World & Nation

Prices pinch, but appetites in Europe flourish

Giuliano Mestieri, a cook at the Five Pub, holds a portion of spaghetti in a restaurant in Magenta, near Milan, Italy.
(Giuseppe Aresu / Bloomberg News)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

In a land where food is art and passion, not merely sustenance, consumers are feeling the pinch of rising prices.

Pasta costs more every month. But Italians cannot find it in their hearts or souls to do what most consumers would do: switch to something cheaper.

“We would rather starve and die than go without our pasta,” said Gustavo Piga, an economics professor at Rome’s University of Tor Vergata. “We will never give it up.”

Indeed, efforts by consumer groups to stage a one-day pasta strike late last year went over like a wet noodle.

At Piperno, a highly touted Rome restaurant on a hidden-away piazza near the Tiber River, the only thing changing on the menu is the prices. Chefs make agnolotti and tagliarini by hand, stretching and kneading the dough into dishes that the restaurant has been serving for a century.

Proprietor Pier Paolo Boni has detected no decline in demand, even as he has nudged prices up by 10% to 15% in recent months.

“We choose all the ingredients and make it every day,” he said of the pastas. He blames the costs on “speculation” over the price of wheat plus a whole laundry list of taxes and fees that doing business in Italy demands.

There are a couple of pastas that Piperno chefs do not make by hand, and those too are more expensive. Boni said a pound box of rigatoni, for example, has gone up 30% just since Christmas.

In Paris, the price of dairy products is souring the French obsession with cheese.

Most of the customers at the Marie-Anne Cantin cheese shop, one of the last bastions of unpasteurized cheese in Paris, are either very rich or tourists for whom buying a pricey piece of cheese is a one-time luxury.

So the skyrocketing price of soft, creamy raw-milk Camembert (up about 32% since November) hasn’t slowed business in this shop near the Eiffel Tower. European Union quotas on milk production are partly to blame and have helped drive tens of thousands of dairy farmers out of business, economists say.

The cost has devastated the shop’s sales in Japan, where the turnover has fallen from 1,000 pieces a month to fewer than 200.

Domestically, Cantin -- the official cheese supplier to the Elysee Palace, residence of the president, and many of the best restaurants in Paris -- has taken care to mark up the Camembert in stages so as not to shock customers.

“The milk market has been going up so fast in France for the past six months, we couldn’t just wait and raise prices once,” said Thomas Legoff, a store manager. “We’ve had to raise it every month, carefully, so people could understand.”

Wilkinson reported from Rome and Baum from Paris.

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