Carlo Petrini: The Slow Food gourmet who started a revolution

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For 20 years the Slow Food movement has waged war on mass-produced meals.

Carlo Petrini describes himself as a professional gourmet, which is about the last thing you would guess. For a start he's thin, almost scrawny. Sixty now, with a sparse grey beard and blazing blue eyes that are always crinkling into a smile, he has lived all his life in the northern Italian town of Bra, in Piedmont.

A better description for him would be that rarest of creatures, a successful revolutionary. For Petrini is the founder, prophet and guiding light of the Slow Food Movement, which he brought into being exactly 20 years ago.

Today it girdles the earth and has tens of thousands of members, but Slow Food began as an informal talking shop for young foodies in Bra, who assembled in out-of-the-way pubs and trattorias around the town to eat what was provided and drink the local wine.

It was pleasant to sit for hours in tiny, primitive trattorias perched in the mountains and eat the simple yet magnificent dishes produced by the mamma of the establishment; yet pleasure gave way to alarm as Petrini and his friends digested the fact that within a few years such places might no longer exist.

Outside the major cities, great swathes of Italy had remained virtually unchanged for centuries. But as a result of the prolonged economic boom that followed the Second World War, the vast culinary heritage of these areas, taken for granted for so long, was in jeopardy.

The process was in a sense one of dramatic enrichment: the consumption of meat in Italian households exploded, from 22kg per person per year in 1960 to 62kg in 1975; vastly increased quantities of cheese, eggs, fresh fruit, sugar and coffee were added to to the traditional diet of rice or pasta augmented by milk, wine and little else. Life for the ordinary Italian was becoming much more interesting.

But at the same time, and with equally blinding speed, a lot of things were going out of the window. "The umbilical cord that had once connected the worlds of farmer and consumer was cut," Petrini noted. "Today hardly anyone buys their wine directly from their trusted wine maker, or goes to the farm to buy eggs and a chicken or a rabbit; hardly anybody knows the baker who makes their bread, the charcutier who slaughters the pigs and cures the meat, the man who churns the milk of his sheep or goats to make cheese." Not long ago the local grocer's shop and the pub, as well as being sources of food, were places for the exchange of information and knowledge, where customers did their shopping and eating informed by the wise words of people who were closely in touch with the sources of supply. But all these fonts of food wisdom were being swept away by modernisation, in the form of supermarkets and fast food.

Two events in 1986 convinced Petrini that Italy was at crisis point. One was the opening of a branch of McDonald's in Piazza di Spagna, in the heart of Rome. The other was the death of 19 people and the poisoning of hundreds of others by cheap wine cut with methanol.

The arrival of America's most famous hamburger chain was greeted, in Italy as in France and elsewhere, by angry demonstrations. But Petrini believed that protest was futile. The miltant French farmer José Bové might drive his tractor to the site of a new McDonald's and sabotage it, citing the motto: "Where the hamburger is planted, Roquefort dies." But while Petrini agreed with the sentiment, he disagreed with the reaction. "We don't wish to adopt a strategy of open conflict with the multinationals," he said. Instead he and his colleagues set about creating resistance to fast food by building awareness of the wealth of traditional food that was at risk.

"The strategy of penetration of McDonald's in Italy," Petrini wrote, "brought its own antidote." In other countries McDonald's began setting up shop in the provinces. In Italy on the other hand the chain began from the metropolitan centres, "appealing to a public that was already Americanised" – with the result that out in the provinces, people saw the danger and began to wake up to the fact that the foods and pubs they held so dear might soon be at risk.

The cheap wine disaster also played into the hands of Petrini and his colleagues, helping them to transform their movement from the hobby and passion of a few friends into something much more ambitious. In the feverish quest to cut costs, a Piedmont wine distributor called Ciravegna had adulterated a cheap wine with industrial alcohol, not only killing 19 people and hospitalising many more but doing grave damage to the image of the Italian wine industry, causing exports of Italian wine to plummet by more than one-third, from 17 to 11 million hectolitres. As a result it became clear to more and more Italians that salvaging the good name of Italian food and wine was not a matter merely of sentiment or nostalgia, but of survival.

