Life in the Slow Lane
On a dark day in 1986, a group of protesters made their way to the Spanish Steps in the centre of Rome. A casual observer might have noticed that those assembled were perhaps better heeled, and probably better fed, than typical placard-wielding activists. The purpose of their gathering: to oppose the opening of Italy's first McDonald's franchise. Their weapon of choice: bowls of pasta?-though whether it was raw or cooked has not been recorded.
These were the early rumblings of the Slow Food movement, a quirky and sometimes quixotic organization devoted to promoting and preserving, as its name suggests, alternatives to fast food culture. Inspired by the idea that the good life begins with good food, it has since become an international grassroots network dedicated protecting both traditional foods and the age-old methods of producing them?-even those that take a little longer than the interests of corporate farming would dictate. That could mean defending handmade raw-milk cheeses and cured meats against encroaching standardization, saving endangered crops like the Vesuvian apricot or the Montreal melon and threatened breeds like the Carmagnola grey rabbit or La vache canadienne, or simply encouraging support for farmers markets in urban settings.
Its adherents have been called gastronauts, food geeks, gluttons, delicious revolutionaries and maybe even the benevolent bourgeoisie. Loosely united in local groups called convivia, members might meet to learn how to make pasta from scratch, to embark on a farm tour, or to partake in tasting workshops comparing the flavours and textures of different varieties of tomatoes. While many will happily admit that at times membership is simply an excuse to get together with family and friends for mutual appreciation of fine food and wine, all are aware that participation is about much more than a life of leisure.
In the last decade, Slow Food has grown into one of the most unusual activist movements in history. Often called the culinary wing of the anti-globalization movement, it has proven that it's possible for revolution and rosé to go hand in hand. Though the organization is still headquartered in the Piedmont region at the base of the Italian Alps, its manifesto?-which contends that "a firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life"?-has found converts throughout the world.
For an organization that has adopted the snail as its emblem, Slow Food's ranks have been growing at a rapid pace. It now encompasses convivia in 50 countries, from Iceland to Argentina, for a total of 80,000 members and counting. In Canada, convivia began to spring up in the year 2000, first emerging synchronously in Quebec and British Columbia, and then appearing in more than a dozen communities, big and small.
"There was growing interest in food issues, and we sort of came out of the woodwork around the same time," recalls Slow Food's National Councillor for Canada, Sinclair Philip. "People are concerned about fast food, how we eat in our cars, children who are obese, who get diabetes when they're young. And they're concerned about GMOS, and wanting good quality food."
Like many others who volunteer their time to the cause, Philip has deep ties to the food industry. A farmer, scuba diver, beachcomber and gardener, he runs Sooke Harbour House, a deceptively simple country inn whose restaurant has won top international awards for its celebration of regional flavours. The property has its own gardens, harvesting herbs, flowers and salad greens in a coastal climate that allows for winter crops the rest of Canada can only dream about: tuberous nasturtiums, kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks, and garlic. Like many other establishments under the Slow Food umbrella, the emphasis in the kitchen is on local, sustainable products that are organically grown and, as often as possible, seasonal.
Thousands of miles away in Quebec, Paul Caccia, leader of Slow Food Quebec, echoes similar concerns. "I think it's an association that will grow, along with other associations with the same idea, more and more in a world where people are educated, cultivated and travel increasingly. At the same time, the food scandals?-mad cow and avian flu, to name a couple - and the drama surrounding them are causing people to be concerned about what they eat." Caccia, who has a background as a wine importer and a director of the Institute of Tourism and Hotellery, predicts a backlash against mass manufacturing as its effects become more apparent. "There's been an industrialization of the food sector. Sure, the automobile industry can recall cars if there's a problem, but we can't do that with things we've eaten." Against this backdrop of health scares, Slow Foodies don't get angry, they get even.
Politics and pleasure
These days, food is a meaty subject, and one that touches on many issues?-from the rise of celebrity chefs to the environmental degradation caused by multinationals. Here as abroad movement has been getting increasingly political. In October 2004, farmers and food producers from across the planet descended on Turin, Italy, for the Terra Madre conference, which ran parallel to the organization's tasting fair, the popular and prestigious Salone del Gusto. The event brought together rice farmers from Burkina Faso who complained that they were competing with cheap rice dumped on the country by aid organizations, potato cultivators from Peru, indigenous fruit raisers from North Queensland and Canadian wheat farmers. With many participants wearing traditional outfits and using simultaneous translation to take part in workshops, Terra Madre was not unlike the Olympics of food?-and just as much a display of strength.
Back at home in Canada, each convivium emphasizes has its own take on eating sanely in the modern world.
The Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands convivium, co-founded by Philip, is more political than some of its counterparts elsewhere in the country, opposing farmed salmon, preserving agricultural lands and actively supporting the region's small producers. Its 70 members, who hail from Tofino to Salt Spring Island to Victoria, represent all the foot soldiers required for an epicurean revolution: an oyster farmer, a seaweed harvester, a mushroom expert, an ethnobotanist who specializes in First Nations cuisine, journalists, filmmakers, academics, cheesemakers, bakers and environmentalists.
In Quebec, one of Slow Food's goals is to link small-scale producers with a sophisticated clientele. "Our alimentary customs are very European," reflects Montreal-based Caccia. "We're an old French colony, there's a great knowledge of wines in Quebec, cooks are curious about new products from here and far, and there's a real interest in taste." Stemming from a legacy of canning and preserving that harkens back to pioneer days, the province has probably the richest spectrum of artisinal products in the country. These range from raw-milk cheeses like the sought-after Pied-de-Vent of the Madeleine Islands to newer foodstuffs like ice cider, which began stirring interest overseas when it was found to pair perfectly with Parmigiano Regiano. Caccia has high hopes for the province's specialty edibles. "There are many young people involved. Here in Quebec, they are creating artisinal products that respond to the needs of a particular market."
In the Maritimes, the movement is concentrating on re-introducing traditional cuisine that has almost been forgotten, meals derived from Micmas, Acadian and early Scottish and Irish influences. A Toronto convivium, inaugurated in 2003, attempts to blend the refined with the rustic. "I like the fact that we've been able to offer a balance of events?-from elegant dinners to farmer's market taste fairs?-while keeping the focus squarely on local producers," comments leader Pamela Cuthbert.
With its Eurocentric outlook, its wine-sniffing tendencies and the frequency with which it bandies about words like "good taste," it would be easy to classify Slow Food as an elitist movement?-for snobs by snobs.
"Slow Food is very good at making its point over a glass of wine and good food," Philip says. "But that doesn't necessarily mean fancy food. People tend to think of it that way, but that's not the case."
The real aim is to open people to a range of choices, to support biodiversity and to ensure that good tastes?-rather than some esoteric ideal of good taste?-are not lost forever. This is underpinned by the concept of food heritage?-that there's a culinary culture worth saving.
It's not surprising that Slow Food first took root in the fertile soil of Italy, where gastronomic traditions run long and deep. In younger countries like Canada?-which pretty much went straight from First Nations cultivation to an agri-business approach?-searching for alimentary history can be harder. Here as abroad, Slow Food is attempting to document indigenous products under threat from the forces of industrialization.
Each year more breeds of livestock, heirloom vegetables and foodstuffs are catalogued in the Ark of Taste. "It's a metaphoric Noah's Ark, onto which they load endangered food products and endangered tastes," explains Mara Jernigan, who oversees the Canadian Ark project. "To save things of superior quality of taste is important to the Slow Food movement." So far, Canada has three items on the Ark: red fife wheat, the parent wheat of all modern bread wheat varieties in Canada; the Canadienne cow, a breed that can be traced back to 16th-century Quebec and the sweet and spicy Montreal Melon.
Sustainability of our own food resources, particularly given our close proximity to the processing-heavy U.S., is something Jernigan herself knows all about. Co-Founder of the BC island convivium, this classically trained chef heads Engeler Farm, a farm, vineyard and cooking school in the Cowichan Valley. She believes that in order to trust their tastebuds, children like adults, need to be reminded that food originates from the earth, not the supermarket.
"It's interesting to hear the way Italians talk to their children about food," she muses. "We've done a good job in North America of dumbing down. What children identify as the taste of cherry or green apple is more likely to be associated with candy or shampoo than the real thing." She's got one top student: before his age was in the double digits, Jernigan's son was selling fresh squeezed organic lemonade at the local farmers' market.
Caccia, for one, believes people are increasingly wary of the supermarket mentality. "Sure, quality costs money," Caccia acknowledges. "Then again, it's funny how people are quick to buy the best motor oil when it comes to their cars, and the worst things when it comes to their personal health. It has never cost so little to eat, but we have to see how what we're eating has been transformed before it hits the shelves."
In the end, the message the Canadian Slow Food the movement wants to promote is one that hits close to home. As Sinclair Philip sums it up: "Slow down, eat regionally and seasonally, and enjoy your food with your friends and family."
Convivia from coast to coast
Slow Food members pay an annual fee of about $100, granting them the right to receive publications and attend events around the world. For information on joining, visit www.slowfood.com or contact a Slow Food chapter close to you.