The Tierra Madre 2010 conference started Thursday in Turin, Italy, and I am lucky enough to be here—in Turin—attending.
Some 6000 people from 161 countries attend this massive, biennial conference to discuss a sane, sustainable approach to food, to sample the fruits of that approach, and to create and expand the network of people who care about such things.
What other world event starts with a rpocession of nations that has the announcer saying, “India, Iran, Iraq, Israel…” followed by “Pakistan, Palestina, Syria….”
That’s right: the Slow Food delegates watched the Israeli Star of David flag march right alongside the Iranian one—and then the two delegates sat on the podium just one Iraqi man apart. How did that happen? Without permission and without fanfare, I’m sure. But also because Terra Madre is about a subject that is all about politics, but somehow more important than politics too.
I came to participate and learn, but also as a kind of pilgrimage—here I am around 6000 people who think much like me, in the presence of the man who created the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini. It’s university, restaurant and holy place all in one.
Next to Terra Madre, running simultaneously, is the Salone del Gusto. This takes place in a convention hall that used to be FIAT’s factory— the T stands for Torino. It constitutes several city blocks of building. And inside are booths set up featuring the artisinal, slow foods from around the world presented by the people who make them.
There are thousands of foods, wines, beers and spirits to sample. They are organized by region, not kind of food, to emphasize the links between a territory and its tastes. The majority are from regions of Italy—Tuscany, Calabria, Piedmont—but many booths are from far flung areas: a Scottish beer maker, Polish sausages, South American choclate, African greens, I think I even noticed Kettle Chips from the States.
Most of the producers are small, even mom and pop. One family came with bunchy stalks of red celery they grow. BSome of the producers are huge, but maintain slow food production techniques and ingredients: next to a man who makes his own wild boar pate was a family whose butter cookies I’ve seen at Fairway in New York. Lavazza had a booth with samples of its Fair Trade coffee, and even Ricola was there, giving away cough drops (hey, maybe they really do use Alpine herbs).
Many of the booths offered small samples. A young man held a wooden spoon of green paste in front of me and I licked it down—it was pistachio puree from Sicily. That flavor in pistachio gelato? Imagine it uncut with cream.
That was free. Many more booths sold tastes for between 1 Euro and 20 (if you wanted a flight of rare grappas).
While Terra Madre is invitation-only, the Salone del Gusto is open to all. It too has an educational component—public lectures, dinners, displays—and school children come by the bus loads to learn about a life beyond fast food.
(Italy is full of the crud. I’ve counted four McDonalds on my short tour around Turin. I also notice the snack bars selling premade sandwiches at the fringes of the convention hall do a brisk business with the police, guards, porters and janitors).
By the week’s end, some 30,000 people will have come through the Salone.
I spent two hours grazing. A kind of vertigo set in. There was too much bounty, everywhere I looked there was more to be amazed by. I could have spent five or six hours. I probably will over the next two days. There were so many choices, souch a bounty, I had to force myself to stop and taste, though my city bones were itching to get to the next booth before the crowds pressed in, before the platter of samples disappeared. It may be slow food, but people are in a frenzy to swallow it.
I took out my notebook and let it help me taste: I resolved to write notes on each sample.
Colatura di Alici
This is fish sauce from Sardinia. Fermented sardines, a clear liquid, the descendent of the ancient Roman staple condiment, garum. It is very similar to Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce, milder if anything. I dipped a piece of bread in it as the purveyor, a grandmothrly type with tousled grey hair, watched me curiously, waiting for a reaction. She assumed gringos don’t do fish sauce. “Molto buono,” , I said, and she nodded.
White Artichoke Puree
From the Campania region. Just pure delicate artichokes, Carciofi Bianco di Pertosa—so light green they’re almost white, pureed with salt and olive oil. I was offered no more than a smear on a wooden coffee stirrer, and it was astonishingly potent, a distillation.
Speaking of distillation, a couple booths away was Elisir Amaro al Carciofi Setino, from Lazio. This is a dark (morbido) liquid, 14 percent alcohol, used as a digestive. Again, essence of artichoke, bitter with a sweet finish. I want to drink more.
