Americans who think of Slow Food as an elite supper club for snobby food
purists would be stunned by the scene unfolding inside the former Olympic speed
skating arena here over the past four days.
Senegalese cereal farmers in purple satin and matching headdresses trade
packaging tips with Peruvian potato growers in traditional red embroidered
garb. Goat cheese makers and Hmong long-bean growers from California find
common ground with their Italian and Eastern European counterparts. Israeli and
Palestinian farmers, along with Iraqi and American food producers, share space
and the excited chat that food never fails to stimulate.
Jackie Martine, chef-owner of Seaweed Cafe in Bodega Bay (Sonoma County), visits a farmers' market in Italy. Photo by Kim Westerman, special to the Chronicle(Chronicle/Kim Westerman)
This is Terra Madre, a gathering that is the Olympics of the international
movement to deindustrialize food production. That means putting taste back at
the heart of food, saving heirloom fruits, vegetables and animals, keeping
small farmers in business and in local communities, and pushing farming back on
sound environmental ground.
Mingling with the farmers are prominent Bay Area names in the sustainable
food movement -- Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, UC Berkeley journalism
professor and "The Omnivore's Dilemma'' author Michael Pollan, Full Belly
Farm's Judith Redmond, Boulevard Restaurant's Nancy Oakes, Incanto's Chris
Cosentino, Mourad Lahlou of Aziza and the entire A16 restaurant team, just to
name a few.
Invited to cook next door at the Salone del Gusto, the giant artisanal food fair that showcases some of Terra Madre producers, were hot Spanish chef Ferran Adria
of El Bulli and renowned Piedmont chef Cesare Giaccone.
More than 5,000 small farmers and foodmakers from 130 countries, plus
1,000 chefs -- including more than a dozen from the Bay Area -- are in
Turin to eat, network and build what Waters called "a global counterculture" in
her address to the opening session.
It's the second such gathering organized by Slow Food International, which
is based in the nearby town of Bra. The first Terra Madre, in 2004, generated
an astounding force field around the ideas of Slow Food, which started 20 years
ago as a way of saving inexpensive Italian restaurants serving tagliarini with
butter and sage and other traditional foods from the wave of nouvelle cuisine
that put salmon with dill on plates around the world.
Now, Slow Food has grown into an international movement, with 80,000
members in 50 countries, including 12,000 in the United States.
About 500 Americans were invited as delegates and observers, more than a
quarter of them Californians, including a contingent of organic farmers from
the Capay Valley in Yolo County who are familiar faces at San Francisco's Ferry
Plaza and Berkeley farmers' markets.
Health problems like obesity and diabetes, widening economic disparities
across the world and environmental issues like global warming show that the
current system "defined by speed, abundance and waste" can no longer sustain
itself, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini told the conference, which concludes
The time is ripe, he said, to bring food economies back to their local
For a group of Hmong, Latino and African American farmers from the Central
Valley of California brought to Terra Madre with help from the Davis-based
Community Alliance With Family Farmers, that meant connecting with farmers from
around the world.
Ali Shabazz, an African American herb farmer from Fresno, helped a
Tanzanian farmer who wanted technical advice on equipment. Va Moua, who says
many of the Hmong farmers in the Central Valley use lots of fertilizer, talked
to farmers who don't.
"Now we'll find out if we can do it naturally," he said.
The point, said Blong Lee, a representative of the Fresno County Economic
Opportunities Commission, is to get Central Valley farmers thinking about ways
they can distinguish themselves and their crops, and to get their products into
the local economy instead of the global one.
At one point, the California farmers found themselves dubiously eyeing a
plate of cured meat called capocolla from the southern Italian town of Martina
Its maker, Costantini Angelo, had ideas for the California farmers, most
of whom grow just one crop, sell into the wholesale market, but fail to make
enough to gain a real foothold in the Central Valley economy. Angelo feeds his
pigs only acorns from his home region, so his meat has the unique taste of its
soil. That's a value-added intangible that helps him sell directly to stores
and obtain the price he wants.
Moua and Cindy Mai Xiong, farmers who grow jujube -- a kind of fruit --
on 4 acres near Fresno, touched the acorns and heard the advice -- but they
were distracted by their growling stomachs. This was their third day in Italy
and amid all this beautiful Parmigiana Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma, they
"We went to a fancy restaurant last night," said Lee of the Fresno
commission. "We tried to order pizza with pepperoni and they didn't have it,
and lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, but they didn't have it. It's not the
type of Italian food we expected."
The chefs, meanwhile, reveled in the Italian Italian food. Incanto chef
Cosentino ate his way through all the lardo -- a cured meat made from pig fat
-- and prosciutto he could find and sought esoteric ingredients like tuna
Jackie Martine, chef-owner of the Seaweed Cafe in Bodega Bay, who tries to
source all of her ingredients locally, made a connection with an African grower
of vanilla beans -- something she knows she can never find in Northern
California -- from whom she may buy directly. And from a Mauritanian's
bottarga di mugine, a salted mullet roe, she was inspired to create a similar
product using her native halibut roe "which is usually thrown away."
On a trip through a local farmers' market, though, she was stunned to see
that most of the apples were Granny Smith, red delicious and golden delicious,
the same ones that dominate American supermarkets. "It's the effect of
globalization," she said.
San Franciscan Cosentino, who participated in a panel on meats, said he
felt a divide between affluent chefs like himself and struggling farmers from
poorer regions -- a divide that Slow Food has yet to bridge.
"I complain because we can't get lungs," he said of federal laws that ban
what for some is a delicacy. In contrast, a Kenyan livestock farmer on the same
panel described how water shortages and power failures decimate his cattle
before he can get them to slaughter, threatening his entire livelihood.
"There's this disconnect," Cosentino said of the enormous disparity in
resources among participants in the conference.
In the United States, Slow Food leaders are well aware that there's a
similar disconnect between the political ideals forged at Terra Madre and
consumers' perceptions of Slow Food.
"The media still regards Slow Food as a dining club; they still don't
perceive the political content," Pollan told a meeting of the U.S. delegation.
To try to bridge that gap, to take the ideas of Terra Madre home, Slow
Food USA is planning an unprecedented gathering of regional artisanal food
producers in San Francisco in May 2008, Waters said. The idea, dubbed Slow Food
Nation, could be replicated all over the country, she added.
"It's clear there is a political movement growing around food,'' Pollan
said. "And it's about a lot more than food -- it's about health, the health
of local economies, the energy crisis.
"People are ready to hear this movement. It seems the important work now
is to show that San Francisco is at the center of this movement."
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle