On a biking trip last week through Piedmont, a mostly unspoiled agricultural region in northwest Italy, I came across many things: charming hilltop towns, sleepy sidewalk cafes, vineyards that stretch for acres, fields of corn or cows, lush backyard vegetable gardens and fruit trees bearing plums, peaches, apples and lemons. Even the smaller towns have their own pasticceria (bakery), macelleria (butcher shop) and alimentari (grocery selling fresh fruits and vegetables).
Noticeably absent were fast food restaurants or supermarkets. Piedmont is known for its wine, cheese, meats and truffles and the region has created its share of global brands, among them Barolo, Moscato and Nutella. But even in Turin, the region’s commercial hub, you have to look hard to find a McDonald’s or Walmart. (Carrefour Express has outlets in Turin, but they stock more fresh foods than packaged goods.)
This is no accident. Piedmont is home to the Slow Food Movement, which was launched in 1989 after its founder, an Italian journalist named Carlo Petrini, led a campaign that stopped McDonald’s from opening a restaurant near Rome’s Spanish steps. Since then, Slow Food has grown into a global NGO with about 100,000 members in 153 countries (Slow Food USA is based in Brooklyn), a thriving publishing arm and its own small college, the University of Gastronomic Sciences, which is near Bra, Petrini’s home town.
All of this is dedicated to the mission of “promoting good, clean and fair food for all,” although the movement aims to change how we live as well as what we eat. As the original Slow Food Manifesto puts it:
Born and nurtured under the sign of Industrialization, this century first invented the machine and then modeled its lifestyle after it. Speed became our shackles. We fell prey to the same virus: ‘the fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest “fast- food”.
Homo sapiens must regain wisdom and liberate itself from the ‘velocity’ that is propelling it on the road to extinction. Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’ with tranquil material pleasure. Against those – or, rather, the vast majority – who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.
Appropriately, we will start in the kitchen, with Slow Food. To escape the tediousness of “fast-food”, let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines. In the name of productivity, the ‘fast life’ has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes. Slow Food is the alternative, the avant-garde’s riposte.
Last week, I visited the University of Gastronomic Sciences, chatted briefly with a couple of students and enjoyed a wine tasting at Il Banco de Vino, which is literally a “bank of wine,” an underground vault where more than 60 winemakers have deposited about 100,000 bottles of wine, hoping that they will grow in value. (“Liquid assets,” one visitor called them.) Graduates of the university, which has about 70 students, become activists, journalists, entrepreneurs and chefs, all of them trained to spread their knowledge about food–its environmental impact, cultural and anthropological meaning, and economic importance. A day or two later, my wife and I enjoyed a delicious five-course tasting menu at Ristorante Consorzio, a homey and unpretentious restaurant in Turin that embraces the slow food idea, serving fresh, seasonal, local food and wine.
Now, it’s easy to mock Slow Food Movement. A British journalist described Petrini as a “kind of modish Dalai Lama figure for those who think nothing of paying a small fortune for purple broccoli, dusted with powdered linseed oil.” Just the other day, a New York Times columnist denounced organic food as “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.” To be in favor of “good, clean and fair food” is easy, but to design a food production and consumption system “that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health” and delivers “fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers,” at “accessible prices for consumers” — well, that’s a much harder row to hoe (no pun intended). For all the problems with its beef-based business model, McDonald’s has arguably done as much as Carlo Petrini to promote sustainable agriculture. (See my 2011 blogpost, McDonald’s Bob Langert: What a long strange trip it’s been.)
But just a week in Piedmont reminded me that those of us who buy all of our groceries at supermarkets, eat too much processed food, grab a coffee to go at Starbucks or mindlessly wolf down a take-out dinner would benefit by discovering the pleasures of Slow Food.
Fundamentally, Slow Food is about paying closer attention to what we eat, a practice that can be rewarding in many ways. I’ve never eaten more delicious peaches, melons and tomatoes than those we found in Italy; part of the reason that they are so good is that the Piedmontese will not accept tasteless fruits and vegetables. Through Backroads, the company that organized our bike tour, we met a farmer who makes fantastic Pecorino cheese and keeps his 50 or so sheep — I kid you not, there they are below — in the house where he lives with his wife and son all live. He sells to his neighbors, and buys their crusty, home-baked bread, which is free of preservatives. Our meal at Consorzia wasn’t cheap — dinner for two, including a carafe of wine and a tip, came to about $100 — but you can pay a lot more for bad food and indifferent service in many places near my home in Bethesda.
Better yet, lingering over the table can lead us to a more unhurried way of life. In Piedmont, most commercial transactions begin with a “buongiorno” or “buonosera,” they are eased along with “prego” and “grazie” and end with “ciao” or “arrivederci.” No one would order a cappuccino while carrying on a cell-phone conversation.
Most important, when we pay closer attention to what we eat, our choices will eventually take into account the environmental and social impacts of food. We may think about “food miles”, or choose to shop at a farmer’s market or eat less meat. We may be inspired to support campaigns like this one, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, designed to pressure supermarkets like Giant and Publix to push for better working conditions for tomato pickers.
At the very least, slowing down, perhaps by saying a blessing of gratitude before a meal, reminds us that we are lucky to enjoy the bounty that we do, and that all of our food comes to us through the hard work of many others.