In search of: Slow food in Turin

By which we don't mean a meal that takes a long time to arrive at your hotel table, but the very opposite of gast food in terms of origin, quality and taste. Bill Powell tucks in.

Perhaps we have been swayed by Nigella's stuffed figs or Jamie's fish pie. Or have we simply had our fill of flabby pizza and thrice-fried slugs calling themselves chips? Whatever the reason, as holidaymakers we are undoubtedly going gourmet, a fact underlined by the number of British travel specialists seen at Turin's fourth biennial international Salone del Gusto, the world's biggest festival of "slow food".

Perhaps we have been swayed by Nigella's stuffed figs or Jamie's fish pie. Or have we simply had our fill of flabby pizza and thrice-fried slugs calling themselves chips? Whatever the reason, as holidaymakers we are undoubtedly going gourmet, a fact underlined by the number of British travel specialists seen at Turin's fourth biennial international Salone del Gusto, the world's biggest festival of "slow food".

You have to take notice when a show like this has 600-odd exhibitors and brings in 40,000 food-luvvies daily over four days. They become part of a slow-moving army of cocktail-stick-wielding gannets wandering between such attractions as a mountain of raw Tuscan lard (delicious, believe me) and the very popular man from Neal's Yard Dairy.

Slow food – that is, seasonal, regional dishes made with local ingredients – is now regarded by many travellers as a vital element of their holiday. People choose destinations on the basis of that region's traditional food and wine.

Presumably a Big Mac is OK as long as I'm in Illinois, US, home of the fast-food chain?

I should have put that question to Carlo Petrini. Carlo founded the Slow Food Movement 13 years ago as a form of protest when McDonald's opened a branch at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The SFM took off and now has 100,000 members in 40 countries. We don't know if this has generated any panic back at McDonald's HQ.

What if I like a big, juicy steak cooked in three seconds flat – can that be classified as Slow, too?

Your beef can still be chewing the cud: it just has to be free range and blameless of chemicals. The way Carlo tells it, Slow is a mystical metaphor, a concept, a way of life and – you could say – a dandy selling point as well. Carlo believes we should accept having to pay more for good stuff. He is against globalisation, the food industry big boys and government handouts to producers. He is for the artisan food and drink producer. As Carlos Santana would say: keep it real or just forget about it.

Is it a cult, Billy Graham-meets-Billy Bunter sort of outfit?

There is no mistaking the evangelical tone. And I was tempted to accept Carlo Petrini as my personal food saviour after I saw the tables he had prepared for me at the Salone del Gusto. That Tuscan lard was a subtle persuader, not to mention Normandy smoked duck, Sicilian pecorino, Spanish Serrano ham, Irish smoked scallops ...

Whoah, there! So you stuffed yourself for four days. Why would that interest us would-be travellers?

Because Slow Food is part of landscape, climate, tradition. It has always been there. Carlo is making the point that there are always real treasures waiting to be discovered, such as truffles in the forest.

Chocolate truffles? Mmm ...

No, no, I'm referring to the secretive and scarce little fungi that grow underground around trees. Unprepossessing they may be (imagine Pharaoh Tutenkhamun's "family jewels" after a long embalming process and you've more or less got the picture), but to a chef they are worth nearly as much as their weight in gold. I arranged to meet Rocky, who knows the truffle woods of Cortemilia, south of Turin, like the back of his paw.

Rocky's a truffle-hound, right?

Absolutely. They don't come any houndier than Rocky, a pointer type, who with great enthusiasm quickly found and scratched up a strange black lump from under the Cortemilian poplars. Similar ones at the market in nearby Alba I had seen changing hands for upwards of €30 (£20). Rocky's young boss, a dead ringer for Sylvester Stallone called Walter, undoubtedly has a tight little business going there.

Cut to the chase. Why are they worth so much?

They impart the same alluring pheremonal perfume as might be found, say, in an armpit belonging to Sophia Loren. There is a sharp-edged, heady musk. A few particles of grated truffle is all it takes to impart significant value to almost any dish, especially salads, scrambled eggs and foie gras.

Yummy. I can't wait to get snuffling in the undergrowth. Where do I sign on as a trainee truffle-dog?

Down boy! This big-money business is secretive, strictly hardball and disapproving of outsiders who want to muscle in. Stick with being a consumer and stay healthy. The classic way to eat truffle is to make a simple omelette and scatter a few shavings on top.

But can I afford to get turned on to such rare and sexy treats?

It's all about priorities. At the Turin show, Slow Food's founder pointed out that Italian families spend a mere 10 per cent of their annual income on food (the same amount they spend on mobile phones), which is 5 per cent less than they spend on underwear.

Carlo believes good food should come before clean knickers, then?

His exact words were: "My underwear stays Armani; what I eat becomes Carlo Petrini."

Where can I find more such Zen food enlightenment?

You can click on www.slowfood.com, email international@slowfood.com or call 00 39 01 72 419 611.

And how do I get there?

I travelled to Turin with Inntravel (01653 629010; www.inntravel.co.uk), which offers food and wine-orientated walking weeks in the Piedmont hills from £721 per person, including return flights, transfers, b&b accommodation in two-star and three-star hotels, three dinners and three picnics, maps, notes and luggage transfers. Inntravel also offers a three-night break over a weekend, including cookery mornings with chef Carlo Zarri and wine-tasting afternoon trips in the Piedmont vineyards for £576 per person, including return flights to Genoa, three nights' b&b accommodation, car hire and two four-course lunches.

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