OVER the last century Europe has lost up to 90 per cent of its traditional food diversity. Much to the detriment of the quality of food we eat, it is also highly damaging to the local economy.
It was for this reason that Italian journalist Carlos Petrini set up the Slow Food Movement in 1986.
Fed up with the way his favourite food dishes had lost their traditional rich flavours due to industrialised farming, he wanted an antidote to bland, Fast Food.
Spurred on by the opening of a branch of McDonalds in the celebrated Piazza de Spagna, in Rome, he organised a series of demonstrations to oppose it.
Two decades later and the Slow Food Movement has groups in 132 different countries and counts 85,000 members worldwide. In the UK there are 100 separate groups (or conviviums, as they are known) – with, so far, around 30 in Spain.
The group increasingly takes on fast food companies and the big agribusinesses and fights to preserve and expand the availability of traditional foods.
Nowhere is it more needed than in Spain.
With the growth of industrialised fishing and farming here, there is a big fight to ensure that small scale producers can continue growing by ecological means with traditional seeds and breeds.
One only has to look at the huge profits made by supermarkets and middle men to recognise the problem. It also explains why local farmers markets and weekly box deliveries are growing ever popular.
There is also the problem of ensuring that the ever dwindling areas of good fertile land – such as the famous vega of Antequera – is not converted into non-productive golf urbanisations, shopping centres, airports and more housing.
Through my series of books on the growing of fruit and vegetables in Spain I was invited to this year’s international conference on Slow Food in Turin.
I had first found out about the Slow Food Movement four years ago while on a walking holiday with my wife Clodagh in Tuscany. We trekked for a week through the Chianti hills enjoying local wines and foods each night in local bodegas.
At the best, at Le Cantine, in Greves, we learnt how the local wine industry and other artisan products were being supported by the group. One local cheesemaker had just come back drom the 2004 Slow Food conference and regaled us with facts and figures about the amazing group.
We soon joined Slow Food and this year it was my turn to attend the conference, called Terra Madre, which conveniently coincides with the Piedmont food fair called the Salone de Gusto ‘Saloon of Taste’.
For five days last month I was able to experience the commitment, ambitions and frustrations of the 8,000 participants from over 150 countries attending.
Some five days of continuous seminars, workshops, and orderly tastings, I was soon learning about global food problems and sharing possible solutions.
A few things really stuck out. The current desire for out of season produce and industrialised agriculture is using the equivalent of 50 times the whole supply of water in the Nile every year. It is also causing huge water shortages for the local rural populations of third world countries.
I also learnt of the enormous potential in regenerating the local artisan agricultural both in small holdings and in our own backyards. On our farm, for example, what we cannot eat we sell to our local Michelin-starred restaurant.
Interestingly it also turns out that the new President of the USA, Barack Obama has shown interest in the health and economic benefits of the existing American Slow Food network.
The organisation has been so slick over recent years that even Prince Charles had his own stall at the fair (albeit represented by a cardboard cutout). The Prince, who gave a keynote speech in 2006, sent a particular message of goodwill this year. Representing his increasingly popular organic brand Duchy Originals, he said: “Slow Food has been invaluable in encouraging sustainable agriculture and in safeguarding the traditions associated with quality food products.”
With around 180,000 aspiring gastronomes landing in one venue, the Salone de Gusto was really something else. For around 20 euros each we all took part in tutored tastings that included pickled carp to chocolate impregnated cheese!
After nine hours of workshops and seminars a day, not to mention almost constant eating, it was great to be back home in Spain where my wife and I are practicing what we preach.
As well as working intensively on our vegetable plot, we are picking wild asparagus brought out by the recent rains and caring for our trees with only organic products.
For dinner last night it was a home grown rocket, fennel and red lettuce salad accompanying a herby home-reared rabbit (no longer available from the local butcher), all washed down by a great local eco wine from Los Pinos.
Closely following the Slow Food objective, this was all tasty ecological food from local sources with low food miles and with a fair reward to the grower.
Ultimately, our 15-year drive to achieve near self sufficiency has been worthwhile… and saves us a fortune, not to mention improves our health. I hope you will consider joining us.
WHO WANTS TO START A NEW CONVIVIUM IN ANDALUCIA?
There are 100 conviviums in the UK, but only 30 in Spain, including just two in Andalucia, in Sevilla and Granada, both Spanish led. Looking through the recently published Green Guide, in conjuction with the Olive Press, there is a fantastic future for a local British-led Convivium centred on a town such as Ronda, Tarifa or Orgiva with members coming from all around the surrounding area.
What it means is farmers and foodies getting together to promote and support traditional local production methods and to introduce them to an audience who want the same, pure, natural products. No growth enhancers, no steroids, no impurities, just old-style food, produced at the speed of Mother Nature. Without the support of Slow Food, many artisan producers, growers and fishermen, would have had to cease production and amazing flavour sensations would have been lost.
Activities could include dinners, tapas competitions, expanding and promoting the local organic market, setting up workshops on using Slow produce in restaurants and home cooking, workshops on the marketing of Slow Produce, stimulating a greater stocking of local produce by local shops and supermarkets, the setting up and support of a school garden with the produce being used for cooking lessons and the school canteen and within a couple of years a Slow Food conference perhaps to eventually rival the one held annually in Bilbao.
How to set up a local Convivium
1. Get in touch with enthusiastic Spanish coordinator Mariagiula Mariani (email@example.com)
at Slow Food International headquarters in Turin.
2. Find at least four like minded persons to discuss the possibilities and
establish a tentative mission and objectives for a local English led Convivium.
From our observations in Spain and at Terra Madre the ideal mix could be
a restauranteur, a producer, a leader of the weekly organic market, an educator
and a journalist. A link with the town hall could be a plus.
3. Register with Slow Food – This will require five persons to register as paid
up individual members of Slow Food. This only costs 50 euros per year for an adult,
65 for a couple and 30 for anyone under thirty.
4. Once registered set up the first two activities – perhaps a Slow dinner or
tapas evening– advertise and grow the membership and influence from there.
Hopefully someone soon picks up the baton and our readership ensures that the awareness and economic support of the already amazing diversity of good food production, markets and restaurants grows Ronda into a new Bra and the surrounding area a new Piedmont the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and its founder Carlos Pitrini.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions or any plans to start your own local group.
Dick and his wife Clodagh have lived in Spain for more than twenty years developing a colourful and productive holistic garden. They have written books on various aspects of gardening in Spain. See www.gardeninginspain.com