Carlo Petrini: The slow food tsar

The man who first campaigned against a McDonald's in Rome now heads a global movement to promote the unhurried pleasures of the table. He tells Alison Roberts why Britain lags behind in joining the feast

Call it what you will - a shrewd adoption of eco-activist credentials or shameless bandwagon-jumping - but when David Cameron shared a platform at a London press conference recently with Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder and president of the Slow Food movement, he was joining an increasingly fashionable camp.

Petrini, who coined the term "eco-gastronomy" to describe his vision of good food sustainably produced, has little time for most celebrity TV cooks and the British fascination with them.

"These chefs should get out of their golden cages, let loose their media chains," he says. "They have to become more a part of society. They should cook for a village, teach children, feed old people in [care] homes, prepare food in hospitals. The cook is a social being. Now we have an overdose of recipes, recipes, recipes - this television bombardment is pornographic. Traditionally making food is an act of love, and there is a difference between pornography and making love."

This is how Petrini talks - poetically, charismatically, in terms of grand concepts, like a true European. Earlier this week, he launched the UK's first Slow Food office in Ludlow, Shropshire, but we meet at Raymond Blanc's fêted restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, where Slow Food UK is holding a fundraising dinner.

The Slow Food philosophy is not just about taking more time to cook and enjoy a meal, he says. It was born 20 years ago in opposition to the concept of fast food, and specifically to the prospect of McDonald's opening a branch near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

However, the bulk of its work today lies in the promotion of local networks of small farmers and artisan food producers whose products either face extinction or whose agricultural methods are less damaging to the environment.

In practice this comes down to saving Cornish pilchards, protecting Bario rice in Malaysia and promoting Polish oscypek cheese. It's in these interlinked local networks, says Petrini, that lie the foundations of what he calls "virtuous globalisation" - an antidote to the hegemony of the multinational food producers and the "capitalist concept of globalisation".

"The network of small local economies is stronger than the multinationals because it has its feet in the soil," he says. "The global market economy is destroying the Earth. We give more strength to local economies and we have better sustainability, better human relations and no need to fly food halfway around the world."

If you love food but aren't environmentally aware, he goes on, you're at best naïve, and at worst, stupid. "But an ecologist who is not a gourmet is ..." - Petrini laughs - "well, he's just boring."

The fact that the UK's Slow Food office has only just opened is symptomatic, he acknowledges, of the UK's peculiar problems with food. Britain has its fair share of thoughtless gourmets and boring ecologists, but most of us still eat poorly, expect cheap food and barely know how to cook. We are living, still, in Bad Food Britain.

"In the past 50 years, food has gone out of your daily life," says Petrini. "An agricultural society has become a post-industrial society." This has brought about double-thinking: " I eat, but I don't know what I'm eating. I don't know how it was made or where it has come from."

Slow Food's roots exist in pleasure - in reclaiming the conviviality of sharing good food. And it's this that we've specifically lost in Britain. "If cooking is seen as a chore - something you do mechanically - then it becomes alienating," he says.

"Eating is no longer about love, but about consuming fuel. A woman cooks some food, and no one smiles at her or says thank you. Neither is there any fascination with food. In Mediterranean Europe, there is still that fascination, still the conviviality, the ritual. The most important thing about eating is to enjoy the moment of affection between family members, or friends or work colleagues. A civilisation that loses this ritual becomes very poor. It's especially important for children to learn again how to experience communal eating."

Few could really disagree with this, nor with Slow Food's central mantra "Good, Clean, Fair" - an ideal of good food produced in ways that don't harm the planet and don't exploit workers. Slow Food gets more controversial, however, on the issues of paying more for food and on shunning the big supermarkets. In the UK, food produced to a Slow Food ideal is still largely the preserve of pricey farmers' markets and upmarket delicatessens, and thus very much the preserve of the middle class. It's a common charge that Slow Food here is élitist.

Petrini, of course, disagrees strongly. "It's not only in England, but in Italy, too, and other parts of the world, that we associate the right to leisure, the right to enjoyment, with élitism, as though it is an élitist concept in itself. But excellent food does not need to be complicated or expensive. It can be very simple.... It is true we will have to pay a bit more for our food. Food is too cheap now. We cannot expect such cheap food in the future."

Slow Food UK now plans to promote a number of traditional "at risk" foods (Three Counties Perry and Artisan Somerset Cheddar, for example) while building those local networks of production upon which, according to Petrini, rest the very "future of the global economy".

But can it ever have a far-reaching impact here? Will we ever give up our tasteless ready meals, as David Cameron urged last week, or, worse, our December strawberries flown in from Kenya?

Petrini says consumers can embrace Slow Food by learning about food production and, if possible, getting to know local producers, as well as supporting farmers' markets. "I don't want to be a fundamentalist," he says. "It has to be a cultural development and it has to be lived, not dictated by someone else. A process has started in the UK, however, and it is hard to stop it now because it comes from a real need in British society - a need for a better relationship with food and with the people who make it."

Recipe: Turkey with 'carpione'

Ingredients

Four turkey escalopes:

Two eggs, flour, breadcrumbs, one onion, a single clove of garlic, one sprig of sage, 1/2 glass white wine vinegar, olive oil, salt; pepper.

Beat out the turkey escalopes and cut into pieces. Beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Dip the pieces first in the flour, then in the beaten egg, and finally in the breadcrumbs. Fry in the olive oil. To prepare the marinade, chop the onion and garlic and fry gently. Pour in the vinegar and, once cooked, add the sage, salt and a tbsp of flour dissolved in half a glass of water. Arrange the turkey pieces in a bowl and pour over the warm "carpione" marinade. Leave to rest for 12 hours before serving.

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