Slow Food on the Fast Track

This worldwide movement has grown beyond the touchy-feely into preserving food-based economies, regional cuisines and the flora and fauna that support them.

Most people in the sleepy Italian hilltop town of Bra walk past via della Mendicità Istruita 14 without noticing it. The broken doorbell dangles off its hinges and the tenants’ nameplates are empty. A wooden door is usually left ajar revealing a dismal inner courtyard with a broken chair and tattered anti-smog and anti-war banners draped from rusted railings. Wander inside and you’ll be stopped by a voice calling down from upper floors: “Hey you, are you looking for Slow Food?” Welcome to the world headquarters of the organization that has arguably worked harder than any other to preach the profound truth behind “we are what we eat.”

Founded in 1986, Slow Food is a nonprofit organization that embodies the ideological antithesis of fast food. Its philosophy establishes dietary guidelines that extend far beyond the daily values assigned to fats, proteins and vitamins. Instead, its guidelines give credence to culture, tradition and ecology. On the Slow Food scale, Irish wild smoked salmon and Polish mead score higher points than McNuggets and a Coke simply because the first two have better stories to tell.

These intellectually nourishing tenants and the advocacy of long, leisurely meals were the initial messages delivered by the Italian group with the witty name and the smart snail logo. But over the past decade Slow Food has become a powerful and complex lobby that also promotes biodiversity and opposes homogenization. It counts 82,000 members in 107 countries who meet at local Convivia (Slow Food chapters) to celebrate their individual enogastronomical heritages.

Most importantly, Slow Food organizes major international events aimed at preserving regional cuisines, and the plants, seeds, domestic animals and farming methods associated with these cuisines. The organization is also dedicated to reactivating the economies connected to products on the verge of extinction.

“We are no longer just a group of gourmands,” says Slow Food President and Founder Carlo Petrini. “We have not abandoned the fun food and wine aspect, but we have moved beyond it because we understood it was too reductive. When we realized we risk losing animal races, genetic species and agricultural traditions forever, Slow Food mutated from an enogastronomy to eco-enogastronomy organization.”

Petrini vs. Ronald McDonald

Carlo Petrini, or Carlin (“little Carlo”) to the people who adore him, is the kind of man you hear before you see. His energetic voice and hypnotic charisma carry past his office door at the Bra headquarters and over David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” playing from one of three iMacs in the foyer. He welcomes visitors to his office as if they were long lost grandchildren and doesn’t mind if one of his shirttails is untucked. Surrounding him is a room in need of a second coat of paint and a large collection of snail-themed amulets, key chains and figurines.

The Slow Food concept applies to wine, says Petrini, who is also the author of important books on Piedmont’s wines. He is currently organizing new initiatives that will debut in June to defend indigenous grape varieties and winemaking techniques that are in danger of extinction.

Petrini first conceived of Slow Food in the mid-1980s over a trattoria dinner with friends. Back then, Italian intelligentsia were staunchly opposed to the opening of Italy’s first McDonald’s in Rome—the chain was very slow to come to Italy; some doubted that permission would ever be granted. Many of Rome’s citizens vividly recall the day on which McDonalds inaugurated its Italian franchise, which was located adjacent to the landmark Spanish Steps and under the offices of fashion designer Valentino. Even more offensive to Italian sensibility: McDonald’s wanted to display the Golden Arches on the art-filled Baroque piazza—an action that was never allowed.

“As a joke I said, ‘If there’s a fast food, then let’s start a slow food,'” says the man who remains an important figure in the Italian left wing. “We wrote an ideological manifesto and circulated it to friends in different languages. Before long we received calls from people in New York and San Francisco who wanted to join the movement.” The cause soon gained star power; celebrity chef Alice Waters is Slow Food vice president.

Two decades of hard work and creativity separate today’s Slow Food from its grassroots beginnings. Terra Madre is a case in point.

The latest of Slow Food’s initiatives, Terra Madre took place this past October in Turin and was billed as “the first world meeting of food communities.” Carlo Petrini, with funding from Italian public authorities, invited 5,000 farmers, growers and fishermen representing 1,300 international communities in a space adjacent to the former Fiat automobile plant in Turin. He paid for participants’ air travel and arranged accommodation in churches and in the spare bedrooms of Italian families.

On Terra Madre’s closing day, Petrini saluted Prince Charles and a human sea of colorful headdresses, plumage and cowboy hats. They had opened a global dialogue on the problems facing food producers today: sustainability, distribution and marketability.

Bean growers from Anyama in southern Ivory Coast, peanut producers from Mali, Indian nomadic shepherds, chocolate makers from Argentina, raw milk cheese producers from the United States, and rabbit breeders from Australia exchanged ideas regarding everything from water management to genetically modified foods. Slow Food is against genetically modified foods because the group believes they ultimately limit options for traditional farming.

“We wanted to make sure these communities become part of a network that exchanges knowledge and information,” explains Petrini. “I learned that nomads in Lapland are now in Internet contact with nomads in Mongolia.” One Slow Food employee, daunted by the logistical undertaking behind Terra Madre, reportedly needled Petrini: “Why 5,000 farmers? Wouldn’t 1,000 be just as good?” The Slow Food founder had a quick response: “Next time, we’ll invite 10,000.”

