A bowl of penne seems puny compared to a fast food giant like McDonalds, and such a stark contrast is an excellent way of making a point. Slow food and fast food are opposites. Fast food is a product of an industrial food chain, while the Slow Food Movement supports food that is good, clean and fair. That means local food chains rather than industrial ones.
The juxtaposition of traditional penne with globalised hamburgers is a poignant one, and Carlo Petrini has an amazing ability with these kinds of examples. The leader of the Slow Food Movement is an inspiring speaker. His talk at the Sydney International Food Festival went for more than an hour, and he was so energetic he only sat down once. The rest of the time he was speaking passionately in Italian, gesticulating intensely, and somehow managing to leave gaps for his talented translator to give us the message in English.
Carlo Petrini believes that food is valuable, and not merely a commodity. He described the top down photographs of food in magazines as being like corpses, and reminded us that these photos of food are at risk of becoming like pornography. There is more to food than recipes and presentation. Food should taste good, it should be enjoyed in good company, and it should be produced sustainably.
Today we spend approximately the same proportion of our incomes on mobile phones as we do on food, but perhaps we have our values misplaced. Carlo explained “When I eat a piece of prosciutto, it becomes Carlo Petrini”, and he patted his stomach. “But this thing”, and he waved his mobile phone in the air, “is always outside of me”.
Embellishing this point, he told us about the owner of a famous mountaintop restaurant. When asked why she was only open for lunch she replied that she did not want to be the richest person in the graveyard. She valued her food for its quality, not merely its worth as a commodity.
In the case of food, what is logical from an industrial perspective is not necessarily logical for local communities, or from the point of view of common sense. Carlo’s example of this was his visit to a famous capsicum growing region in Italy, where he ordered peperonata at a restaurant. The sauce was flavourless, and when he asked where the peppers were grown he discovered they had come all the way from the Netherlands. Worried about the local capsicum growers he was reassured that they were making a living growing tulip bulbs in their greenhouses.
These kinds of ironies of industrial agriculture are surprisingly common, and Petrini had plenty of examples of them. Modeling farming on factories leads to a kind of uniformity that just doesn’t necessarily make good food. Carlo talked about the loss of a breed of cow (whose milk production was relatively low) leading to the loss of a type of cheese. This demonstrated how local cuisine and biodiversity go hand in hand.
To support local tastes and agriculture we have to be prepared to pay a higher price for produce that is locally and sustainably produced. In addition to this Carlo suggested supporting school and community gardens, which can make local produce accessible for lower income families. Running out of time Petrini finished his lecture on a good note. Since we were in the Sydney Opera House he sang us a snippet of opera – in Italian of course.
I’d like to thank Lorraine from Not Quite Nigella for sending me a ticket to this lecture.