Global food fest urges return to farmers' 'common sense'

Was it a back to the future moment? Chefs and farmers gathered in northern Italy urging a revolution in global eating habits by returning to the common sense that guided farmers of old.

"You shouldn't go over the river to get what you have on your side," cautioned Gunnar Karl Gislason from Iceland.

He was one of dozens of chefs at the Salon of Taste in Turin, an international food fest aimed at touting local food products and sustainable farming methods.

"You really have to think how to get new ingredients, we are using swedes for the desserts... meanwhile they usually use them to feed pigs," said the chef as he served up action of tasty and unusual Icelandic dishes.

He is notably a fan of Icelandic aniseed oil and "skyr", an ancient cottage cheese.

"We are taking traditional dishes that people were doing a hundred years ago. I enjoy it much more. I always find something that surprise me," said Gislason, who is the chef at the trendy Dill restaurant in Reykjavik.

For Spain's Oriol Rovira, local food is all in the family since his four brothers are all farmers and his ingredients come directly from their fields.

"I call it 'window cooking' since I look out of the window to see what I can make," said Rovira, a chef at the Els Casals restaurant near Barcelona.

Thousands of exhibitors and farmers from around the world descended on Turin for the festival, which ended this week. The event was organised by the Italy-based environmental and gastronomic campaign group Slow Food.

- 'Return to farmers' common sense' -

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The movement was founded in 1986 in the Turin region by Carlo Petrini, a food critic and sociologist, in reaction to the opening of the first fast-food restaurants in Italy and now has some 100,000 members in 163 countries.

The festival featured indigenous products at risk of extinction such as Ethiopian coffee and Moroccan cumin, as well as talks by ethnic groups like Russian Kamchadals, Australian Aborigines and Brazilian Guaranis.

"Every country should produce what it consumes," said Pascal Gbenou, a 39-year-old farmer and activist from Benin, who came to the conference.

"The last food crisis showed it's suicidal to depend on other countries. When you depend on someone for food, you are naked, defenceless," he said.

A spike in food prices sparked rioting in several countries in 2008.

"Eighty percent of the world is fed by small farmers. We therefore have to strengthen this local farming," added the rice-farmer.

Gbenou established a farm in Benin in 2000 that trains young men in sustainable farming techniques to stop them from emigrating to the cities, as well as to encourage back those who have already moved.

"The objective is to create an urban exodus," he said.

"Many young people abandon school and go and drive motorcycle taxis in the city, entering a precarious life, while we have the potential... to make our people completely self-sufficient," he added.

The presence of some 5,000 representatives of Terra Madre - a movement for sustainable farming set up by Slow Food - gave the festival an important social element to go along with the finger-licking good food on offer.

Michel Bras, a popular French chef, travelled from France to take part in a "table meeting" organised in the nearby wine-growing town of Barolo.

"The thing that motivates me is protecting the planet," Bras said.

"I am a man of the farming world. I want to preserve what I knew in my youth and to be able to hand down to my children their true identity," he added.

"I think the financial crisis has forced people to think about their relationship with bling-bling, the type of cooking that shot into some kind of galactic sphere," said Bras.

"There is a return to farmers' common sense."

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