Milan is celebrating the best of food – so who invited McDonald’s?

For any self-respecting foodie McDonald’s and Italy are opposite poles, hell and heaven, sin and salvation

Peter Popham
Thursday 02 April 2015 18:38 BST
(Getty Images)

Arriving on April Fools’ Day, the news that Pope Francis had been advised by his doctors to cut down on his spaghetti consumption was naturally greeted with some scepticism. Then came the news that he was having none of this advice – that he would continue to eat as much spaghetti alla carbonara, pappardelle portofino, strozzapreti alla norcina con tartufo, etc, as he fancied. What, after all, is the point, at an advanced age, of moving from Buenos Aires to Rome if you can’t have your Roman creature comforts?

That was more like it – the authentic voice of this most enjoyable of modern popes. A roly-poly pontiff, in the mould of John XXIII – the loveable pope. A pontiff whose pasta consumption could become an issue in the middle of Lent, and who then sends his health and safety people packing – a pope for our times.

Lent: ah well, it’s nearly over. Good Friday’s the grand climax, if penitence permitted anything so exuberant as a climax. How many people even notice it these days? One remembers giving up chocolate, sweets, etc, on the forceful suggestion of teachers.

Hilary Mantel does a good job of bringing this bullying, gloomy season to life as it must have been back in the days when they burned people alive for reading the Bible in English. “Lent saps the spirit,” she writes in Wolf Hall, “as, of course, it is designed to do… In some spare, desperate way [Thomas Cromwell] is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence…” But even in the dark days of the 16th century there were get-outs – escape routes which, of course, Thomas Cromwell was familiar with. “In Lent, there are butchers who will sell you red meat, if you know where to go…”

Thoughts of Lent, observed or otherwise, turn one’s mind naturally to thoughts of food. And even if thoughts of food don’t automatically turn one to thoughts of Italy, this year they are more likely to do so because Milan is hosting an International Expo on that very subject.

The Expo has already been subjected to harsh lampooning on these pages because the organisers appear to have entrusted their foreign language challenges to Google Translate. And more lampooning is certainly in order because in their infinite wisdom they have secured as official sponsor of the Expo… the services of McDonald’s. Let’s pause for a moment’s silence as we contemplate the obloquy into which il bel paese has tumbled with this single, mad error.

The announcement comes in the same Google Translate mode as earlier press releases. “McDonald’s happens also at Expo,” runs the headline. “The fast food chain, official sponsor of the event, will have a pavilion-restaurant that will tell the Italian agricultural sectors.” Tell them what? Tell them nothing. That’s the end of the sentence. The release goes on: “The multinational company has launched – together with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Expo – the project ‘Making the Future’ which will offer 20 young Italian farmers under 40, who have projects of innovation and sustainability for their companies, the possibility to become suppliers for three years of McDonald’s.”

McDonald’s and Italy: for the world of food they are opposite poles, hell and heaven, sin and salvation. Any food-lover knows that. When, back in 1986, Carlo Petrini, a left-wing foodie journalist from the town of Bra in Piedmont, learnt that the American burger franchise had opened a branch in Piazza di Spagna, bang in the centre of Rome, he conceived what later grew into the Slow Food movement: the greatest single initiative anyone has ever thought of to combat all that American-inspired fast food has done to our health and our waistlines.

Slow Food will be at the Milan Expo, naturally enough, because the expo’s theme is “nourishing the planet, energy for life” – and that is at the heart of what Slow Food does. What began as a network of food lovers discovering and sharing their knowledge of obscure Italian trattorias has vastly expanded in theme and ambition. Specifically, with the creation of a partner organisation called Terra Madre – “Mother Earth” – Petrini’s baby has become a means of bringing together farmers and fishermen and food artisans from all corners of the world to share their knowledge, lift each other’s morale and discover new ways to preserve and enhance and spread the particular flavours that particular food cultures produce.

The whole enterprise is a continuing campaign to nourish the world from the grassroots up; not to surrender to the blandishments of the multinationals. And here is McDonald’s, a giant cuckoo in their nest. Petrini says he is bitter about it, and about the support for McDonald’s patronage from the government. I can hardly blame him.

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