There are few moments that can compete on the social awkwardness scale than that caused by customs officials at airports. One of my earliest childhood memories was such an incident. A diverted flight from Naples meant that my family were stranded in London, and soon to discover the added nightmare of lost luggage.
Waiting impatiently, all but one suitcase made the carousel; that would be the suitcase that contained home bottled passata, scarola, olives, wild mushrooms, salami, parmeggiano reggiano, parma ham and most shockingly, rabbit. This was the 80’s, major supermarkets back then had yet to stock anything remotely like the produce my family were bringing back into the country. Needless to say, customs wanted to have a few words with my dad.
It’s not too dissimilar to the scene in Monicelli’s, ‘La Mortadella’ staring Sophia Loren. A young Neapolitan woman travels to the United States to live with her partner, Michele. Suitcase in one hand, a big leg of mortadella in the other, Loren quickly discovers that the rules of what can and can’t be brought into a country are plentiful; much to the shame and ensuing arguments between Loren’s character, Maddalena, Michele and airport staff.
Times have changed since Monicelli’s Loren encountered such resistance, and since my family had to endure further questioning over the missing luggage which contained a fine selection any Italian delicatessen could afford to stock.
The laws now seem to be a lot clearer. If you are travelling from one country in the EU to another, meat and dairy products including other animal products are allowed. Ensure the meat products are appropriately packed (vacuum packed) and you shouldn’t have any issues.
When it comes to traveling from an EU country to outside the EU, then it’s a little murkier. Apparently cheeses younger than 60 days aren’t allowed, certain types of olive oils would need to be cleared before travelling, and importantly any kind of salumi will need to be vacuum pack and sealed. Just err on the side of caution though, ensure you check with the destination country customs regulations before bringing anything back.
Of course, air travel has become more common. Low budget airlines have paved the way for friends and family to make trips to visit loved ones. Scenes like the ones above are becoming a little more frequent, especially for Italian travellers.
The whole question of customs, of what can and can’t be brought into the country is something which I’ve seen my national counterparts struggle with on many occasion. I’ve seen suitcases stacked with more salami and parma ham than the best supplied supermarket aisles around the country. Cheese doesn’t go amiss either; from parmigiano to pecorino, the sheer quantity that is brought to foreign shores either in cabin or hand luggage is something that the Italians just can’t seem to live without.
I’ve spent many an hour trying to discover, moreover, figure out why my countrymen go to such lengths. For some, it seems to be a question of taste, for others a home comfort they can’t live without. I understand the second part more than the first. My suitcase can always be found to contain a wide array of biscuits that I enjoyed so much in my childhood, from Pavesini to my favourite trancino; I have even been known to leave shoes behind so I could bring back these delights.
But I also think it’s a question of attitude and culture as well. Italians love spending time in the kitchen with family and friends, it’s not only a question of where the biggest room in the home is (traditionally), but also where the food is. Italian national holidays such as Easter, Ferragosto and even Christmas are spent giving presents that mainly contain food products. Food is ingrained within the Italian culture it’s not just there to live on, but a communal experience, something that should be shared and respected.
What makes me so confident about Italians treating food as a case of attitude and culture? Because whilst Italians overstock on food products leaving the country, the same could be said about Italians overstocking when returning home. Case in point, my maternal grandparents lived in the UK from the 60’s to the 80’s and no year goes by when they don’t get overcharged for their luggage returning home. To this day, I am convinced they are running a basement sweet shop as Cadbury's Dairy Milk, and Bournville are the favoured culprits of overweight luggage, and ultimately, embarrassment from customs officials.