This year I was fortunate enough to be nominated as one of 37 chefs from the UK to be invited to the Slow Food movement's biennial event in Turin, one of the real foodie capitals of Italy. So I have just returned, inspired and invigorated, by an incredible five-day culinary journey.
There were two main parts to the festival: Terra Madre (Mother Earth) which is a series of workshops about Slow Food; and the Salone del Gusto (Hall of Taste) in which over 5,000 delegates descend on the city from 130 countries, often in full national costume, bearing their wares. There was a guy from Peru, for example, who turned up with an amazing 40 different types of corn and 240 types of potato.
I went with my boss, Francesco Boglione, who is the owner of Petersham Nurseries and was born in Turin. It was fantastic to go with him as our guide. It's a beautiful place, famous for its pastries and tea salons, and Francesco took us to all the very best. I also went with my friend, colleague and mentor Wendy Fogarty who introduced Slow Food to the UK. Apparently now it's the fastest-growing voluntary movement in the country. I joined Slow Food three years ago. Although I'd always cooked with beautiful ingredients I didn't think much beyond that. Concerns such as how far produce travelled from source to the plate, or whether I was depriving a producer closer to home or not were never an issue. Wendy's advice has been really inspirational over the last few years. In particular, she has taught me to make much more thoughtful choices about the producers I use.
The Slow Food movement was started in Rome in 1986 by Carlo Petrini and a group of other like-minded souls - largely in protest at the arrival of the first branch of McDonald's in the city. (Apparently the legendary Italian designer Valentino also joined in the protest; the rumour goes that he feared the smell of chip fat would infect the clothes in his nearby atelier.) So it was born out of a fear of the Americanisation of Italy's precious food culture. It's now even got it's own university: the University of Gastronomic Sciences is based in the town of Bra in Piedmont, and is the world's only university committed to gastronomy.
The city of Turin itself has really embraced Slow Food and there's a great community spirit during the festival. The government sponsors it and the organisers help to pay for people to come over. There were Africans wandering around in bare feet and the Peruvian man, for example, had travelled 18 hours by bus just to get to the airport. He didn't speak a word of English and was being put up by a little guy in the city, a bit like those exchange holidays we did as children.
This year, 1,600 food communities were represented. Everyone from Tibetan monks who produce yak's cheese to reindeer breeders from Magadan in Russia, olive producers of Sinai and brewers from St Louis. It was a wonderful, powerful show of food communities from around the globe standing proudly and saying, what we do is important and is worth preserving.
Slow Food's value in essence is to encourage the practice of agriculture that is "good, clean and fair". The movement believes in, and has worked tirelessly for, freedom of information, the right of fair trade for farmers and producers, the right to water, GM-free farming and the conservation of native breeds, and the protection of sources of origin. They believe fiercely that in supporting small communities and their right to exist and live a fair and just life that they will also preserve language, dialect, music and traditions.
The issues at hand are complicated. I don't really understand any of the world's intricate political problems, and nor do I profess to understand the solutions on offer at Terre Madre - but I do agree that this earth has reached a terminal point, where we cannot ask any more of it. We now live in a world that is suffering from consumption without any restraints.
The Slow Food movement believes the solution is to re-localise agriculture and support local communities in order to enable the growth of sustainable development. Much of the food on offer at Salone del Gusto is known as presidia (or fortress) products, which means that they have protection orders on them. These are foods made by artisan producers, just as they were hundreds of years ago, so now are of historical importance and need to be prevented from becoming extinct.
If all this sounds depressingly serious, the festival wasn't. It was a joyful celebration of the world and those who inhabit it. I experienced a colourful, noisy and hopelessly crowded five days, full of like-minded people, proud and hopeful for the future. I made new friends, ate delicious and not-so-delicious food and learnt how lovely it felt to be enveloped by people who feel as passionately about produce as I do.
I tried hundreds of amazing cannoli pastries filled with ricotta and candied fruits. I tried yak cheese which was a little like pecorino but very dry. I tried beautiful dried thyme from the Lebanon, amazing sheep's milk gelatia from Sicily and incredible cured meats from all over Europe. I overdosed on food.
I also tried some things that weren't so nice. The extraordinary Slovakian sausages, for example, which were made from this really, really rare pig breed but then completely slathered in hot paprika. I didn't understand why you'd do that, but I suppose that's just their palate. I also tried dried salmon skin from Alaska. They preserve the skin and then chew on it. It can last up to six months. It made me understand why some foods just don't travel.
I met some extraordinary people as well. My hero Alice Waters did the inaugural speech. Darina Allen from the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland gave a powerful talk, as did Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Slow Food in Lebanon was there too. They only have four members and two farmers' markets in the entire country. He spoke about how, since the war, their land is riddled with landmines. Apparently there are more than a million cluster bombs in the farming land of Lebanon at the moment. And Aminata Traore from Mali talked passionately about how there's now no food and no farming communities in her country, as they have had to grow cotton to pay off the interest on their debt from the World Bank. As a result there has been a mass exodus of young people, who have been forced to move abroad to be somewhere that food is available.
I also had a wonderful and frantic morning at Porto Palazzo, the largest open-air food market in Europe. Francesco, Wendy and I bought, among other things, kid, kaki (sharon fruit), muscated grapes, green almonds and the first of the season's tardivo. We also bought the strangest thing from an old lady: pink celery that looked like winter rhubarb. I poached it that evening with fennel seeds and a rich, peppery oil from Tuscany that we bought the day before from the farmer's market at Salone Del Gusto (see the recipe overleaf). We ended up having to get a lift home in the back of a producer's truck as we'd bought about 15 boxes of amazing things I'd never cooked with before.
