Why Slow Food is a taste worth acquiring

In the final part of our series on "The Way We Eat", Fred Bridgland suggests Slow Food as an alternative to modern dietary ills; and we select the best organic outlets
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Considering its theme, it's ironic how quickly the Slow Food movement has spread. It began in 1986 when a journalist-cum-gourmet, Carlo Petrini, walked down Rome's historic Spanish Steps and saw, to his horror, that McDonald's had opened a burger bar.

Petrini was so incensed that he launched the Slow Food Manifesto. Delegates from 20 countries endorsed it. They adopted the snail as the Slow Food symbol and vowed to "rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food".

Slow Food has since grown into a highly sophisticated and successful movement, active in 45 countries. It has also spawned a more ambitious sub-movement: two years ago, Petrini launched Slow Cities, a wider project designed to emphasise the unique, rich cultural, culinary and artistic traditions of local communities – as opposed to the homogenisation being imposed on the world by global corporations such as McDonald's. (This summer, attempts were made to establish Lossiemouth, a small coastal town in the north of Scotland, as Britain's first Slow City, but the project has yet to establish momentum.)

The Slow Food movement is, however, thriving here in Britain. It first gained a foothold when Juliet Harbutt, a New Zealand-born lover of British artisan cheeses, took samples to the Slow Food Cheese Festival in northern Italy in 1997.

"I was so inspired by the energy and vision of the Slow Food people, and the amount of money they seemed to have, that I came back and started my own Slow Food 'convivium' [local chapter]."

With the advent of BSE and the controversy over genetically modified plants, Slow Food has moved beyond being a wholly gastronomic organisation dedicated to saving local speciality produce. "We realised that we were facing a risk of disappearance of diversity in huge proportions," said Petrini.

"A purely gastronomic approach didn't take on board the issues. A gourmet who isn't interested in environmental issues is pathetic. Equally, an environmentalist who doesn't appreciate good food is sad." Indeed, as Slow Food took up cudgels against GM foods, Greenpeace described the movement as the Greenpeace of the kitchen table.

Alison and Colin Anstey, who make cheese from the milk of their own dairy herd near Worcester, are classic Slow Food adherents and members of the Cotswold convivium. "We're committed to traditional cheese," says Alison. "Ours is made slowly, by hand, in small batches."

Their 140-strong herd of Holstein-Friesians is fed on home-produced fresh grass and maize/grass. An outside nutritionist decides what can be fed to the cows. "Nothing is brought in to feed them," said Colin. "There are no antibiotics or questionable, agribusiness factory-produced food pellets."

Great cheese cannot be produced without great milk, says Alison, who, every other day, begins the pre-dawn task of turning 1,300 litres of milk into unique cheeses. "It takes time and effort," she says. "You can't rush it. Everything must be done slowly and gently, by hand."

One of her cheeses, Old Worcester white, ripens for a whole year before it is sold from the farm shop and to hotels, delis and specialist wholesalers. Slow Cheese saved the Ansteys' farm as the price of milk slumped. (Organic production may have saved more than one farm in recent years: the organic food market is worth £605m a year, £67m of which is produced in the UK.)

Juliet Harbutt has organised this year's British Cheese Festival in Stow-on-the-Wold (29-30 September). "There will be 55 different tasting sessions of regional cheeses, including Stinking Bishop, an orange, sticky, smelly and delicious cheese from Gloucestershire which spends part of its life happily soaking in pear alcohol," Harbutt says.

As well as countering the US and supermarket fast-food onslaught by encouraging the growing of local, wholesome products, Slow Food promotes leisurely eating, the ritual of family dining, the savouring of flavours, the eating of seasonal foods and the safeguarding of regional cuisines. Members of convivia meet for tranquil meals to talk about food, wine, culture and philosophy. They also organise wine tastings and cooking classes.

In Scotland, the movement is expanding fast, thanks to a handful of people like Howard Wilkinson, formerly vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank, now a director of the Scottish Association of Farmers' Markets (SAFM). Wilkinson says: "Farmers' markets are a practical manifestation of slow food – local, seasonal food produced on a small scale with commitment, knowledge and an intimacy with nature."

When Wilkinson became an SAFM director two years ago, there were only three farmers' markets in Scotland. Now there are 32. Next month, he will help launch two new convivia in Edinburgh and Buckie.

Mention convivia to Carole Inglis at Portree on the Isle of Skye, and she would go cross-eyed. Food development manager for the Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise Board, she has helped turn Skye on to Slow Food principles. She has encouraged new forms of local production and the retention locally of fine produce that was once entirely exported. Now Skye is awash with local cheeses, fresh, fragrant herbs, organic salad leaves, heather-reared lamb, oysters, mussels, prawns and crab fresh from the sea, and sauces based on wild mushrooms and malt whisky. A van provided by Inglis tours the island picking up produce and delivering to local customers.

Brigitte and Kornelius Hagmann, who deserted their insurance jobs in Germany to grow exotic salad produce on Skye, now produce some 280 varieties of organic lettuce, fancy salad leaves, herbs, edible flowers, vegetables and soft fruit on a windy hillside previously classified as unsuitable for growing anything at all. "In the early days, we used to watch lettuces and cabbages fly past our windows before we began planting trees and building walls," says Brigitte.

The Hagmanns' main customer is Shirley Spear at Skye's Three Chimneys Restaurant, arguably the most outstanding restaurant in the Highlands and Islands. "We've been doing Slow Cooking for a long time," says Spear. "Everything is locally produced and Brigitte grows wonderful things for us, such as nasturtiums and marigold petals."

Robin Harper, a Green Party member, is a popular and high profile member of Scotland's devolved Parliament. His major contribution has been to draft an Organics Targets Bill, with all-party support, which will see 20 per cent of Scotland's farms convert to organic production by 2010. The bill will begin going through Parliament in Edinburgh in November. He regrets Lossiemouth's rather slow start in the snail's race for Slow City status. But he has not lost hope. "We might get there yet."

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