< SWITCH ME >

What was to become the Slow Food movement began as a very local and particular fight in 1986, in Rome, against the opening of a MacDonalds near the Spanish Steps, a very scenic and historical place in the "eternal city". Carlo Petrini, founder of the movement, organised a demonstration, crowds thronged the piazzas - and home-baked pizzas, it is said, were given out to the protesters. From this first fight, the organisation kept its very local-scale, nearly home-made mode of action, and a fierce antagonism to globalised and standardised fast food, that was to generate the name "Slow Food".

tomatoes
Photo: Jack Gavigan (CC/SA
Most of us only eat round, red tomatoes, even though there are hundreds of other varieties

The movement was initially a mix of politically leftwing activists and gourmet amateurs. In the time that led to its real founding as a general movement, in 1989, in Paris, it set aside the "fighting against" spirit, and adopted a "building for" philosophy, and was joined by environmentalists concerned about the consequences of the modern food industry. But not only the food was slow, the movement also took its time to mature: only in 1998 was an office opened in Germany, and in 2003 in France. The last 5 to 10 years saw the Slow Food sign become slowly familiar to the backpacking youth exploring European cities. I personally discovered Slow Food a few years ago in Florence, on the sign of a gelateria... and guess what opened a few weeks later, 100 metres from my own room in Paris? A slow food glacier, you got it!

Slow food education

But if we only consider ice cream makers, restaurants and shops, we miss most of what the Slow Food movement is about. The basic Slow Food group is a group of people called a "convivium". This group of people, at a local scale, primarily gets together for a meal, with or without educational information or cultural entertainment, depending on the members of the convivium themselves. David Wilson, convivium leader in Dros Y Fenai, Wales, explains: "The group has held a number of events from an ice cream tasting to a mushroom hunt with plenty more planned for the future. We believe in supporting small producers and buying and eating food and drink that is 'good, clean and fair' and spreading the message in Wales."

mushrooms
Photo: George Chernilevsky (copyright free) 
In Dros Y Fenai, Wales, Slow Food groups organise mushroom hunts

Slow Food organisations, indeed, also advocate taste education for members, non members, as well as in schools, hospitals or even prisons... The events are usually workshops where participants are taught to taste, compare and match food and wine. In addition to food experts, producers can also bring in their own knowledge about context and ingredients. But they also promote that kind of knowledge at a higher level: the Slow Food movement co-founded the University for Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG), where scientific knowledge from a university background are brought together with traditional knowledge about food production and preparation.

Slow food production

On the agronomic side of its activities, Slow Food fights for the preservation of biodiversity of edible products. The saying goes in the Slow Food Germany network: "eat what you want to save" - very often, though, it looks more like "help financing the preservation of what is no longer sold." In most European countries, indeed, there is a closed catalogue of the seeds allowed for commercial food cultivation, and it is much more restrictive than the huge diversity of original varieties. We eat, for example, almost exclusively red and round tomatoes, of about ten varieties throughout Europe, although hundreds of them, green, yellow and red, exist. But big food producers would rather cultivate a large amount of a few varieties than a small amount of each. It makes more economic and commercial sense. Those who want to preserve diversity, though, argue that the difference in taste should not be set aside for the sake of economic production and that the different genomes can also be a natural defence against all sorts of threats, particularly parasites.

Finally, the Slow Food movement also advocates sustainable methods of growing food products, fair to nature and to workers. "Agricultural practice is part of gastronomy", said Jean Lhéritier, president of Slow Food France, interviewed at Eurogusto 2009. Through the Terra Madre structure, they promote short, local and respectful food production and distribution chains. They contribute to help, through financing and advice, small projects which are moving in that direction.

Slow food funded projects

The projects launched by the slow food movement are very diverse in their nature and goals. One of them, for example, aims at creating a vegetable garden in each African Slow Food community. The movement will found the plantation of the garden and the training of locals in the cultivation of diverse species, especially where this knowledge has already been lost in favour of large monocultures meant for exportation. This cultivation should include vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs, and should serve local consumption and use, making communities' sustainability more resilient to global fluctuations.

Herbs
Photo: rappy (CC)
Slow Food projects encourage communities to grow a variety of herbs

But the Slow Food movement also works closer to us. "[Through Terra Madre] for example, says Graham Head, ecologist and Slow Food convivium leader in UK , farmers of the Shetland Islands realise they have issues in common with African producers". To bridge the gap between farmers and consumers, in about ten Italian cities, the Slow Food movement organises "earth markets". They are farmers' markets that respect the Slow Food guidelines: local producers present their own products, which are offered at fair prices and in good quality and environmental condition. Though not a direct financial support, those markets can help producers reach more customers, settle their business and become self-reliant.

The "slow" movement

Arising from the original Slow Food movement, a whole "slow" philosophy and way of life has emerged, opposing the excesses and forgotten values of a rushing modernity. It goes from slow gardening to slow travelling, and even slow parenting. The basic idea being that if we try to do too much, too quickly, we forget the essential - human interaction, time for small or important things, etc. This is mostly advocated in a very humorous way, such as on the website of The International Institute of Not Doing Much, SlowDownNow.org. There, you can find advices on "the art of not doing a lot", or a "philoslowsophy".

A very serious criticism or a humorous take on modern life? Well, either way, the slow food movement throws an alternative light on our values and life goals.

See the next page for some delicious and very slow recipe suggestions...

NEXT ISSUE
IN 35 DAYS