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The Slow Food Revolution

by Maria Davies(more info)

listed in food, originally published in issue 103 - September 2004

At a Snail’s Pace

Across the world a revolution is taking place. It is a quiet revolution and rather, well, slow. Happily it is also peaceful, even if it does aim to undermine the dominance of those who control our food system. This is the Slow Food movement, ostensibly concerned with the rejection of a pervasive fast food culture. But on another level it is much more than that: Slow Food represents an ideology which not only promotes real food but embraces diversity, reveres the natural environment and cares passionately for the wellbeing of animals. It regards the individual as part of a living community, not as an isolated ‘consumer’.

Some things are best done at a snail’s pace. We know that we should eat slowly, chewing each morsel thoroughly and thoughtfully. Doing so promotes oral and gastric secretions, thereby optimizing digestion. At least that’s the theory; the reality is that such a slow-motion approach to nourishment is unfashionable. On-the-go breakfast bars are apparently a good idea, lunch is for wimps and dinner is something delivered to the door – the faster the better. We are slaves to speed.

It is no surprise that the Slow Food movement has its origins in Italy, a country where for many the three-hour lunch break is still sacrosanct, and producing fresh, quality food is virtually a matter of honour.

It all began in 1986. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, was appalled that McDonalds was opening a branch at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. He organized a protest which, although did not stop the Golden Arches from casting their shadow over such a historical landmark, created a resistance of self-styled eco-gastronomes. In 1989 the movement went international when the Slow Food manifesto was signed in Paris by delegates from around the world. Slow Food, with the snail as its logo, is based in Bra, southern Piedmont – the home town of its founder. There are currently around 80,000 members from every continent of the globe. Members are organized into local groups, known as convivia. Each convivium promotes and celebrates its regional gastronomy, staging local events such as dinners, food and wine workshops and visits to farms.

It is truly a symbol of hope that the US, spiritual home of junk food and all that is fast and frenzied, is also the country with the fastest growing membership of Slow Food. There is a convivium in every major US city, with gardens for children to learn about how food grows.

Local Events

It would be fair to say that Britain is not renowned for its gastronomy; we don’t even like our own food, opting, as a rule, to eat anything other than British when dining out. But all that is changing, thanks, in no small part, to the exponential rise in popularity over the last few years of the farmers’ market. Wendy Fogarty, leader of the London convivium and the UK international representative of Slow Food, explains: “These markets, selling traditional, locally produced fare have reignited our interest in real British food, and precipitated the arrival of Slow Food UK. Shopping at farmers’ markets reminds us of the pleasures of being part of a community.”

First established in 1997, there are now over 20 Slow Food convivia throughout Britain – from Aberdeen to Frome, from York to London. Each convivium celebrates the uniqueness of its own region by organizing events in village halls, with workshops, dinners and tastings of culinary treasures. Past gastronomic gems include pie-making demonstrations and an olive oil tasting workshop in London, organic farm tours in Sussex and a sausages and mash evening in Ludlow.

Indeed, the small town of Ludlow on the English-Welsh borders has embraced the Slow Food movement with considerable gusto. Even before the arrival of Slow Food, Ludlow was famed for its small-scale food and drink producers, and abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants. Every year in September it holds a three-day food and drink festival which has now joined forces with Slow Food to create a foodie’s paradise.

As Wendy Fogarty points out, Slow Food does more than just get people to appreciate good food. “Members are becoming social entrepreneurs, arranging events and involving their communities in something which is all about pleasure. People get really passionate about what they’re doing.”

Every two years, the Slow Food movement comes together for a major international festival held in Turin – the Salone del Gusto (literally, hall of taste) bringing together artisans and food lovers from around the world to participate in the ultimate food fest. As well as the usual stalls, tastings and seminars, there are also children’s activities to help them learn what real food is and where it comes from.

Environmental and Conservation Benefits

There’s a lot to be said for eating the Slow way. As well as promoting your local economy and rekindling your cultural heritage, you are also consuming much fresher, therefore more nutritious food. You are also helping to reduce pollution levels. One of the many criticisms levelled at supermarkets is the amount of produce they sell which is flown in from all four corners of the globe – including a great deal of food which could be grown on our own doorstep. The ‘food miles’ that this unsustainable system clocks up, burning vast amounts of aviation and road transport fuel, means even greater environmental pollution in the form of carbon dioxide. In the greater scheme of things, year-round availability of exotic fruit is not as healthy as you might think.

