| ||name: Carlo Petrini |
organisation: Slow Food movement
type of activity: taste education & sustainable agriculture promotion
In this section, YXC has created an imaginary interview with Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, a unique international movement devoted to “the protection of the right to taste”, as their Manifesto humbly declares. Slow Food is, in fact, much more than that; or, maybe, we must underline that the ‘right to taste’ concerns fundamental issues that go from the right to good tasty food, to safe food and, last but not least, respect for both people (who make what we taste) and the planet, and future generations’ rights… In other words, the concept of ‘pleasure’ is a complex one, encompassing many meanings and involving many aspects of our existence.
It all started in 1986, when McDonald's planned to build a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Carlo Petrini organised a demonstration in which he and his followers brandished bowls of penne (a kind of Italian pasta) as weapons of protest…
When did Slow Food start? The Italian association was founded in 1986 and its birth was celebrated in Barolo in the Langhe district (in Piedmont, the north-west of Italy). The international movement was founded in Paris in 1989. Slow Food has grown into a large-scale international movement, with over 80,000 members in all five continents.
What are its main activities? Slow Food's main offices, situated in Bra (Cuneo), a small town in southern Piedmont, employ about 100 people. They are the hub of a close-knit network of local grassroots offices in Italy and abroad, the so-called Convivia, which promotes the movement by staging events, debates and other initiatives. Slow Food also boasts a publishing company, Slow Food Editore, which specialises in tourism, food and wine. Moreover, we promote scores of projects and activities, which range from Le Tavole Fraterne (Friendship Tables), involving charity work in places where pleasure is hard to find, such as Brazil, the former Yugoslavia, and the areas of Italy hit by earthquakes, to efforts to revive our increasingly endangered biodiversity. The Ark of Taste is a first step in this direction. The aim of this massive project is to identify and catalogue (alas increasingly often) products, dishes and animals that are in danger of disappearing. The operational offshoots of the project are the so-called Slow Food Presidia, through which the association provides economic support and media back-up to groups and individuals pledged to saving an Ark product. To provide public recognition for all this work, the Slow Food Award has been introduced, the first edition of which was held in Bologna in October 2000.
Time Europe proclaimed you one of the ‘European heroes 2004’… I think some of the 5,000 participants of the Terra Madre Forum would agree! Can you tell us more about this major event? Terra Madre, whose first edition took place in October 2004, in concomitance with the Salone del Gusto in Turin (an international annual fair on taste, organised by Slow Food), was a completely unexpected success! When we came up with the idea of Terra Madre a year before, none of us imagined that as many as 1,200 food communities from 130 countries in every part of the planet would have come together for this occasion. Farmers, fishers, breeders, nomads from the Peruvian Andes to the Argentine pampas, participants from California’s vineyards to First Nation reserves, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the seas of Northern Europe, from Africa to Australasia, all organised into what we have decided to call ‘food communities’. We are firmly convinced that food communities, founded on sentiment, fraternity and the rejection of egoism, have a strategic importance in designing a new society, a society based on fair trade.
The forum has demonstrated that the extraordinary importance of all this knowledge and know-how must not be threatened by the logic of productivity, by the manipulation of genes, by the profit motive of a privileged few, by a lack of respect for the environment, by the exploitation of workers. Terra Madre means a major cultural choice. Food quality depends on consumers who respect agricultural labour and educate their senses, thus becoming precious allies for producers. I don’t think it is utopian to hope that this meeting can lay the bases for a food community which, albeit distant from one other geographically, can keep in touch and enrich each other through intelligent discussion.
The Slow Food Manifesto put the ‘protection of the right to taste’ as a primary goal of the organisation. Can you explain to us what do you mean by this? If we wish to enjoy the pleasures which this world can give us, we have to give our all to strike the right balance of respect and exchange with nature and the environment. This is why we like to define ourselves as ‘eco-gastronomes’. The fact is that our pleasure cannot be disconnected from the pleasure of others, but it is likewise connected to the equilibrium we manage to preserve (and in many cases revive) with the environment we live in. The Ark of Taste is a metaphorical recipient of excellent gastronomic products that are threatened by industrial standardisation, hygiene laws, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage. Slow Food’s Ark of Taste has catalogued hundreds of extraordinary products from around the world.
