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Friday, October 28, 2005

Interview: Carlo Petrini

The Ecologist (April 01 2004)

While Slow Food is a global movement involving tens of thousands of people, at its heart is one man - Carlo Petrini. It is Petrini's belief that pleasure and principles can go together that marks Slow Food out, making it neither a dull and worthy activist organisation, nor an effete society of culinary snobs. Petrini held this belief for many years before Slow Food was born. In the early 1970s he was a militant student and the creator of Italy's first radical independent radio station. He also established a folk-music festival that did more than just put musicians on the stage; it sent them singing traditional regional songs into people's houses. Everything Petrini has done dispels the notion that saving the world has to be a depressing mission. Nowhere could this be clearer than in the way Slow Food started. Almost 25 years ago Petrini and some friends wanted to encourage people to take an interest in and to protect the unique foods of their regions. However, they didn't set up an office and launch a campaign. They opened a restaurant. The food and wine were good but not overpriced. Dinners rich in local specialities would stretch all night. People would come from all around to enjoy the food and the company, and as they did so they realised why it was so important. Most of all though, they were reminded how important it is to have fun. In this exclusive interview, Petrini describes what it is that makes Slow Food so special.

The Ecologist: How would you define the Slow Food concept?

Carlo Petrini: An eco-gastronomic movement. We were born as a gastronomical association, paying attention to the traditional pleasures of the table and wine, in order to oppose in some way the crazy speed of the 'fast life' - the way of life and food production that leads to the homogenisation of flavour and erosion of culture. However, we quickly realised that the flavours we wanted to save were closely connected to the work of people - of farmers, who with their ancient knowledge are the true custodians of biodiversity and the land. We had this fundamental realisation of the connection between sustainable agriculture and gastronomic culture. Anyone who thinks of themselves as a food lover but does not have any environmental awareness is naive. Whereas an ecologist who does not enjoy the pleasures of culture certainly has a sadder life.

What is the greatest threat to Slow Food?

I do not foresee any great threats to Slow Food, unless someone decides to really throw a stick into the wheels. Slow Food is a movement made up of people (almost 100,000 in five continents). As long as there are people who think like us, who reject unsustainable production methods and want to eat healthy and satisfying food, then we will have a place in society. I do not like to talk about Slow Food as something that stands in opposition to other things. We go calmly along our own path, convinced that efforts to create a better world begin with how one grows one's food and end with how one consumes it.

Isn't Slow Food just another middle-class fad?

No. Gastronomic pleasures are and should be for all. We work for quality food to be as widespread as possible. For too long gastronomy has had this aura of elitism, of not being serious, of emphasising only the playful and luxurious. Gastronomy is a serious science that includes the production of food, agriculture, land economy, sociology and anthropology. Not for nothing are we building a University of Gastronomic Science, where all these sciences will be studied with a rigorous interdisciplinary approach: it is essential we give an academic dignity to gastronomy. In the end, we are talking about one of the only things in life that is impossible to give up: food. It is crazy that the study of food has been reduced to the fields of nutrition and food technology, which are now completely in the grasp of an inhuman industry. Gastronomic pleasure can be experienced eating fejoada in a favela: it's a physiological fact, not a luxury of the rich.

Can Slow Food feed the world's hungry?

This is a complex problem. World hunger is a question that involves processes much bigger than us and powers that are difficult to overcome. But our approach has been recognised by the UN as innovative and useful in the fight against world hunger, and we are now an official UN Food and Agriculture Organisation partner. Restoring traditional production techniques strengthens the communities that have become victims of a global production system and the industrialisation of food. You see, when one loses a flavour, one loses a recipe. When one loses a recipe, one loses the knowledge of the use of a natural product. And when one loses this knowledge, one loses the ability to cultivate that product. As a result, we are slowly losing animal breeds and varieties of vegetables, and this means communities lose the capacity to maintain themselves - the whole fabric of society disintegrates and the scene is set for dependence upon multinational products. This is happening everywhere, but I think that in many areas hard hit by extreme poverty there are still the necessary conditions for restarting a way of life that is more acceptable - beginning with small-scale agriculture, and including the restoration of traditional foods from around the world.

Can the Slow Food concept be expanded to become a world view?

