School of slow food teaches a fresh lesson

British gastronomes are catching on to a culinary movement which encourages diners to look beyond the taste of food and think about its origins. Its founder talks to Peter Popham
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Fifteen years after the launch of its manifesto at the Opera Comique in Paris, the Slow Food Movement has come of age. One week ago, this sleepy, mist-wreathed village in the Piedmont countryside was startled from its slumbers when 72 students from a dozen countries poured in from all directions; the world's first University of Gastronomic Sciences was up and running after four years of furious labour.

Fifteen years after the launch of its manifesto at the Opera Comique in Paris, the Slow Food Movement has come of age. One week ago, this sleepy, mist-wreathed village in the Piedmont countryside was startled from its slumbers when 72 students from a dozen countries poured in from all directions; the world's first University of Gastronomic Sciences was up and running after four years of furious labour.

Now, as the students begin getting to grips with a syllabus that includes the anthropology of food, principles of food technology and the geography of wine, the attention shifts 60km north to Turin where next week two enormous Slow events will get under way in parallel.

One is the Salone del Gusto, Slow Food's biennial foodie beano, when thousands of traditional, environmentally sound producers from all over the world set up their stalls in an old Fiat car factory, converted into an exhibition centre city, offering any gourmet - with the price of a ticket to Turin - a rich and indeed overpowering experience.

But a short distance across town there is a very different gathering. Under the title Terra Madre (Mother Earth), Slow Food is bringing 5,000 small food producers from 132 countries for a closed door conference lasting five days, conducted in six different official languages. The first such event ever held, it is intended to be a step towards the creation of a worldwide network which will give the people who are the backbone of Slow Food's hopes for the earth not merely a free trip to a splendid Italian city, but the message, loud and clear, that they are not alone - thousands of others with whom they may have nothing else in common are engaged in similar struggles, they can help each other, and Slow Food is there to help them.

These three initiatives help to explain why Slow Food is a difficult project to get one's head around. It doesn't fit comfortably into any existing categories. It does many things which appear to belong to different worlds. On first glance, it looks like the mother of all dining clubs, foodie heaven on earth, organising wine-tasting weeks and holidays trekking from one fantastic Italian restaurant to another, an organisation that publishes elegant, best-selling guide books to Italy's best restaurants, that seems an incarnation of the hunger for dolce vita. It seems, in a word, charming, but frivolous. Hardly a serious social movement.

But then there are all these other things. A government-recognised, handsomely funded, private university with two splendid campuses, one here in Pollenzo, one near the city of Parma, both housed in noble buildings d'epoca. And Terra Madre, a sort of general assembly of the wretched of the earth, with sesame producers from Cameroon and shepherds from Chad, fruit growers from Ladakh and beekeepers from Nepal and pastoral nomads from Mongolia, not to mention the Cornish pilchard fishermen and the Twickenham beekeepers and Prince Charles bringing up the rear ... by which point one becomes truly baffled. What happened to the dining club and the gourmet trekking? Where does the publishing arm come in? What are the students expected to do with their degrees, three years down the line? And what are all those nomads doing milling about in downtown Turin?

The best person to answer these questions is Carlo Petrini. He is the man who founded Slow Food in 1989, and though there is nothing obviously dictatorial about this wiry, black-eyed, 55-year-old bachelor - who still lives in Bra, the town in which he was born, down the road from the university's Pollenzo campus, with his father and sister - there is no doubt that Slow Food today remains very firmly in his hands. We met in Slow Food's main office in Bra, housed inconspicuously in tiny quarters overlooking a placid courtyard, where a tortoiseshell cat prowls across an aged terracotta roof.

It seems impossible that an organisation with so many different arms, such a baffling plethora of activities, can be run from an office that could be the local branch of a minor insurance company. Nor does Mr Petrini look a picture of achievement, one of Time magazine's "European heroes" (and featured on the cover last week, a recognition for which his staff continue to tease him mercilessly). He's certainly come a long way from his early days as a freelance contributor on food and wine to Italy's left-wing dailies L'Unita and Il Manifesto. But what is the way he has come? What sense does it all make?

"All three things," he says, sprawling on a sofa, "are aligned: university, salone del gusto, terra madre, they are all part of a single whole." And he explains why.

"For far too long," he says, "the history of food, on the one hand, and gastronomy on the other, have been thought of as two different things. The history of food means economy, trade, techniques of production, how to respond to the needs of the hungry, the agricultural economy. If I talk about gastronomy, on the other hand, I talk about pleasure, something that is thought of, basically, as a lot of fun.

"I've been working in this field for 25 years now and I think this division is a profound mistake. Thanks to this division, gastronomy has become something almost ridiculous: every time you turn on the television you see people cooking and eating - it's become practically pornographic. It's become no more than a trivial pleasure. The self-indulgence of the rich, a field for the practice of snobbery. It's this division that is all wrong. And that's not just my way of thinking: it goes back to the founders of gastronomy, including Jean Anthelme Brillant-Savarin, who, in 1825, wrote The Physiology of Taste.

Gastronomy, he wrote, is everything that concerns how man feeds himself: Agriculture, food processing, economy (because trade is economy), political economy, nutrition, the pleasure of eating -- all this is gastronomy. And our task here is to reclaim this concept of gastronomy in all its multidisciplinary richness. We didn't set up a university to teach people how to become more moronic. We set up this university so people could master this complexity, this multidisciplinary quality."

But for us in the frigid north, the pleasure inherent in Slow Food remains a stumbling block: How can we take Petrini and his works with the same degree of seriousness as, say, Greenpeace or Amnesty International when the point of it all, in the end, is an excellent dinner? "Many people have said to me," Mr Petrini admits, "you Slow Food folk are frivolous. But let me tell you one thing: Pleasure is physiological. It's not a matter of class or frivolity. It's a pleasure that the rich and poor experience in exactly the same way. And eating is one element of pleasure.

To eat a plate of pork and beans in Brazil, a poor man's dish, to eat falafel on the streets of Cairo or Israel, this has the same dignity as eating in the best restaurant in France. And pleasure is not a negative discourse. That we think this way is because of Catholicism or Calvinism, Puritanism for you British, according to which pleasure is practically a sin. But pleasure is not a sin."

Equally wrong, he insists, is the old Orwellian notion that food is fuel. "To conceive of food merely as fuel is to commit an incredible cultural error. The wisdom of farmers all over the world is how to relieve hunger using a few ingredients that also give pleasure. This is the key.

"So what is the difference between the classical eco-movements and Slow Food? It's exactly this: We don't intend to renounce pleasure. But to take pleasure in food is neither a matter of elitism nor slobbishness. We're talking about the rights of everyone, rich and poor. I've just come back from India and the farmers there take great pleasure in eating what they produce. And those dishes contain much gastronomy, much wisdom. And if you look at the great British dishes of the past, they weren't born in the courts and palaces, but in the countryside. Pleasure is a right and it is part of human nature."

This is not something alien to Britain, Mr Petrini insists, just a fundamental fact that we have somehow forgotten. "I have a text from 1460, the first book in Europe about cheese, and it says that English cheeses were superb and were sold in France and Barcelona," he says. "I can't believe that the English can stand idly by while traditional cheddar cheese disappears without saying anything. I can't believe that the great traditions of British meat should be reduced to mad cow. There are remarkable breeds of British livestock that were famous even in the Middle Ages. Why must Britain resign itself to losing all this? I can't bear the idea."


The Slow Food Movement now has 100,000 paid-up members and branches in more than 50 countries. Many of its members will be in Turin for the Salone de Gusto from 21 to 25 October. But of greater importance for the movement is Terra Madre, the "world meeting of food communities", in the same city from 20 to 23 October.

Never has Slow Food attempted anything half as ambitious as Terra Madre, bringing 5,000 producers from countries as far apart as Peru, Japan and Burkina Faso face to face, many of them people who have never left their native villages.

"In some ways," says Slow Food's founder, Carlo Petrini, "it might have been simpler to invite them in, say, February, but we felt it was important for them to see the Salone, to understand how to promote the quality of food.

We're bringing them together to develop this. The main objective of Terra Madre is to build a network of small realities. They are scattered all over the planet; in many cases they have been abandoned by their own societies, or at least they run the risk of feeling that way. "These farmers - who live in Ladakh, at an altitude of 3,500 metres, Peruvians from the Andes, the baobab farmers from Burkina Faso, or indeed the British cheese producers - come to Terra Madre they will realise they are part of a virtual network. While this terrible globalisation destroys the dignity of many farmers, our task is to construct a virtuous globalisation."

'I have many more customers who eat "slower" now'

By Arifa Akbar

A pie-and-mash stall at Spitalfields market was yesterday enjoying a brisk trade from those craving a Sunday lunch that can be rustled up in under five minutes and consumed from cardboard cartons just as swiftly.

But only metres away, Aiman Saada's Syrian cuisine is drawing just as many customers who are happy to wait 20 minutes until their mixed mezzes, cous-cous dishes and coffees, made from organic ingredients and bought from local suppliers, are served up.

Mr Saada, who has been at on a quest to slow down harried lunchers at the market, near Liverpool Street in London, for 12 years, finally feels his work has not all been fruitless.

"The culture has dramatically changed and I have many more customers who eat 'slower' now. There was a time when people thought eating organic, fresh, local produce was just 'in fashion', but people have continued to eat this way and more have joined them. I serve people who work in the city and don't have much time to spare so they ask me to have their lunch ready for 12pm. On Sundays, a few customers buy their own organic meat at the market here and we cook it for them for lunch," he said.

Becky Heaton, 21, a student eating at the restaurant, said she abided by the dictim that 'less is more' where non-processed products were concerned: "I buy organic even though I'm a student because I would rather buy less of something that's more expensive if it means it tastes a lot better and is not full of chemicals."

The crush of customers at the numerous stalls for organic cheese and cold meats, tofu, breads, organic juice and wines, as well as shoppers buying their weekly organic groceries and meat from farm suppliers and butchers, suggests that many are turning away from fast food culture.

The snaking queue at 'Jumping Juice Bar' where customers wait only minutes before their organic 'Zinger' and 'Vitaliser' drinks are made before them, is testimony to the growth of 'convenience' slow food.

"We serve faster than a fast food outlet. We have brought fast food culture to organic, vegetarian and whole foods," said Ivor Lyons, who owns the juice bar and has seen profits increase by 20 percent every year for the past five years: "Supermarkets are afraid because they are the ones that are linked with the conventionally processed foods that many are moving away from."