As well as promoting local food, Slow Food is also concerned with preserving traditional crops and animal breeds which are being threatened by the bland monoculture that has been foisted upon us by globalization. To this end, it has created the Ark of Taste and the Presidium.

The Ark of Taste is a system of identifying and cataloguing endangered foods, dishes and breeds of animals. Hundreds of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and fish, as well as the dishes made from them, are listed under the Ark. In the UK, one food currently enshrined in the Ark is Formby asparagus. Formby, near Liverpool, was once famous for its award-winning asparagus, which takes three years to grow from seed on the sandy soil of local dunes. There is currently only one grower left.1

The Presidium is a natural extension of the Ark – it acts to protect the foods catalogued in the Ark, by giving them a sort of ‘preservation order’. It aims to get these foods into cafes and restaurants and assists the producers and growers who are struggling to stay afloat.

Gastronomy Education

Slow Food may be slow, but it does not stand still. For the truly devout, it has recently established its University of Gastronomic Science, based in Italy and from where students can graduate with a Master of Food degree. There are two degree programmes: agro-ecology and gastronomy. The agro-ecology programme is concerned with farming which is compatible with the natural environment and working traditions. The gastronomy programme covers the study of food, with much of the course taking place in markets, kitchens, farms and workshops. The classes are in English and Italian, with coursework to be completed in one of the two languages. The university opens its doors to undergraduate gastronomes in Autumn 2004.

Rumour has it that the fast food culture has already peaked. Accusations of promoting obesity and chronic disease, particularly among children, have spawned a backlash against fast food and all it stands for: over-processed, reheated, reconstituted cheap food served up by poorly paid, bored and indifferent workers. That backlash is now manifesting in the form of threats of litigious action and calls for a ban on junk food advertising. At the same time, there has been an extraordinary rash of TV programmes featuring celebrity chefs extolling the virtues of home cooking and simple pleasures.

We live in a society where progress is measured in terms of GDP – gross domestic product. This basically is a measure of how much we as a nation are consuming. When the Government tells us that the nation’s GDP is higher than ever, we’re all supposed to cheer. But the GDP is no reflection of what really matters – quality of life. The New Economics Foundation (NEF), an independent think-tank which challenges mainstream thinking on economics, recently released a report called Chasing Progress.2 In it, NEF describes economic progress as a ‘myth’, and proposes a new measure Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP). This new measure would factor in social and environmental costs, quality of life, human progress and life satisfaction. According to the NEF, MDP has not increased at all over the last 30 years, despite an 80 per cent increase in GDP.

MDP is in a sense what Slow Food is all about. It is a movement of positive thinking; instead of just inveighing against McGlobalization and uniform blandness, it is a movement for diversity, tradition and living joyfully. Slow Food is important because no individual lives in a vacuum, but in a social context, and the health of the individual depends as much on his or her environment as it does on the proper functioning of the body. Healthy eating cannot be divorced from sustainable food production and care of the environment. What could be more holistic?

References

1.    Snail Mail. (quarterly newsletter of Slow Food UK). Ed 2. 2004.
2.    Jackson T. Chasing progress: Beyond measuring economic growth. New Economics Foundation. 2004. http://www.neweconomics.org/gen/
3.    Petrini C. Slow food. The case for taste. Columbia University Press. New York. 0-231-12844-4.2001.

Further information

For details of how to join Slow Food, visit the website www.slowfood.com or call Tel: 0800 917 1232.

The Official Slow Food Manifesto [3]

Endorsed and approved in 1989 by delegates from 20 countries
Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life mode.
We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods.
To be worthy of the name, homo sapiens should rid himself of speed before it reduces him to a species in danger of extinction.
A firm defence of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.
May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.
Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us re-discover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.
In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.
That is what culture is all about: developing taste rather than demeaning it. And what better way to set about this than an international exchange of experiences, knowledge, projects?
Slow food guarantees a better future. Slow Food is an idea that needs plenty of qualified supporters who can help turn this (slow) motion into an international movement, with the little snail as its symbol.

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About Maria Davies

Maria Davies can be contacted on maria_davies@lineone.net

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