For many Britons, food shopping, cooking and eating have become little more than a rushed chore. It doesn’t need to be that way, say members of the Slow Food movement, who are keen to bring the pleasure principle back to British shopping and eating habits.
As winter draws in, holiday memories of strolling around Continental street markets, cooking fresh, locally grown produce and lingering over delicious meals begin to fade, to be replaced by the unromantic reality of rushed shopping, cooking and eating. However, a growing number of Britons are trying to change the way we live and eat. They want to reinstate traditional, artisanal food shops in our towns, to encourage production of national delicacies and to nurture a more leisurely way of life. Many of these people are part of the Slow Food movement
The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 by an Italian food and wine journalist called Carlo Petrini. Petrini had become haunted by the spectre of fast food companies eroding Italy’s ancient culinary culture. The opening of McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps in Rome was the final straw. That a fast food giant could open its doors in the heart of food-obsessed Rome symbolised to Petrini the vulnerability of older values to brash new industrial methods. Processed fast food was not only changing the physical landscape through intensive farming, but it was also eroding a way of life that revolved around producing and eating great food in a relaxed, sociable way. It was time to act. Petrini realised that the key to change lay in motivating people with similar concerns. Strip away the Euro-talk and it is all about motivating ordinary people to take control of how they live, work and eat. He knew that the only way to counter the threat was to tackle the problem internationally and by promoting gastronomic culture, developing taste education, conserving agricultural biodiversity and protecting traditional foods that are at risk from extinction. Slow Food, whose aim is to "protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenisation of modern fast food and life," was born. Today, Carlo Petrini is president of an organisation that spans 100 countries and has around 80,000 members, all of whom are actively involved in fulfilling the aims of Slow Food. There are more than 1,500 Slow Food members in the UK.
As part of its aims, Slow Food transforms the old Fiat factory in Turin into a vast food show called the Salone del Gusto for a few days in October, every two years. Approved Slow Food producers set up stalls and sell their foods to the general public, give talks, hold workshops, attend seminars and meet with like-minded producers from around the world, regardless of whether they make English Single Gloucester cheese or pick wild vanilla pods in Mexico.
Although it may come as a surprise, Britain had the second-largest contingent of producers at the show in 2004, just behind Italy. Not only were the numbers impressive, but so was the reaction that British producers received. They were mobbed from morning to night by crowds keen to sample British delicacies. Everything from Plymouth gin and Richard Haward’s Colchester native oysters to Sillfield Farm’s dry-cured ham and Wendy Brandon’s hand-made rose petal jelly was tasted and carried off home like valuable booty. The Shortbread House of Edinburgh had to send back for fresh supplies of their mini-oaties, while Richard Haward had to ration his oyster tastings. The Real Ale Society even had to break up a fight that erupted when closing time was announced at their temporary British pub!
So, what does this mean for British shoppers? Exhibitors believe that being at the Salone has a knock-on effect for consumers in Britain. "You are taken far more seriously back at home," explains George Streatfield, from Denhay Farms Ltd, who makes prize-winning cheddar cheese and superb dry-cured bacon. "It raises your profile and gives you access to people who are interested in food, whether they be supermarket buyers or journalists, which in turn means that you can sell more in the UK," he says.
The dynamic atmosphere at the Salone also makes everyone feel that anything is possible. Ideas and techniques are freely exchanged between specialists from different countries, which in turn leads to the development of new products at home and a wider variety of artisanal foods entering our food chain. Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm Products, for example, was originally inspired to try to make dry-cured ham by some of his Italian counterparts.
David Lea-Wilson from Anglesey Sea Salt Company Ltd was forging links with African meat salters, while the people at Three Counties Perry were taking home a few of the rare pink-fleshed Cocomerina pears that a neighbouring Italian stall was exhibiting. The pears were being sold as a delicious preserve in a bid to save the trees. The perry producers were clearly intrigued as they, too, were looking for new ways to conserve some of their endangered varieties of astringent perry pears. This cross-fertilisation of ideas lies at the heart of Slow Food.
The Slow Food movement is beginning to take hold in another form, too, through the Cittaslow (which translates as ‘slow city’) scheme. This scheme was created in Italy in 1999 with the aim of engendering Slow Food values in local communities. There are now two approved Cittaslow cities in Britain; Ludlow in Shropshire was the first British town to be approved and Aylsham, a market town in Norfolk, followed. There are many more towns applying, including Canterbury in Kent and Diss, also in Norfolk.
Who knows – in a few years, we might all be able to shop in pretty local markets where we can buy superb British food and enjoy a leisurely chat to local food producers before heading home to cook a simple, but very good meal. Without having to go on holiday.