Does Slow Food also intervene practically in the food trade? This project has made an important contribution to the documentation of the existence of diverse traditional foods, but it has not been enough to guarantee their survival. For this reason, Slow Food has created the Presidia, the working arm of the 'Ark of Taste.’ If Ark products can have an economic impact, they can be saved from extinction. This is the simple reasoning behind the Presidia: small projects to assist groups of artisan producers. Sometimes, it takes just a little to save an artisan food. It’s enough to bring together producers, help them co-ordinate marketing and promotion, and establish quality and authenticity standards for their product. Other times, when the production of an artisan food is closer to the brink, it takes more: building a slaughterhouse, an oven, or reconstructing crumbling farmhouse walls. Slow Food Presidia work in different ways, but the goals remain constant: to promote artisan products, to stabilise production techniques, to establish stringent production standards and, above all, to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods.
Presidia products have not only conquered cooks and gourmets, but have won over everyday consumers as well. The success of the Presidia has been highly esteemed, but the most important result of the project is that it has proven that consumers are willing to pay fair prices for Ark products, and that their production can be an economically viable activity.
In other words, you are promoting a ‘new agriculture’… Currently, there are two opposing agricultural models: the industrial manufacturer and the small-scale farmer. Many simplify these two models by speaking of the first as developed and the second as underdeveloped. Those who support this thesis emphasise the fact that nearly 900 million people living in the countryside are below the poverty threshold. This could represent the failings of the rural world. However, this analysis does not consider the fact that small-scale agriculture optimises resources and produces more high quality food than its industrial counterpart. The outlook changes when we consider what the rural system offers, and do not look only at the single commodity. There are also other arguments to consider: for instance that the industrialised system provokes land erosion in the long run, water poisoning and habitat reduction for wild species. It also endangers social capital, provoking the disintegration of rural communities, the reduction of agricultural work and family disintegration.
The Presidia are a signal of what we like to call 'New Agriculture': a productive philosophy that is based on quality, biodiversity, respect for the environment, animal well-being, landscape and the health and enjoyment of the consumer. This agriculture is part ecological and part gastronomic, and it throws aside the outdated and self-destructive parameters of quality (with instant, high profits and high long term costs). With this 'New Agriculture', we also throw aside dioxins, mad cow disease, overdosed anti-parasite treatments and chemical fertilisers, intensive breeding, added colouring, preservatives, flavour additives and all the rest.
What about the developing countries? The adoption of the Western agricultural model has altered an equilibrium achieved through centuries of work by rural farmers - and the long-term effects of this interruption remain to be seen.
However, a similar argument can be made for developed countries.
Recently I was in India, where in Delhi the first Slow Food Café has opened. Despite its rich and diverse cuisine, India is no stranger to fast food… It’s not that I want to sound off about industry and industrialisation, far be it from me to demonise something that has undoubtedly brought development and affluence, but if we talk about food there are some things that must be said. I am in India. It is a country enjoying age-old food traditions and blessed with a most incredible array of raw materials and production methods. Yet in the chaos of Delhi I can see the depths to which industrial food products can fall. Products, whether from abroad or locally produced, are of appalling quality. They are often already past their expiration date when sold and there is no respect for the food itself.
But maybe in countries where the unbalance between richness and poorness is so pronounced, fast food chains are more affordable… How many times have I heard people say “Gastronomes eat well because they have the money to buy top class food, niche products”. Well, my response is that everyone can be a gastronome because gastronomes eat well within the context of their food culture, they increase their knowledge at all levels and know how to shop.
Your advice to young consumers? Nowadays, what is for sale is more the idea of something ‘modern’, a brand name that no longer has anything to do with the food qualities of something you eat. Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, we can see what a colossal mistake it is to make a distinction between food as subsistence and gastronomy as pleasure. It is not true: food is food, any product can be good or not, whether it is simple or complex, artisanal or industrial.
Gastronomy is food culture in the widest possible sense. A gastronome respects the product and the producer, and is prepared to pay a fair price. Good producers deserve a decent return for the pleasure they provide and a gastronome also knows that making good products involves effort. But you don’t have to ruin yourself, believe me. If anything, we need to go back to considering food as something precious, recognise its proper value, understand what is involved in terms of the environmental, social and cultural costs. And it is something we should all do, from the small farmer to the industrialist, the housewife and the gourmet.
And your last comment for us is... It may be a dream. But I have always believed in the idea that he/she who sows utopias, harvests realities…