ORVIETO, Italy - A fragrance of fresh herbs guides you along narrow medieval
alleys, past a Gothic cathedral of colored marble, under a delicate stone arch
to an open paved courtyard with a view of verdant hills.
There, five cooks in starched white aprons and hats are preparing "gattafin,"
small parcels of fresh pasta filled with a mixture of wild herbs, picked that
very morning from woodlands and fields.
In a corner of the courtyard shaded by a church, three sommeliers in formal
suits, the silver chains of their profession around their necks, are ready with
a selection of fine wines.
This is the second of five stops in an afternoon-long gastronomical walk around
Orvieto, a small town perched on a spit of rock in the midst of a lush Umbrian
And though you would never guess from the peaceful
surroundings, it is also one of the most active fronts in the
war against corporate-led globalization.
Carla Guarnieri, from a nearby town, is among the people
who trickle into the courtyard, pausing to take in the sweeping
view and breathe in the gentle aromas before tucking in.
"This is bliss," she says between mouthfuls.
"What could be better than to take a long walk around the
most interesting sights in a beautiful town, tasting delicious
dishes and drinking good wine as you go?"
That's music to the ears of the Slow Food movement, which
is behind the Orvieto gathering. But for them it is also about
more than merely pleasing the palate.
Slow Food aims to revolutionize the way we eat.
The movement began in Italy in 1986, in response to the
opening of a McDonald's fast-food restaurant on Rome's
heritage-steeped Piazza di Spagna.
Since then, it has grown into a worldwide
"eco-gastronomical" organization boasting some 80,000 members.
"We're not interested in talking only to privileged
gourmets," said Giacomo Mojoli, who heads its international
"Quality food cannot exist without respect for the
environment, for species of animals and plants, for the workers
who produce the food and the consumers who eat it. Slow Food is
about much more than food itself."
The movement demonstrated that it could make a significant
impact two years ago when the European Union brought in new
food hygiene standards in response to food safety scares that
had swept the continent throughout the 1990s.
Slow Food argued that the standards, first developed in the
1960s to make food safe for astronauts, made sense for
industrial food plants but would put numerous small-scale
producers who couldn't afford the equipment out of business.
It argued the case so convincingly that the EU granted
hundreds of exemptions to small producers.
Slow Food sees globalization as a problem when it means
homogenous cultures around the world, but also regards it as a
force for good that allows niche producers to find markets.
"We believe there is a virtuous globalization that we can
use to our advantage," said Mojoli.
"We don't need to attack a McDonald's to get our message
across. We can use the Internet and the media to much greater
Slow Food in 1995 launched a symbolic "Ark of Taste"
designed to find viable markets for what the movement calls
"endangered species of food."
For example, types of grain that are seldom cultivated
because they have lower yields than commonly used varieties, or
breeds of livestock whose numbers are dwindling because they
take longer to bring to slaughter.
Slow Food makes it its business to pluck those products
from the remote corners of the countryside where they are
produced and bring them to the tables of consumers.
And events like the one in Orvieto and Slow Food's showcase
yearly event, the "Salone del Gusto" (Taste Fair), which took
place in October in Turin, make that a reality.
The fair attracts hundreds of producers and thousands of
food enthusiasts, and includes not only food and wine tastings
but events such as a biodiversity award that highlights the
work of farmers who use environmentally friendly methods.
Mojoli says Slow Food has rescued from near-extinction some
130 species of food in Italy alone since it launched the Ark,
and the project is fast expanding across the world.
Slow Food's creed has gained relevance to a much wider
audience since food safety scares like mad cow disease and the
debate over genetically modified crops became mainstream.
But many are skeptical, even among enthusiasts like
Fabrizio Quaranta, who has come to Orvieto from Rome with his
family for the gastronomical walk.
"I'm here. I don't need convincing," said Quaranta as he
sipped from a glass of cool Umbrian white wine.
"But I fear this is a niche phenomenon. Most people don't
care about how the food they eat is produced, and they
certainly don't want to spend extra money buying better quality
Slow Food, however, maintains that it is all a question of
education and that as consumers become more discerning they
will in fact increase the amount of money they spend on food.
"Fifty years ago the average European family was spending
about 50 percent of its income on food. Now it's closer to 15
percent, while the income itself has increased dramatically. So
there is clearly room for maneuver," said Mojoli.
The movement believes it can persuade people to reverse the
trend through events like the Salone del Gusto or the smaller
festival in Orvieto, and through the numerous courses it offers
as part of its "Master of Food" programs.
"If you've always eaten packaged food made by a big
multi-national somewhere, you don't know what you're missing,"
said Mojoli. "We want to show people there is a whole world of
(flavors) out there to discover and a way to live that is both
good for the planet and enjoyable."
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd