Published on Friday, October 27, 2000 in the Times of London
A Slow Death For Fast Food?
by Richard Owen
If, as is all too likely, you are reading this over a sandwich at your desk, you may not want to hear that an estimated 150,000 people are this week cramming into a feast for the eyes and stomach called the “Slow Food Fair” at Turin. “Lucky them” might be the response, coupled perhaps with a fleeting thought for the succulent hams, glistening olive oils, rich wines and ripe or crumbly cheeses which those attending the fair can sample, and which North Europeans tend to reserve for their annual holiday in Tuscany or Spain.
But then one of the aims of the Slow Food movement — which began in the delightfully named Italian town of Bra but is becoming increasingly global — is to make people pause, put down their hasty sandwich, hamburger or microwaved supper and think for a bit — not only about what they are eating but also about why they are eating it. In other words (let’s get down to basics): whatever happened to the three-hour lunch? Carlo Petrini, the Rome journalist who founded Slow Food 14 years ago, puts it this way: if you ask yourself what happened to slow lunches, or even a decent lunch break, you go on to ask yourself why we go in ever decreasing circles to lead such frenetic lives.
“What have we lost, and what have we gained?” he asks. So from visions of mozzarella and Parmesan you arrive at philosophy, or at least the kind of reflection which more than 60 years ago prompted the “street poet” W H Davies to write: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” Or sit and eat, Davies might have added. Italy, of course, has had it all sorted out for centuries. It is an advanced industrialised country (next year’s G8 summit is being held in Genoa), and Turin is the home of Fiat. Lest we forget, the Slow Food extravaganza, which offers a showcase for regional food producers who lavish loving care both on traditional foodstuffs and on the land and livestock which produce them, is being held in the Lingotto, a vast green and white former Fiat factory whose Art Deco magnificence now houses one of Europe’s state-of-the-art exhibition centres.
But Italians are rooted in the land and family life, or a tenaciously cherished nostalgic version of it, and few have any doubt what the priorities of life are, or should be. Just to make sure, I checked with my taxi driver as we drew up at the “Salone del Gusto”, literally, Hall of Taste, where the food, wine and beer of over 40 nations are on display.
“Beautiful women, sunshine, good coffee, good food and drink, culture,” he said unhesitatingly, adding as an afterthought: “Not necessarily in that order”.
Giovanna Melandri, Italy’s young (and photogenic) Culture Minister, put it slightly differently at the opening — gastronomy, she said, was “as much part of the Italian heritage as works of art”; and tampering with food was as bad as “counterfeiting a Caravaggio”.
Inside, the huge crowds jostling to get at organic porchetta (stuffed roast pig), cured meats and smoked fish, all washed down with Barbera D’Asti drawn from casks show that what began as an almost unnoticed and slightly cranky movement in 1986 has become big business. The food fair is a tad folksy, with plenty of girls in regional costumes. But in Italy, at least, they really do wear the costumes at “festas”, in which local identity is genuinely linked to food and drink. This year a whole section is devoted to foodstuffs and dishes “threatened with extinction”.
The Slow Food movement, which had its origins in Signor Petrini’s disgust over the inroads McDonald’s was making into Italian life (the catalyst was the appearance of the familiar golden arches near the Spanish Steps in Rome), now taps into a broader movement whose leitmotifs are anti-globalisation, anti-standardisation and the assertion of local and regional identity — not to mention saving trees from the bulldozers and worries about BSE and genetically modified foods.
The news that the EU had authorised the use of “genetically modified organisms” in wine-making created horror in Turin this week.
Without realising it Petrini, now a genial 52-year-old, was the harbinger of the Zeitgeist at the dawn of the new millennium. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the movement now includes the more violent activists such as José Bové, the French farmers’ leader currently appealing against a jail sentence for leading an assault with sledgehammers on a half-constructed McDonald’s at Millau in Southern France last year.
Pertini’s way is gentler: love of “real food”, as opposed to fast food, is — he says — bound up with environmental concerns. The floods in Piedmont and the Po Valley last week, which nearly sank the food fair because they disrupted supplies and transport, were partly caused by “man’s interference”.
“Ours is a people’s movement,” says Petrini. “This is not about gorging yourself, nor is it a search for gourmet foods for elite taste buds. It is about preserving what makes us human.”
Dario Fo, Italy’s Nobel Prize-winning playwright and author of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, observes that “eating without tasting what you put in your mouth is like having sex with a woman rather than making love to her”.
There is, however, an obvious gap at the festival in the array of counters stretching as far as the eye can see and beyond, there is hardly a Union Jack to be seen. Eventually, next to a stall offering thinly sliced ham and crisp white wine from the icy mountains of Friuli, I found Angela and Richard Jackman, assisted by Andy Shellam, all from the weekly farmers’ market at the Talbot Hotel at Knightwick, in the Teme Valley in Worcestershire (Elgar’s “land of hope and glory”.) They were gamely offering bemused but interested Italians our home-grown delights: pickles, cheese,Dundee cake, and damson preserves and marmalade from the local WI.
“The first thing you notice when you arrive here is how laid-back everyone is,” says Shellam. “It’s not just the food and drink, it’s the attitude behind it. The pace of life is different.”
Jackman, sporting a Union Jack apron and offering bottled beer from a tray, says: “We have good country food in Britain too, and it’s a shame it’s not better known.”
Renato Sardo, the head of Slow Foods’ international division — in itself a sign of the way the movement has taken off — agrees that Britain was “let’s say, a bit under represented. There are British bakers and brewers here, and Fortnum & Mason is doing teas.
“But we have a huge contingent from the US, offering everything from corn and grits to Cajun cooking and barbecue sauces. Perhaps Britain will be more involved in the next fair.”
He says British towns might like to become involved in Slow Food’s new sister organisation, “Slow Cities” (Città Slow), which is dedicated to “improving the quality of life in urban areas” and at present includes Asti in Piedmont, Greve in Chianti in Tuscany, Orvieto in Umbria and Urbino in the Marches.
Slow Food: Via della Medicita Istruita 14, Bra Italy (0039) (0)172 419611
Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd