Carlo Petrini describes himself as a professional gourmet, which is about the last thing you would guess. For a start he's thin, almost scrawny. Sixty now, with a sparse grey beard and blazing blue eyes that are always crinkling into a smile, he has lived all his life in the northern Italian town of Bra, in Piedmont.
A better description for him would be that rarest of creatures, a successful revolutionary. For Petrini is the founder, prophet and guiding light of the Slow Food Movement, which he brought into being exactly 20 years ago.
Today it girdles the earth and has tens of thousands of members, but Slow Food began as an informal talking shop for young foodies in Bra, who assembled in out-of-the-way pubs and trattorias around the town to eat what was provided and drink the local wine.
It was pleasant to sit for hours in tiny, primitive trattorias perched in the mountains and eat the simple yet magnificent dishes produced by the mamma of the establishment; yet pleasure gave way to alarm as Petrini and his friends digested the fact that within a few years such places might no longer exist.
Outside the major cities, great swathes of Italy had remained virtually unchanged for centuries. But as a result of the prolonged economic boom that followed the Second World War, the vast culinary heritage of these areas, taken for granted for so long, was in jeopardy.
The process was in a sense one of dramatic enrichment: the consumption of meat in Italian households exploded, from 22kg per person per year in 1960 to 62kg in 1975; vastly increased quantities of cheese, eggs, fresh fruit, sugar and coffee were added to to the traditional diet of rice or pasta augmented by milk, wine and little else. Life for the ordinary Italian was becoming much more interesting.
But at the same time, and with equally blinding speed, a lot of things were going out of the window. "The umbilical cord that had once connected the worlds of farmer and consumer was cut," Petrini noted. "Today hardly anyone buys their wine directly from their trusted wine maker, or goes to the farm to buy eggs and a chicken or a rabbit; hardly anybody knows the baker who makes their bread, the charcutier who slaughters the pigs and cures the meat, the man who churns the milk of his sheep or goats to make cheese." Not long ago the local grocer's shop and the pub, as well as being sources of food, were places for the exchange of information and knowledge, where customers did their shopping and eating informed by the wise words of people who were closely in touch with the sources of supply. But all these fonts of food wisdom were being swept away by modernisation, in the form of supermarkets and fast food.
Two events in 1986 convinced Petrini that Italy was at crisis point. One was the opening of a branch of McDonald's in Piazza di Spagna, in the heart of Rome. The other was the death of 19 people and the poisoning of hundreds of others by cheap wine cut with methanol.
The arrival of America's most famous hamburger chain was greeted, in Italy as in France and elsewhere, by angry demonstrations. But Petrini believed that protest was futile. The miltant French farmer José Bové might drive his tractor to the site of a new McDonald's and sabotage it, citing the motto: "Where the hamburger is planted, Roquefort dies." But while Petrini agreed with the sentiment, he disagreed with the reaction. "We don't wish to adopt a strategy of open conflict with the multinationals," he said. Instead he and his colleagues set about creating resistance to fast food by building awareness of the wealth of traditional food that was at risk.
"The strategy of penetration of McDonald's in Italy," Petrini wrote, "brought its own antidote." In other countries McDonald's began setting up shop in the provinces. In Italy on the other hand the chain began from the metropolitan centres, "appealing to a public that was already Americanised" – with the result that out in the provinces, people saw the danger and began to wake up to the fact that the foods and pubs they held so dear might soon be at risk.
The cheap wine disaster also played into the hands of Petrini and his colleagues, helping them to transform their movement from the hobby and passion of a few friends into something much more ambitious. In the feverish quest to cut costs, a Piedmont wine distributor called Ciravegna had adulterated a cheap wine with industrial alcohol, not only killing 19 people and hospitalising many more but doing grave damage to the image of the Italian wine industry, causing exports of Italian wine to plummet by more than one-third, from 17 to 11 million hectolitres. As a result it became clear to more and more Italians that salvaging the good name of Italian food and wine was not a matter merely of sentiment or nostalgia, but of survival.
And so it was that exactly 20 years ago, on 10 December 1989, the Slow Food Manifesto was released in a Paris theatre. It was a call to arms for gourmets everywhere. "Against the universal madness of the Fast Life," the Manifesto declared, "we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure. Against those, and there are many of them, who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practiced in slow and prolonged enjoyment ... "
Pleasure, hedonism, enjoyment, tranquility, conviviality, richness; Slow Food has never made any bones about its commitment to the truly sweet things in life. There are no hair shirts in the Slow Food Movement, no trace of the puritanical urge that says if something is worth fighting for it must involve a degree of pain and hardship. Petrini recalls that the founding in 1986 of Slow Food's immediate forerunner, Arcigola, "was celebrated with a memorable two days ... the celebratory dinner finished only at the first light of dawn, after the final toast with a 1939 Barolo."
But conviviality has nothing to do with frivolity, and Petrini's greatness lies in his seriousness and his restlessness. Slow Food may have begun with a toast and an excellent dinner, but he has never allowed the movement he founded to lose sight of the fact that it is engaged in an epic struggle.
It is constantly in the throes of reinvention. After the methanol scandal, for example, he and a colleague launched the first-ever comprehensive guide book to the wines of Italy, which fiercely criticised the quality of many of the nation's low-priced table wines – and which in subsequent editions, as its popularity rocketed, brought about a massive rise in the quality of affordable Italian wine.
Slow Food launched courses to put consumers in touch with the producers of the food and wine they enjoyed, recreating the umbilical cord that was cut when supermarkets invaded the market place. He established "presidii", a steadily growing catalogue of foods or animal breeds that were at risk of extinction. In 1996 he launched the "Salone del Gusto", a huge showcase for foods of excellence from all over the world; the second edition, held in a former Fiat factory on the outskirts of Turin in 1998, was arguably the decisive moment in the Slow Food Movement's history, when it became clear that it had global appeal.
He established the world's first-ever University of Gastronomic Sciences, to put the study of food on a firm academic footing. And in 2004, in an event that complemented the Salone del Gusto a few yards away, Slow Food hosted its first Terra Madre ("Mother Earth") event, bringing 5,000 small-scale farmers and fishermen from 130 countries to Turin to show and talk about their work and livelihood and share ideas on how to secure and improve it. The twin events are now biennial fixtures, with the next ones planned for autumn 2010.
How will the Slow Movement grow in the future? "Every generation has to start again from zero," says Petrini today. "There are no certainties about the future. We must always have our antennae alert to the way things are changing. The idea of the modern has been superseded; the challenge today is to return to the small scale, the hand made, to local distribution – because today what we call 'modern' is out of date. The crisis we have been facing in the past year is not merely a financial crisis but also a crisis of systems and values. To overcome it we need to change our behaviour."
The defining myth of the modern world, he says, was that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. "For two centuries humanity has done everything in its power to become the master of the world. But in the third millennium, the myth of Prometheus no longer corresponds to the aspirations of contemporary man. Instead we should turn to the figure of Noah. Faced with the excesses of modernisation, we should no longer seek to change the world, but to save it."
From producer to plate: What is Slow Food?
Slow Food – Petrini's term – is used to signal awareness of a food's origin, on the part of the producer and "co-producer", the movement's name for the consumer. Slow Food shies away from the word "consumer" because "by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process".
Promoted by members of the organisation, the term stipulates that the food should "taste good, that it should be produced in a clean way which fully respects the environment, human health and animal welfare" and that "food producers are paid a fair wage".
Slow Food is necessarily regional, promoting and protecting local produce. Its aim: "To counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how food choices affect the rest of the world."
Now in its 20th year, the growth of the Slow Food movement remains steady, consisting of more than 100,000 members in over 132 countries worldwide. Alongside a multitude of publications produced in the interest of furthering the campaign, numerous food and wine fairs are held globally to extend the reaches of the movement.
CARLO PETRINI: THE SLOW FOOD GOURMENT WHO STARTED A REVOLUTION
WHAT WE OWE GREECE: A GERMAN TAKES STOCK OF MEDITERRANEAN VALUES.
Berthold Seewald, Worldcrunch
6 December 2011
The West traces its origins to Greece and its Mediterranean neighbors. The region's history and traditions continue to inspire, even as developments there warn us against taking capitalism and its social benefits too far.
My family and I visited Greece during this autumn’s German school holidays, just a few days before the former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou stepped down. There were regular demonstrations in front of the federal parliament building in Athens – every day, a different sector was on strike – and melancholy was the order of the day in the bars off the beaten tourist track.
We’d planned this trip for a long time: showing our 10-year-old daughter the Mediterranean. And while her parents were trying hard not to show their disquiet at the rapidly escalating situation, our daughter informed us she wanted to live in Greece. Why? Because it was warm, exhilarating, clear, and life was so much less busy and planned-out than it was up north.
Do we still need the Mediterranean? This is a question being asked in countless editorials these days, and it’s one that Max Weber, that great analyst of capitalism, would have answered with a resounding “Yes!” Right now we’re living in what he described as the “iron cage” of modern capitalism, the flip side of the golden era of Mediterranean antiquity. The great sociologist wasn’t projecting some sort of dream world back over time. On the contrary. He recognized a profound Hellenistic pessimism – an atmosphere wherein human existence is perceived as under constant threat -- that he believed characterized all of classical antiquity.
A cradle of world religions and exquisite cuisine.
The “Mediterranean” is by no means just Greece. But Greece can stand for the 20-odd other countries bordering the sea. All of those countries have the same shining golden light, and follow many similar ancient traditions. They share a diet of oil, leguminous plants, the meat of smaller herd animals and wine. The also saw the rise of three, related, major world religions. When UNESCO decided in 2010 to place Italian cuisine on its world heritage list, a whole tradition that has linked people from Barcelona to Alexandria for thousands of years was honored with it.
Today, however, this ecumenical cultural entity has come to stand for mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and perhaps soon France as well are being held responsible for betraying the values of Europe in particular, and the West as a whole.
Because they wanted to share in the wealth of the capitalist world without the requisite attention to austerity, cold logic, or disciplined bureaucracy, all of the Mediterranean states – but mainly Greece, which apparently only gained access to Europe by fudging the numbers – should go back where they came from. Or so this reasoning holds.
It may just come to that. The figures are certainly depressing. They are constraining, and who knows better about constraint than we, the trustees of the capitalist spirit. But there’s something more important than that: not forgetting what we would lose if the north were to drift away from the south.
It didn’t take our 10-year-old daughter more than a few days in Greece to recognize the quality that has fascinated generations of travelers. Add to that the sheer beauty of the landscape and a history so rich it gives you goose bumps. Anyone who has ever stood among the ruins of the temple of the oracle of Delphi and looked at the olive groves on the flanks of Parnassus must, unless they are unfeeling, be overcome with emotion. But it’s not just the country that marks Mediterranean civilization: it’s also the people.
And they can’t – they won’t – be reduced to mere guardians of ancient ruins. Neither the English aristocrats making their Grand Tours in the 19th century, nor the Philhellenes who rushed to help the Greeks when they revolted against the Turks, were spared that disillusionment.
They were seeking the land of Schiller or Byron with their souls, and found real, live Levantines instead. "The Greek are a wonderful people; the lower classes possess great character. The top classes, however, are inferior," one Philhellene wrote, nicely summing up our own contemporary take, which is often mixed with anger.
How, we ask, could the elite of Greece, Italy, Spain (or Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria) ruin their people and their countries? Why are Greek billionaires buying up whole residential areas of London while a government employee in Athens can’t imagine how he or she is going to support their family?
Bitter poverty without any future perspectives.
Close examination of the Mediterranean and its traditions tells us a lot about our own history -- because these golden shores gave us not only democracy, Roman law, and the Sermon on the Mount, but also genocide and whole states seen as clan preserves. Social commitment was (and remains) as foreign to eastern churches as social engagement does to the governments.
Fernand Braudel, the great French historian of the region, castigated the “sharp teeth” of “northern, Atlantic, international capitalism.” Yet what he overlooked is that capitalism gave its workers functioning health care and old-age benefit systems, while the bucolic fascination we find in Balkan shepherds stands for nothing less than bitter poverty with no prospects for the future.
The ruin of the Mediterranean should remind us that capitalism isn’t the worst means to support human striving for happiness. On the other hand, the Arab Spring also shows that money isn’t everything and poverty is no excuse to abandon pride.
Europe is unthinkable without the heritage of Greece, Rome and Israel. Without the Renaissance, this small continent could not have traveled down its special path that led it to world hegemony -- but also ghastly catastrophes. Developments in Greece, Spain and Italy should serve as a warning not to take capitalism and its social benefits too far. Debts are debts and progress is no eternal, all-encompassing remedy for them.
For more than 4,000 years, the Mediterranean and its civilization have lived through countless crises – and overcome them. And the Atlantic world owes a lot to that. So the Mediterranean should have far more value to us than to serve merely as an antithesis.
Max Weber thought that those who would populate the age of the “iron cage” would be technocrats without spirit, pleasure-seekers without heart. The Mediterranean might just spare us that fate.
Padcraig Allen, The Independent,
30 December 2013