BUSINESS

Marche Region's promise of agro-products

CHENNAI, DEC. 30. Truffles, a rare and high-value agro-product, olive oil and derived products and wines from the Marche Region of Italy are likely to make their presence strongly felt among gourmets in India, going by the experience of a small food and wine trade delegation which visited the region in late November.

The two-member delegation of large importers of food and wine, who have wound up a week-long visit to various production, processing and distribution centres in the Marche Region (known as The Marches in English, especially in the Ascoli-Piceno area, on the idyllic Adriatic coast of Italy, have given indications of a long-term arrangement with the food industry sectors in the region, provided procedural and logistics issues are finalised.

Nestled between the sea on one side and the Sibillini and Appenine mountains on the other, food and wine production and processing centres in the region export a wide variety of items - olives, pecorino cheese, pasta, honey,

meat, truffles, chicken, pork, ham and wine - which are consumed in various forms and combinations and are said to be popular widely in Europe and to an extent in the U.S.

Made under the European Union's (EU) statutory sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards, several of these products carry guaranteed certificate of origin. Sold by consortia of agro producers and processors, the products carry their own brands, many of which are present in global markets. Protection of geographical appellation has been sought for many products, including the region's honey.

``We (the Taj Hotels Group) are likely to enter into a tie-up with some organisations in the Marche Region for promotion of truffles, which is almost unknown in India, though our company buys regularly some quantity,'' Mr. Hemant Oberoi, Corporate Chief (Luxury Division) and Executive Chef, the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, told The Hindu in the course of the visit to the region.

Grown only in France and Italy under specific climatic and soil conditions at altitudes of 700 to 800 ft, truffles, a tuber crop of the fungus species, is sought after round the globe for its unique aroma and some other claimed properties. Consumed in raw form in very small quantities along with food, truffles cost around $300 per kg (exclusive of import duty in India), according to Mr Oberoi. Though olive oil and olives have not been part of traditional Indian cuisine, they are now increasingly consumed by people who are interested in newer varieties of food and have had global exposure to food habits, Mr. Oberoi said.

Wines in the Marche Region (capital: Ancona) also offered interesting possibilities to Indian connoisseurs, he said. ``In the food sector, only those succeed, who consider food not just as a business but as a passion. This is the difference that the food industry in Europe makes, be it wine, olives or pasta,'' he added.

Mr. Hormaz E.Mehta of Siganporia Bros, Mumbai, a leading importer of foods to the tune of $2 million annually and supplier to leading hotel chains, foreign embassies and ships, said there was a need to educate Indian consumers on different types of food. ``We hope to be able to satisfy the Indian consumer, who is increasingly getting westernised in his food habits and seeks variety, by sourcing unique foods and wines from the Marche Region,'' he said.

Though the basic import duty on wine in India was high at 110 per cent, the additional duty slabs (at 75 per cent, 100 per cent and 150 per cent) were so structured as to discourage the import of cheap wines. (Additional duties were higher on lower unit-value imports). This would help the import of high-quality wine from the Marche Region, as from elsewhere, Mr. Mehta added. The Marches, which has been consistently recording the longest life expectancy for both men and women among all regions in Italy, had in 1998 a total of 2,365 companies in the food sector, with a workforce of about 4,000. The farm sector had more than 70,200 entities, which cultivated 5.5 lakh hectares.

Dozens of major food and wine festivals are held in different months in specific centres in the region every year. These include Sagra della Lumaca (snails), Sagra del formaggio pecorino (pecorino cheese) and events dedicated to pizza, frogs, trout, stuffed flat bread, quails, wild boar, chick peas, wine, shell fish, roast rabbit, fried stuffed olives, truffles, chestnut and mushrooms.

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