Also from Campania. The piece I had was grassy and spicy. It tasted of goats milk, and had some red chili added. This is what Boursin must have tasted like 2000 years ago.
I thought: almonds? Been there. So I popped one of the fifty varieties on display in my mouth and came to a full stop. I looked at the one still in my hand. The size of a large peanut. Tiny. I bit down again: it tasted like almond milk. Sweet and fresh, more like a fruit. I was simply amazed. Turns out almonds originated in this valley in Uzbekhistan, and Slow Foods is working with local farmers there to save the growing traditions and the heirloom varieties.
The Ligurian delgation had tables set up where you could order dishes. By then I needed to get off my feet, so I asked for a bowl of soup—annoyed with myself for trying something so familiar. But this wasn’t familiar: it was full of fresh, carefully chosen pas and field beans, in a powerful tomato broth, seasoned with fresh parmagian. It was the best bowl of minestrone I’ve had. And it was in a convention hall.
The Terra Madre conference itself opened at a second, modern convention area, called The Oval, just behind the Fiat factory. To get there you walk through a large courtyard full of booths selling street food from around Italy and the world: egg rolls, kebab, fried olives, piadini, fried whiting, pizza.
But even the Oval isn’t big enough to seat all the delegates at once, so the opening ceremony was held at the same stadium where the 2008 Winter Olympics figure skating took place, the Palasport Olmpico.
It’s like the opening of the Olympics. Every seat is filled. A giant screen shows the speakers and performers on stage. There’s simultaneous translation in 7 languages.
The march of national representatives into the great stadium begins. Except instead of athletes you get men and women who make food. The Sami reindeer herder from Sweden. The Australian aborigine, the Gamo from Ethiopia, the Kamchadal from somewhere in Russia, and the Guaranì Indian from Brazil —many in native dress. Even, as I mentioned, a 30 something Israeli man, parading in beside his Iranian fellow food lover.
The pageant, the musical interludes, all led up to the initial address by the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini.
I’m interviewing him later this week, so I’ll save the descriptions for then. But suffice it to say he is a powerful, singular presence. He has started a profound international conversation about food, he has created a movement, a body of literature, a kind of cross-border Internationale of people who see food as the lever that can change the world. He did all this, basically, with the power of his ideas and his words.
On stage, his speech is less rabble-rousing and more like a very thoughtful lecture delivered with amped-up passion. He stressed how our current food production, relying on technology and speed to achieve cheap prices, endangers our planet. The answers, he said, are found in the youth of the world, and in appreciating and ensuring the diversity of foods and cultures.
“We have sinned in a terrible way in destroying native communities,” he said. “We must have a dialogue between science and traditional knowledge. The main holders of this knowledge are native peoples, women, farmers and elders. Not only should they be listened to, but should be at the front line for the challenges this world and the crisis present us. Yet these are the people least considered by politicians and media.”
Petrini said salvation lay in three tasks: We must enhance diversity, strengthen reciprocity, and engage in more dialogue and meeting.
In other words, liberte, egalite and fraternite.
There was a certain over-the-top aspect to it all. It was an event that borrowed rhetoric from religion and from revolution, wrapped up in an event that seemed discomfortingly mainstream. The reason people work on farms and in food is so they don’t have to sit on their asses in stadiums and watch people march around with flags.
But—who am I to second guess a movement that is growing by many thousands of members each year. My quibbles are stylistic.
As for substance, Petrini has said that the two principals of Slow Food are pleasure and awareness. He has taken those two words and blown them up, larger than life.
The Salone offers every taste pleasure you can imagine—you experience the pure joy of what a Slow Food approach can mean for you, now. You will eat well. You will be happy. The Terra Madre conference, which really gets underway Friday, itself is less about taste, but more about analysis and intellectual exploration.
At the end of the first day, despite the pomp and frenzy,the overwhelming feeling I had was this: Gratitude.
Gratitude that it is possible for one man with a good idea to manifest it in the world.
Gratitude for the delirious bounty of food at the Salone.
And, as always, gratitude to be alive, healthy and in Italy.