How Italy turned mafia food into a hit Christmas gift

A popular new present this year is a Christmas gift box full of food produced on government-confiscated mafia land.

Alfredo Sosa / Staff
A produce seller at the Campo de' Fiori square in October 2013, in Rome, Italy. Some of the food produced in Southern Italy – such as these these colorful peppers but also olives, lemons, and grains – comes from farms previously owned by convicted mafia godfathers. Produce from these lands, which get taken over by the state, may then wind up in colorful Christmas hampers sold as holiday gifts.

It’s a Christmas gift with a difference, combining Italy’s rich gastronomic heritage with the protracted, often violent, fight against the Mafia.

As Italians scramble to finish the last of their shopping this festive season, they can choose a rather unusual present – a hamper packed with delicious olive oil, honey, nuts, capers, and pasta produced on farms confiscated from organized crime groups.

Most people associate the mafia in their minds with distinctly urban-based criminal enterprises such as extortion, prostitution, and drug-dealing. But mafia networks have in recent years sought to diversify, investing millions of euros in agriculture.

When mafia godfathers are convicted of crimes by the Italian courts, any assets they hold – including farm land – are confiscated and given to the state.

Some of the agricultural land is then handed to Pio La Torre Libera Terra, an anti-mafia campaign group that now employs more than 150 workers on farms spread across the four regions of southern Italy where organized crime groups are most active: Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, and Campania.

Libera Terra produces everything from olive oil and Nero d’Avola red wine to lemons and durum wheat for pasta, packaging up the produce in Christmas hampers that range in price from 14 to 65 euros (between $19 and $90).

The organization, which was founded in 1995, has even produced a cookbook with suggestions of how to use its produce, with recipes such as “fusilli con sarde e finocchietto” (pasta with sardines and wild fennel) and “insalata di lenticchie al pepe rosa” (lentil salad with red peppers).

“We’ve made great progress in recent years and we now have an annual turnover of around 50 million euros,” says Davide Pati, Libera Terra’s legal representative.

“It’s not just about growing food – there is also an educational aspect. We’re showing people in the south that there is an alternative to living under the mafia and demonstrating that legality can pay off.”

There are risks involved in farming land that once belonged to mafia dons – namely reprisal attacks carried out by resentful gangsters.

“There’s been a lot of intimidation,” says Antonella Caldarelli, another senior member of the organization.

“They set fire to the crops that have been harvested, they put sugar in farm machinery which pretty much destroys it, and they burn down olive trees. We haven’t had anyone hurt yet, but they work in a very tense climate.”

Of Italy’s four mafia groups – Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the lesser-known Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia – it is the ‘Ndrangheta that is the most powerful and threatening, she says.

The Christmas hampers are sold online through Libera Terra’s website, and in seven shops around the country, including one in Rome.

The cooperative is named after a parliamentarian who was murdered by the Sicilian mafia after he pushed through the law under which property and other assets could be confiscated from Mafiosi by the state.

Pio La Torre was shot dead in a street in Palermo in 1982 after his car was ambushed by Cosa Nostra gunmen from Corleone, the hardscrabble Sicilian town that was immortalized in The Godfather movies.

The shop in Rome, just a few hundred yards from the Italian parliament, is packed with bottles of olive oil, tubs of macadamia nuts, jars of capers and artichokes, and bags full of pasta. The spicy pepper pesto is a particular hit.

There are bottles of the sweet but potent liqueur limoncello made from lemons grown in Puglia, jars of black olive tapenade, and couscous from Sicily – a legacy of the island’s occupation by Arabs.

Flush with cash from loan sharking, extortion, and drug trafficking, Italy’s mafia organizations are increasingly looking to invest their profits in legitimate businesses, from shops, restaurants, and supermarkets to farming.

A report released in October by Coldiretti, a national farming organization, said that the four mafia networks now make around $20 billion a year from agriculture, a 12 percent increase compared with two years before.

Nearly a quarter of mafia properties confiscated by the Italian authorities are farms, and up to 15 percent of all farming in Italy now has some links to organized crime, the report found.

“Farming and the food business has become a favored destination for organized criminal investment because it is considered safer in a period of financial instability,” the report said. “Mafia organizations are aware that even if farming doesn’t bring in the quickest, most consistent earnings, food is a primary need that no one can do without.”

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