Another well-known Slow Food activity is the Salone del Gusto (“Hall of Taste”) held for the fifth time in 2004 in Turin. More than 140,000 visitors attended last year’s food exhibition to sip wines made from indigenous varieties and nibble on exotic foods.

Franco Properzi is a producer of coppa di testa from the province of Macerata in central Italy. “You know what really blew my mind at the Salone del Gusto?” he asks while slicing tasty morsels off a giant sausage-like roll made from the pig’s ears, tongue and snout seasoned with garlic, nutmeg and cinnamon. “Umbù marmalade. I bought jars of it to bring back home,” he says referring to a bittersweet jam from Brazil’s northeast Sertão Bahiano area.

Slow Food stages an outdoor cheese festival in Bra during which hundreds of luscious dairy treats are put on display throughout the town streets. It encourages municipal authorities from small towns to adhere to the “Slow City” movement to limit noise pollution, neon signs and dedicate more public space to greenery. Fairytale Greve in Chianti in the heart of Tuscany (loved by wine tourists because of the many tasting opportunities) is a showcase Slow City.

Slow Food has its detractors, too. Some have called the movement elitist because it discourages nominally cheaper alternative food production methods. Others say that the group carries too much political weight in Italy. “Does this look like a powerful political lobby?” asks Petrini from his shabby headquarters. “If we have become a lobby of virtue, well then, that’s exactly what we want.”

Daniele Cernilli edits Italy’s top wine guide, Gambero Rosso’s Vini d’Italia, which is published by Slow Food Editore (a separate entity). He sees shortcomings in the immediate applicability of the Slow Food philosophy where world hunger is concerned.

“Despite all the good Slow Food represents, the world cannot live on Slow Food,” says Cernilli. “You can be against modified foods and industrial corn and soy commodities, but you can’t feed 3 million Chinese people lardo di colonnata [a cured lard from Tuscan’s Alpi Apuane mountains found only in gourmet grocery stores].”

Slow Food USA

One thing is certain: The Slow Food philosophy has caught on quickly in the United States. Since going Stateside five years ago, its U.S. membership has ballooned from 2,000 to 14,000. There are 130 Slow Food Convivia across the U.S. and 700 members in the New York chapter alone. “What intrigues me about the Unites States is we are witnessing the birth of new biodiversity,” explains Carlo Petrini. “Twenty years ago, two or three brands of beer dominated the market. Today there are more than 2,000 microbreweries making phenomenal beers. The same thing is happening with American cheeses. The bread I buy in Bra tastes bad because bakers here have phased out the good yeast. But when I travel to California, I eat breads like the ones I remember from childhood. Our market in Bra has existed since the Middle Ages. But in under 10 years, farmers’ markets have popped up in every major American city. Seeing that new biodiversity can be created from scratch makes me extremely optimistic about the destiny of humanity.”

Like in Italy, Slow Food USA oversees an “Ark of Taste,” which protects and catalogues foods facing extinction. Since the program began in 1996, 164 products worldwide have been listed, including the Marshall strawberry from Oregon, the Gulf Coast sheep and the Java chicken, says Sara Firebaugh, assistant director of Slow Food USA. “Of course we are focused on gastronomy and pleasure, but we are equally focused on sustainability.”

A poignant comeback story is our Thanksgiving turkey. Until recently, virtually all turkeys sold in the U.S. were the Broad-Breasted White variety. The bird was developed to have such huge breasts and shortened legs that it could no longer mate naturally. By 1997, the Broad-Breasted White turkey accounted for all supermarket turkey meat, and other breeds had almost vanished. A turkey census that year counted only 1,200 breeding birds representing 11 varieties. “Thanks to a handful of tenacious farmers, they survived,” says Don Schrider of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which works with Slow Food. The groups promoted less-recognized turkeys like the Burbon Red, the Royal Palm from Florida and the Beltsville Small White from Maryland. “When people learn to cook and baste these smaller turkeys,” adds Schrider, “they appreciate how much more flavorful they are.” The turkey talk spread and by the 2002 census, the number of breeding birds had reached 4,500.

The Fort Knox of Wine

Perhaps Slow Food’s most significant accomplishment is the University of Gastronomic Sciences located in Pollenzo, a few kilometers from Bra. Opened last year, the University counts 70 students, many of whom are foreign though all speak Italian and English. They earn specialization degrees in food and gastronomy communications or food management. Classes are held in the 1833 neo-Gothic Agenzia di Pollenza complex that once housed an important agricultural association founded by King Carlo Alberto. The university’s roster of supporting instructors includes veteran wine writers Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, and courses have titles like “geography of wine” and “sociology of consumption.”

Deep under the sprawling red brick buildings are old wine cellars that once stored the first Barolo wines ever made. The cantinas (with ancient Roman ruins) have now been refurbished to house the Slow Food “Wine Bank.” Like a wine library, the idea is to archive older vintages and complete verticals that may be impossible to find through retailers. “Three hundred of Italy’s best wineries were asked to participate in the program and lend us their wines,” explains Federico Piemonte, director of the Wine Bank. “They can take them back when they want as if they were deposits, or add more bottles for safekeeping.” In a few months’ time, la Banca del Vino will be open to the public. “This is another one of those ideas that Carlin kept hidden in a closest for years and was finally able to realize,” says Piemonte. “Everyone wonders what will be next.”

Published on April 1, 2005

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