After our French wine expedition we sail eastward with a light breeze. The coast slowly passes by, allowing us to observe it thoroughly. The mountains turn bright red in the evening light and not much later stars illuminate the sky above the Italian Riviera. Only the next morning we arrive in the picturesque town of Portofino, where we can anchor around the corner. On foot we explore the green surroundings while enjoying a gelato artigenale, a traditional Italian ice cream. How come the ice cream tastes so good here?
Over the course of the next days we notice a pattern. What applies to Italian ice cream, applies to Italian cuisine in general. The pastas, foccacias and pizzas we eat all taste delicious. Hardly surprising if you consider what characterizes Italian cuisine: regional dishes prepared according to traditional methods with pure ingredients. Yet even in this country, fast food is on the rise. With it, the scale, industrialization and standardization of the entire food chain have increased. The trend is completely at odds with Italian culinary culture. Time for a counter-movement, the Italian Carlo Petrini thought. He founded the organization Slow Food in 1989 with the aim of stimulating local, traditional and diverse food. The organization has grown since and is now active in around 160 countries. Worldwide, more than 100,000 producers and restaurants are connected.
Taste the Difference
Our first encounter with slow food is in Barcelona. A red snail at the entrance of Somorrostro tells us that the restaurant is associated with the Slow Food movement. Inside we meet owner Andrés Gaspar. We ask him what makes his restaurant a “slow food” restaurant. “Most of the food and drinks are regionally sourced, from less than 100 kilometres away. At the fish market we buy fresh fish from fishermen who fish near the coast. The meat comes from a few farmers who we know personally. The vegetables are from our own organic vegetable garden, just outside the city. This way we always serve fresh vegetables from the season. Finally, we serve wines from our province, Catalonia. Preferably organic, without added sulphites.”
Not much later we feast on an unknown fish. Andrés explains that he also serves the fishermen’s by-catch. He wants to demonstrate that these fish taste good, too. And because it is less popular, the price is lower. And because everything comes from the region, it saves transport. Nevertheless, slow food is often a bit more expensive than fast food. In exchange, you get a better product. That’s because of other factors. For one, more manual work is put into the production to conserve nature. The chef then prepares everything from scratch in the restaurant, using only the best and purest ingredients. Finally, producers often operate on a small scale and are paid a fair price. This makes slow food more sustainable both in environmental and social terms.
Back to Italy. In Bra, in the Piedmont region, we visit the headquarters of the international slow food movement. Ester Clementino explains what the organisation is about: “Slow Food strives towards a world where everyone can enjoy food that is good for them, good for the people who make it and good for the planet. We want to achieve this by working with small-scale producers who produce artisanal food products that are under pressure and must be protected. Be it vegetables, fruit, cheeses, seeds or animal breeds. In this way we also promote biodiversity. ”
The organization connects small, sustainable producers to customers such as restaurants and shops. It also stimulates knowledge exchange among members. To enthuse consumers, the organization organizes markets, workshops and multi-day festivals, with local and traditional food as theme. Ester explains why: “Many consumers no longer know where their food comes from. The distance between the farm and the fork has widened because of the industrialization of our food. We are trying to reduce that distance.”
Ester continues. “We also work closely with well-known chefs. They source produce from local, artisanal producers and come up with recipes for those special ingredients. That way they not only advertise artisanal food, but also the local producers.” In short, the Slow Food movement promotes eco-gastronomy.
Higher Culinary Education
The Slow Food movement works closely with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenza. A look at the curriculum tells us that the students approach food from many different angles. They follow courses on the history, cultural backgrounds and economy of food, but also in its sustainability aspects. There is also a cooking master entirely focused on Slow Food cuisine.
At the university, we meet Alessandra Abbona, who is responsible for communication. “We train foodies from around the world, who come here for our holistic approach to food. It means that we cover all aspects of it, as you saw in the curriculum.” When we ask her about the master in slow food cuisine, Alessandra explains that it emphasizes on local and traditional ways of food preparation. “We organize meetings with, for example, bakers, salami makers and traditional butchers. To learn about slow food cooking, the students do a three-month internship at a slow food family restaurant and then another three months at a Michelin-star restaurant.” The students also go on field trips, Alessandra continues: “Study trips are aimed at mapping the entire food chain. In this way, we train chefs to become knowledgeable about sustainable food production.” With many thousands of graduates, the university has already spread a lot of knowledge about sustainable food.
Local is More Sustainable
The emphasis on healthy, more nature-friendly food, for which producers get a fair price, appeals to us. The small-scale, artisanal way of food preparation preserves biodiversity. For us it is also means tasting different, delicious dishes everywhere we go. Dishes that have been prepared with traditional knowledge and attention. What’s better than enjoying a local specialty, surrounded by beautiful nature? It makes traveling extra special.
The Slow Food movement is very likely also active in your country. Numerous restaurants and producers are connected. They can be recognized by the logo with the red snail, or found online. We encourage you to discover all sorts of surprising delicacies in your own country. Enjoy your meal!