfacing memories or longings for an idealized earlier period of time.

The next time you visit a place take a moment to not only savor your food or drink from a perspective of pleasure; pause a slight bit longer to learn or ponder the origins of the dish you are delighting in, the people who made it now and in the past, along with the values that might tie into the ingredients or dish overall. Better yet, set up a tour to learn the agricultural history and practices of an area. You will never view food or drink in the same manner again.

Footnotes/References:

[1] Gino Girolomoni, “Girolomoni Il Biologico Dai Campa Alla Tavola brochure” (Montebello and Alce Nero Cooperative, January 2012).

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