Well, it's obvious that I believe Slow Food could become a global way of thinking. We are not against globalisation per se. We believe in a virtuous form of globalisation, where shortened distances become an advantage - a way to exchange experiences, for example, in which a people united across the earth celebrate the diversity of our traditional cultures and their specific values. The Slow Cities project works along similar lines, but I think it applies more easily to rich countries, where the rhythm and quality of life are becoming more and more unsustainable - just like the mass production of food. There are many initiatives that help us achieve what we support: we want to be very pragmatic and not limit ourselves to philosophising. I'm thinking of the importance of revitalising rural communities, not only from an economic point of view but also from a social one. We need to recreate the right conditions to allow the countryside to be a place where it is beautiful to live, one that gives pleasure and a good income. Our presidia projects are set up to save specific products, varieties and techniques, but ultimately the aim is to create a new 'rurality' - in the rich West as well as in developing countries - that is respectful of diversity and local cultures.

What would happen if every farmer worked to Slow Food principles?

Things would work much better. We are often accused of being nostalgic for the good old days, promoting a return to a way of life and production in the countryside that would not be able to survive the pressures of the modern world. Rather, I think that the old values of a rural society, quickly rejected and thrown away in the name of progress, could still be very useful and still very modern if applied again. It does not seem Utopian to me that we can recreate rural environments that are beautiful to live in, where the landscape is looked after, where food is well produced and there is local and seasonal distribution. It is not impossible to believe we can return to the countryside, that our farmers can become cultured again, strong in the knowledge they have developed for centuries and that has been forgotten in only fifty years.

Is it really better to throw ourselves blindly into the new, or should we look discerningly behind us and try to understand the errors we have made? How can consumers bring Slow Food into their lives?

Slow Food is for everybody. Consumers can bring this idea into their lives simply by seeking to explore, to learn and to know. Our organisation does this: it educates everyone, at every level. This is one of our principle missions. But this alone is not enough. I'd say that the most useful thing that can be done is rebuilding a direct relationship between consumers and producers. There will never be a Slow Food brand on any product. There are already too many brands around and they create confusion. It is up to people to apply their ideas, their knowledge, their learning. The producer's duty is to teach and communicate what they do, while the consumer has the duty to get informed and to use their consumer power. It is only with education and with a return to a more human dimension of production that this 'virtuous cycle' can be created.

People work long and late and get home tired: how can they embrace Slow Food?

In my opinion we have never had so much time at our disposal as we do nowadays. It is up to us to organise it in the best way in order to live in the best way possible. Everything is faster: shouldn't time move faster too? Maybe we just fill up our lives with useless things, without ever knowing what our priorities are. And if we talk about practical things, good old traditional food teaches us how to save time without giving up on quality. There are recipes such as minestrone and slow cooked pasta sauces that once prepared can last for a week. Then there is the use of leftovers, which in certain cooking traditions has given life to extraordinary dishes. Ravioli and pizza, for example, were originally created to stop people having to throw leftovers away.

You are setting up a gastronomic university. What about educating children about Slow Food?

It is never too late to learn. The University of Gastronomic Science will be the highest acknowledgment of an ongoing, daily, widespread educational process that takes place within our convivia all over the world, in different shapes and forms and for all ages. For example, in Italy we have "Master of Food" evening courses for all members who want to deepen their knowledge about the secrets of food production and who want to learn to recognise quality by training their senses and experimenting with tasting. For the Master of Food degree there are 450 teachers around Italy, who in the space of a few short years have held more than 1,200 courses for over 24,000 people. Furthermore we have been officially recognised by Italy's Ministry of Education so we can hold courses in schools, for teachers and children. At the last international Slow Food meeting in Naples we institutionalised an initiative that had already been done in the US and in Australia: school gardens. The motto was "a garden in every school", so children can learn to cultivate local varieties, to follow the rhythm of the seasons and to cook what they have grown. This seems to me to be the most natural way of rebuilding a relationship with the earth and with food - a relationship that has been dramatically broken, like a severed umbilical chord.

What's your idea of a perfect lunch?

My perfect lunch depends on where I find myself. Products and recipes of the area and in the local tradition; from the starters to the drinks; in any place in the world.

Mail To: Slow Food, Via Della Mendicita Istruita 8, 12042 Bra (Cuneo), Italy

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Bill Totten


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