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Illustrative image. Image Credit: Supplied

MILAN - As Marianna Farina and her husband did some shopping on a windy night in Milan last month, she noticed lots of people walking around with small brown packages of cookies.

“I was curious,” she said. “Because I had heard about the cookie wars.”

She had found her way to a promotional pavilion set up to hype the introduction of Pan di Stelle Biscocrema, a new hazelnut cream-filled cookie by the venerable Italian breakfast brand, famous for its round cocoa cookies dotted with 11 white sugar stars.

About a month earlier, Nutella, the juggernaut of hazelnut spreads, had encroached on Pan di Stelle’s turf by introducing, after what the company said were 10 years and 120 million euros (about $133 million) in research and development, Nutella Biscuits. Farina had tried and liked them. Now she bit into the Pan di Stelle cookie. She liked it, too.

“It’s a tough one,” she said.

In the popular imagination, Italy is a country of ripe tomatoes, fresh pasta, immaculately virgin olive oil and other staples of the Mediterranean diet. In practice, increasingly corpulent Italians - and especially Italian children - are united by an insatiable hunger for snack food.

Children eat cookies for breakfast. So do many of their parents. The supermarket aisles are full of breakfast cookies and snacks called merendine, which, generally speaking, are industrialised miniatures of traditional Italian cakes and tarts.

Binge sweetness

Populist Italian leader Matteo Salvini has made a habit of bingeing on Nutella on social media. He once shared a picture of a cake made from Pan di Stelle cookies Nutella spread; more recently he posted a picture of himself in a supermarket torn between Pan di Stelle and Nutella Biscuits. (This was considered news because he had temporarily sworn off the Nutella cookie when he found out that they were, in part, made with Turkish hazelnuts.)

And so the Christmas cookie battle between two cultural and culinary touchstones, Pan di Stelle and Nutella, and their superpower parent companies, the pasta giant Barilla and the chocolate giant Ferrero, strikes right at the Italian aorta.

“When it comes down to Barilla and Ferrero, there can be a war,” said Michele Boroni, a marketing expert in Milan. “It’s a competition between Italy’s last food giants that have remained Italian.”

The rivalry has roots in history

The website Merendine Italiane, an authority on Italian snacks, reports that the first Italian snack was a miniature version of the Motta Panettone Christmas cake in the 1950s.

In 1964, the Italian and global junk food landscape was transformed by Michele Ferrero, who created Nutella. By 1984, the cocoa-hazelnut spread had permeated Italian culture.

Yet the breakfast cookie market was cornered by Barilla.

In 1983, it introduced Pan di Stelle as chocolate breakfast biscuits. It also acquired fanatics. Silvia Proserpio, a 41-year-old graphic designer in Milan, eats them every day for breakfast, and sometimes after lunch. “It’s all about the stars,” she said. “The stars make you think of something beautiful, outer space, or a dream.” She also didn’t mind the sugar rush.

For the most part, the two respected each other’s borders.

But in January 2018, Barilla made a move. It introduced jars of Pan di Stelle Crema, a spread made from “100% Italian hazelnuts and ‘dreamlike’ chocolate,” the company’s news release said.

Ferrero was not about to let the aggression go unanswered. The company raised the stakes in early 2019 by quietly dipping across the Italian border and testing Nutella Biscuits in other countries. In April, it rolled out the cookie in France to start spreading buzz and demand among Italians living and travelling abroad. “This is our modus operandi,” said Claudia Millo, a Nutella spokeswoman.

And then, as it unleashed a take-no-prisoners publicity campaign, with ads for the cookies papering subway stations, glowing on television screens, hanging from the rafters of Rome’s main train station, they brought Nutella Biscuits home to Italy in November.

It was an enormous success. Nutella sold 5.9 million boxes of cookies in its first four weeks, according to IRI, a sales data company.

A month later, Pan di Stelle answered, unveiling Pan di Stelle Biscocrema.

“They’re a gem, a piece of art,” said Julia Schwoerer, the deputy chairwoman of the Mulino Bianco and Pan di Stelle marketing division.

But Barilla, which has invested in a foundation dedicated to environmental sustainability and better nutrition (including, of course, plenty of grains) wants to make it clear that the cookies are occasional treats, not daily bread.

“This should be only a tiny part of your overall diet,” said Luca Di Leo, the head of media relations for the company. “That’s why it’s a small pack.”

Unlike Pan di Stelle’s two-cookie rationing approach, Nutella gives you a whole bag and essentially bets you can’t eat just one.

Barilla has promoted its rejection of palm oil, a saturated fat that has also prompted devastating deforestation. Nutella knows you like it.

Italian environmentalists blame both sides - but especially the full-scale Nutella offensive - for the aggressive planting of hazelnut trees, which, to keep the cookies and spreads coming, has made the country’s biodiversity a casualty of war.

The New York Times News Service