Carlo Petrini was tired of a world of mass-produced, tasteless food, so he started the Slow Food movement to celebrate quality over quantity. As a university dedicated to its principles opens its doors in Italy, ROSI HANSON finds out more.
Slow Food – you want to know what it is?’ says Alessandro Barosi, a smiling young
winemaker opposite me in a bar in Piedmont in rural Northern Italy. ‘You know what is fast food – Slow Food is the opposite.’ To put it another way, the Slow Food movement champions ‘eco-gastronomy’, sustainable farming, biodiversity and small-scale production. Its members are people, anywhere in the world, who think it is worth fighting the agri-business cartels that put profits before quality. Above all, they want to consume unadulterated products with flavour and ensure their children and grandchildren can do the same.
Piedmont is a convivial sort of a place. Winemakers are welcoming; restaurants are relaxed. People may work hard but they make time to enjoy good food and digest properly; meals are for sharing with friends. At the heart of Slow Food, which originated here, is a belief in the fundamental importance of conviviality and the right to gastronomic pleasure in a modern industrial world.
In the town of Bra, not far from Alba, the main office of Slow Food employs 100 members of staff. They act as the hub of a network of enthusiastic volunteers who stage events, debates and tastings of regional wines and food in their own countries. Convivia, as these groups are known, also promote the Slow Food movement and feed back information to Bra. The movement’s emblem may be a snail, but its membership and the scope of its activities are growing fast. Founded in 1986, Slow Food now has 80,000 members in all five continents; more than 700 convivia exist in over 50 countries. The country with the fastest growing membership is Japan.
The visionary behind all this is Carlo Petrini. He first made his mark as a wine and food journalist, writing for Italian periodicals and newspapers. His strong opinions about the need to improve quality have influenced many of today’s best winemakers in the region.
‘He will not tolerate poor work,’ says Barosi. ‘You must be honest in your winemaking or he will tell everyone, and write in the newspapers that your wine is no good.’
Petrini is also a motivator and rather good at delegating, as Barosi testifies, having been himself recruited to develop the international office in 1996. ‘Carlo is a volcano! Every night when he goes to sleep, it is very dangerous – the next day there is an explosion of new ideas…’ One of Petrini’s best ideas was the Slow Food Award for the Defence of Biodiversity.
Barosi organised the award ceremonies, in Bologna in 2000 and in Oporto in 2001. The first task was to identify opinion leaders all around the world. They nominate one person from their country to be rewarded for their work in furthering the cause of biodiversity. ‘It is a beautiful thing to bring all these people together for four days and get to know them. We had 600 people, including cocoa bean growers from Mexico who had never left their village before; many had never been on a plane before,’ says Barosi.
Slow Food considers that one of its most important tasks is ‘to catalogue and safeguard animal species, plant varieties and agricultural techniques in danger of
extinction’. The Ark of Taste is a project designed to do this – by taking on board small-scale, fine food producers and safeguarding and promoting their products. Tailor-made local initiatives are created, known as presidia (Italian for garrison). A presidium may help a single cheesemaker making a rare mountain cheese to earn a living, or a whole village of farmers to cooperatively purchase a piece of equipment which will help them sell their product directly. The Ark of Taste and presidia have successfully worked with producers of Malaysian rice, Indian mustard seed oil, Polish sheep’s milk cheese, Irish smoked wild salmon, English Somerset Cheddar, Moroccan argan oil, Mexican criolla corn, and the list is growing.
SPREADING THE WORD
Many of Petrini’s ideas are now well established. Slow Food Editore is a publishing company which produces books and magazines designed to promulgate wine and food culture. Slow Food has its own in-house journal, Slow. Beautifully produced in five languages, it covers food and consumer trends, biodiversity and sustainability. In conjunction with Gambero Rosso Editore, Petrini also devised and edited Vini d’Italia, a much praised and widely used guide to Italian wines. Currently in its 15th Italian edition, it is also translated into English and German – and its top awards, ‘Tre Bicchieri’ (three bottles), to the best wines each year, are much coveted.
There are two large-scale Slow Food public events. The bi-annual exhibition ‘Cheese’, in Bra, aims to showcase the finest dairy produce in the world. On alternate years the ‘Salon del Gusto’ (the Hall of Taste) takes place in Turin. These are fabulous food-fests for artisan producers, chefs, buyers, commentators and interested consumers.
‘Education is like the horses in Carlo Petrini’s war,’ says Barosi in his picturesque English, conjuring up an image of eco-warriors on horseback ranged against the tanks of the multinational fast food companies. He tells a story about workshops in Montessori schools that he ran on a trip to the USA. Different fruits were piled in boxes – many of the children did not know what they were. ‘We asked them to identify the fruit from the smell – most of the children said the apples smelled of shampoo and the strawberries of toothpaste! I think they need help!’
Slow Food activists in their own countries strive to come up with imaginative ways of introducing children to the sensual enjoyment of food combined with knowledge of how it is produced. The newest and most ambitious educational project is the establishment of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, offering degree courses in Food and Gastronomy Communications or Food Management. The first students started in the beautiful campuses in Pollenzo, Piedmont and Colorna, Emilia-Romagna, in October.
The challenge for the Slow Food movement has been to export something that is a way of life in Piedmont. One part of the ethos that is hard to sell is that you must be prepared to pay more for quality; artisan producers have to make a living or they and their products will disappear. Perhaps Slow Food’s greatest achievement so far has been motivating ordinary people to defend the best produce of their country. These are the soldiers that the Slow Food movement is counting on to win the battle against fast food culture.