Slow food's not a way of cooking, it's a way of life. It's not just food that isn't fast, it's the name of a worldwide movement. Its purpose is to celebrate regional foods and cuisines, preserve them in the face of increasing commercialization and standardization, and educate the rest of the world about them.
The movement began in 1986 when a man named Carlo Petrini was outraged that a McDonald's was built at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Since then, it has spread to 45 countries, with 65,000 members (30,000 outside of Italy). Although many Slow Food supporters are not likely to describe the movement as anti-fast food, its mission is better described as pro-tradition, quality, flavor, and the pursuit of the honest pleasures found in eating something delicious in good company.
Instead of "chapters" for the local groups, Slow Food groups have "convivia," which organize all kinds of social gatherings that center on food and wine, all aimed at promoting the work of local farms, products and artisans. They also organize classes, workshops and tastings aimed at letting participants know about the regional food and cuisines in other parts of the world, as well.
The Triangle's convivium of Slow Food started in 1998 and has sponsored a number of events since then. They include olive oil tastings, garlic tastings, a sourdough bread workshop, a Buddenbrooks dinner at Nana's restaurant in Durham (based on a meal described by Thomas Mann that featured traditional German wine and food), and a brunch featuring Nicaraguan food that was a fundraiser for hurricane relief for the Central American victims of Hurricane Mitch.
There are all kinds of Slow Food projects and events around the country. Convivia in some cities are creating Slow Food School Gardens, to show children where their food comes from and how to appreciate not just the joy of eating, but the satisfaction of planting, caring and harvesting a garden. In Vermont, they're protecting heirloom Iroquois white corn. Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters was featured for a whole weekend in Chicago. And in Brooklyn, they had a pig fest where one of the topics was slow-cooked North Carolina barbecue.
But Slow Food's mission may be a tough row to hoe, especially here in the United States, where time is of the essence. We seem to be required to have instant food available to us and to eat it quickly, no matter our station in life. Slow Food's mission includes not only obtaining personal pleasure from food, like a supper club or wine appreciation group. Its aim also includes safeguarding natural resources and sustainable production of food, maintaining genetic varieties that are in danger of disappearing because they weren't big enough or easy to ship, and taste education among children, as well as adults.
My real introduction to the Slow Food movement came in 1997, when I took a solo trip to Italy and spent six weeks exploring several regions. I attended two Slow Food events: Cheese '97 and a Congresso in Orvieto, designed to bring European Slow Food leaders together. The two events were nearly a month apart, and I decided to attend both and travel during the interim.
After arriving in Milan in mid-September, I went to the Piedmont in the northwest quadrant of the boot of Italy. In the little town of Bra, where Slow Food has its headquarters, the Cheese event is held every other year. I arrived several days early, so I took a train to Alba, passing through the hilly vineyards of Barolo. I tasted my first white truffle shavings, and had delicious risotto, Barbaresco, and nougat, all specialties of the region. The architecture was medieval, with tall undecorated, defensive towers, narrow streets and lots of cobbles, stones and brick. I had a tour of Occelli, a cheesemaker and broker of regional cheeses, before the three-day event in Bra. I also had plenty of time to experience the bi-weekly market of Alba, where I noted in my journal the stunning and colorful variety: peppers, squash, honey, chestnuts, fruits, as well as kitchen wares and clothing.
In Bra, there were focused tastings called "laboratori" that I enjoyed despite the fact that they were in Italian, obscuring some of the finer points. I tasted mozzarella di Bufala at various stages, and ricotta from Sicily and Corsica, and in every laboratori there were carefully paired wines. Then there was the Coritle de Cortile, a half-day that takes you from courtyard to courtyard through the small winding streets of Bra to taste cheeses, cured meats and wines that are typical of the region. I think the entire population of Bra and several surrounding towns turned out. The courtyards are numbered on a map and you're given a legend of what you'll be tasting at each stop. It was a great way to spend the afternoon.
The laboratori offered at the Slow Food events in Italy came to be some of the best opportunities for my formal Slow Food education. Later in Orvieto, I tasted 12 olive oils from different countries and regions. In Torino the next year, another memorable class focused on riso, the varieties of rice grown in Italy for risotto and other dishes, the qualities of each being highlighted and sampled in regional dishes. My palate was expanded, and the possibilities for discovering more real food cried out.
My informal food education came through all the excellent meals I had while exploring Bologna, Tuscany, Rome and Sorrento. I stayed at an organic winery called San Vito in Fior di Selva for a week and harvested grapes one day. The owner took me for a fabulous meal of pappardelle with a sauce made with goose. I rented a car in Florence and drove the Chiantigiana by myself for a week, to Bagnoregio, walking through Montalcino, Montepulciano, Siena, and Cortona. The art and architecture were the only possible background to what I was tasting. I loved the sheep's milk cheeses, the schiacciata (a flatbread with raisins or olives), figs, chestnuts, salamis. Upon returning to the United States, I found opening a can of soup nearly impossible.
Programs around the world are working toward these goals. For instance, later this month is the third annual Slow Food Awards ceremony in Turin. There, farmers, fishermen, researchers, breeders, cooks and others will be recognized for their efforts to preserve biodiversity and fading ways of life. It coincides with the Salone del Gusto, a biennial, five-day festival celebrating food and drink from all over the world--one day alone features Italian caviar, fish from northern Spain, Irish salmon, and goat cheeses from around the world.
To whet your appetite, above is a little recipe for traditional crostini, often served in the late afternoon some hours before the evening meal.
Elizabeth Gibbs is the manager of the Durham Farmers' Market and co-leader of the Triangle's Slow Food convivium. For more information, she can be reached
firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more about the Slow Food movement at www.slowfood.com.