And so it was that exactly 20 years ago, on 10 December 1989, the Slow Food Manifesto was released in a Paris theatre. It was a call to arms for gourmets everywhere. "Against the universal madness of the Fast Life," the Manifesto declared, "we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure. Against those, and there are many of them, who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practiced in slow and prolonged enjoyment ... "

Pleasure, hedonism, enjoyment, tranquility, conviviality, richness; Slow Food has never made any bones about its commitment to the truly sweet things in life. There are no hair shirts in the Slow Food Movement, no trace of the puritanical urge that says if something is worth fighting for it must involve a degree of pain and hardship. Petrini recalls that the founding in 1986 of Slow Food's immediate forerunner, Arcigola, "was celebrated with a memorable two days ... the celebratory dinner finished only at the first light of dawn, after the final toast with a 1939 Barolo."

But conviviality has nothing to do with frivolity, and Petrini's greatness lies in his seriousness and his restlessness. Slow Food may have begun with a toast and an excellent dinner, but he has never allowed the movement he founded to lose sight of the fact that it is engaged in an epic struggle.

It is constantly in the throes of reinvention. After the methanol scandal, for example, he and a colleague launched the first-ever comprehensive guide book to the wines of Italy, which fiercely criticised the quality of many of the nation's low-priced table wines – and which in subsequent editions, as its popularity rocketed, brought about a massive rise in the quality of affordable Italian wine.

Slow Food launched courses to put consumers in touch with the producers of the food and wine they enjoyed, recreating the umbilical cord that was cut when supermarkets invaded the market place. He established "presidii", a steadily growing catalogue of foods or animal breeds that were at risk of extinction. In 1996 he launched the "Salone del Gusto", a huge showcase for foods of excellence from all over the world; the second edition, held in a former Fiat factory on the outskirts of Turin in 1998, was arguably the decisive moment in the Slow Food Movement's history, when it became clear that it had global appeal.

He established the world's first-ever University of Gastronomic Sciences, to put the study of food on a firm academic footing. And in 2004, in an event that complemented the Salone del Gusto a few yards away, Slow Food hosted its first Terra Madre ("Mother Earth") event, bringing 5,000 small-scale farmers and fishermen from 130 countries to Turin to show and talk about their work and livelihood and share ideas on how to secure and improve it. The twin events are now biennial fixtures, with the next ones planned for autumn 2010.

How will the Slow Movement grow in the future? "Every generation has to start again from zero," says Petrini today. "There are no certainties about the future. We must always have our antennae alert to the way things are changing. The idea of the modern has been superseded; the challenge today is to return to the small scale, the hand made, to local distribution – because today what we call 'modern' is out of date. The crisis we have been facing in the past year is not merely a financial crisis but also a crisis of systems and values. To overcome it we need to change our behaviour."

The defining myth of the modern world, he says, was that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. "For two centuries humanity has done everything in its power to become the master of the world. But in the third millennium, the myth of Prometheus no longer corresponds to the aspirations of contemporary man. Instead we should turn to the figure of Noah. Faced with the excesses of modernisation, we should no longer seek to change the world, but to save it."

From producer to plate: What is Slow Food?

Slow Food – Petrini's term – is used to signal awareness of a food's origin, on the part of the producer and "co-producer", the movement's name for the consumer. Slow Food shies away from the word "consumer" because "by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process".

Promoted by members of the organisation, the term stipulates that the food should "taste good, that it should be produced in a clean way which fully respects the environment, human health and animal welfare" and that "food producers are paid a fair wage".

Slow Food is necessarily regional, promoting and protecting local produce. Its aim: "To counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how food choices affect the rest of the world."

Now in its 20th year, the growth of the Slow Food movement remains steady, consisting of more than 100,000 members in over 132 countries worldwide. Alongside a multitude of publications produced in the interest of furthering the campaign, numerous food and wine fairs are held globally to extend the reaches of the movement.

Padcraig Allen

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