That evening, the Saturday, we hosted a dinner for 30 people at Francesco's brother's apartment. Wendy, Francesco and our friend Claudio, the wild food forager at Petersham, and I all cooked a rather haphazard feast - everyone brought an offering including bread, cheese, wine and delicious candied chestnuts. Francesco held court, happy and proud, and perhaps just a little bit drunk in his beautiful home city of Turin.
My trip ended on Monday morning in one of Turin's beautiful cafés, the Mulassano in Piazza Castello, drinking bicerin, which is a bitter, bitter chocolate and coffee drink topped with sweet cream. Between spoonfuls of the richest, eggiest zabaglione, sitting between the farmer from Peru in full national costume and the very urbane and worldly Kamal from the Lebanon, life felt at that moment exciting, rich and full of hope and possibilities. I felt very proud to be a cook and a part of this world's food community.
Roasted kid with wild oregano and dried chilli
Kid is an absolutely delicious, delicate and tender meat not often seen in this country. Its flavour and texture is softer than lamb and completely lovely simply roasted like this. Serve it with finely sliced, layered potatoes liberally doused with olive oil, sage and slivers of garlic and roasted alongside the kid in the oven.
4 dried red chillies, crumbled between your fingers
3 stalks of wild dried oregano (we found wild oregano in Porto Palazzo in Turin but you can substitute this with fresh oregano)
3tbsp gentle extra-virgin olive oil
2kg kid (ask for a rack)
Sea-salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7. Crumble the dried chilli into a bowl. Crumble in the dried oregano or roughly chop the fresh and add. Pour in the olive oil and stir.
Lay the kid in a baking tray and spoon over the olive oil, chilli and herb mixture and massage gently into the skin with your fingers. Season generously with salt and a grinding or two of black pepper and place on the middle shelf of your hot oven. Cook for 30 minutes, remove, cover loosely in foil and let rest for 10 minutes. Before serving slice into cutlets, allowing 3-4 per person.
Gently cooked celery with fennel seeds and olive oil
I have been cooking celery all autumn. I love its gentle, very subtle taste when cooked. In Porto Palazzo we came across this extraordinary celery that was pale pink with striking yellow-green leaves. I couldn't resist buying it. I poached it with branches of wild fennel and its seeds that we also found at the market - but you can use regular fennel seeds.
We served this celery dish at work with shaved raw porcini and the finest slices of Bayonne ham.
1 celery root
50ml/2fl oz gentle-flavoured extra-virgin olive oil
150ml/5fl oz water
2tsp caster sugar
1tsp fennel seeds
Separate, wash and trim the celery into 4cm (2in) shards (discard the very green outer stalks). Place in a saucepan. Pour over the olive oil and water. Sprinkle over the sugar and the fennel seeds and place over a medium to low heat. Season lightly with a little salt and cover with a lid or a circle of parchment paper (known as a cartouche) and poach gently for 35-40 minutes or until the celery is tender to the bite.
Remove the celery and keep warm. Turn up the heat and reduce the pan juice until only a third is left, spoon over the celery and serve at room temperature.
Simple roast chicken
I love roast chicken, as does almost everyone I know. Unfortunately, I have found it almost impossible to find chicken worth eating in Britain. But when I go to the markets in France and Italy I always take the opportunity to buy chicken and roast it.
Small and scrawny as true free-range chickens tend to be, they are nonetheless full of flavour, so much so that I find myself chewing on the bones.
1 free-range organic chicken
1 unwaxed lemon
3 fresh bay leaves
6 whole cloves of garlic
1 medium bunch of thyme (or lemon thyme, which is delicious)
30ml/11/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil (a peppery variety such as Tuscan is delicious here)
2 dry red chillies
A little black pepper
If you can season the chicken liberally with salt 24 hours before cooking, you will be amazed how this tenderises the meat and improves the flavour.
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Place the chicken in a baking tray. Slice the lemon in half and place both parts inside the cavity of the chicken, along with the bay leaves, garlic and half the thyme. Rub the chicken with the olive oil. Crumble over the dried chilli and scatter over the rest of the thyme.
Place in the oven and roast for 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and open, leaving it about 2cm/1in ajar. Leave the chicken to rest for 15 minutes before removing and eating. Roast chicken is excellent with roast pumpkin and very good cima di rapa (see right).
Cime di rapa
Cime di rapa is a vegetable - in essence it is broccoli tops - that is eaten at this time of year in Italy. It is completely delicious.
500g/1lb cime di rapa
A good pinch of sea-salt
2tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, such as Tuscan
A couple of grindings of black pepper
Ask your local greengrocer if they stock cime di rapa - and, even if they don't normally sell it, they can usually get it for you quite easily.
Trim away the larger outer leaves and discard. Break off the smaller stalks to separate and rinse under cold water. Place a large pot of water on to boil, and season with a generous pinch of salt. When the water is boiling rigorously, plunge the cime di rapa in and cook without lowering the heat for 3-4 minutes. Drain and, while still hot, toss with the olive oil and season with the pepper (add a little salt if you think it is necessary - but the salt in the water is probably enough).
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