Slow Food OdyessyA world meeting of food communities in Italy

Imagine 5000 sustainable food producers from all over the globe – farmers, ranchers, fishers, bakers, chefs, cheese makers, brewers, vintners and more – together in one room. Now visualize this very unique and independent assembly working in harmony to develop strategies that promote the distinctiveness and diversity of their own lands and products, while concurrently striving to counteract economic globalization. In October 2004, we attended just such an event: Terra Madre – a world meeting of food communities held in Turin, Italy and sponsored by the international Slow Food movement.

Described by some as a global “social forum” on food and by others as the “Woodstock of taste”, Terra Madre was quite conceivably the most diverse gathering of ordinary and extraordinary people that the world has ever seen. A global fraternity of primary food producers from 134 countries, individually each quite ordinary, but when joined for one grand cause – the potential to guide global societies toward more stable and sustainable food production – the effect was extraordinary!

Terra Madre (Italian for “Mother Earth”) was the brainchild of Carlo Petrini, the enthusiastic founder of the Slow Food movement. Created in 1989, Slow Food began as a protest to the opening of a McDonald’s fast food restaurant near the Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna) in Rome. Since then, Slow Food has grown into an remarkable international organization dedicated to promoting the use of fresh, seasonal and local products, artisanal production, developing taste education, sustainable farming and agricultural biodiversity and protecting traditional foods at risk of disappearance.

With over 80,000 members in 100 different countries, Slow Food encompasses a publishing house that produces food guides, recipe books and magazines, an international university (University of Gastronomic Sciences), the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity and, Salone del Gusto, arguably the world’s largest showcase of food and agricultural products.

In spite of Slow Food’s amazing growth and impressive accomplishments, Terra Madre was an incredibly bold and ambitious undertaking, totally beyond anything that the association had previously dared – a global conference of a scope and magnitude normally attempted by only the United Nations or other gigantic international organizations.

Identifying, contacting and tracking the delegates alone was an extraordinary challenge. One of the recurrent problems, for example, was that a number of the delegates did not have passports. Organizers set about assisting these people only to discover that many of them did not even possess the documents or credentials needed to obtain a passport. Cinzia Scaffidi, one of the organizers of the event, spoke of some indigenous people from Brazil who refused to have their passport photos taken. “We asked them why,” said Scaffidi, “and were told they were afraid it would rob them of their souls.” In the end, Terra Madre organizers and volunteers sent tens-of-thousands of e-mails, faxes and letters, made countless phone calls and begged favors (and money) from corporations, associations and every level and jurisdiction of the Italian government including the Vatican.

Although the final numbers are not yet known, it is estimated that Terra Madre will cost over €3 million to produce. And despite the fact that Italy is under pressure to keep its budget deficit within agreed EU limits, the Ministry of Agriculture in Rome saw fit to become a major sponsor of the event with a contribution of €1.8 million, with the regional government of Piedmont donating a further €600,000.

It is apparent from the significant financial support and passionate presentations of their politicians, at the opening and closing plenary sessions of Terra Madre, that the strategy of both the Italian and Piedmont governments is to promote Italy as a world centre of gastronomic and agricultural excellence. It seems, generally, that the Italian people are much closer to their rural past than the British, Americans or even Canadians. Officials at every level of government are attuned to this fact and appreciate that a reluctance to depart from tradition offers considerable benefits when it comes to the production and preparation of quality foods. Apparently everyone, from Italy’s president Silvio Berlusconi to the mayor of the smallest town, knows the importance of sustainable community-based agriculture not only as a way of providing nourishment, but also as a way to experience cultural food traditions.

So, with most of the travel, immigration and sponsorship prerequisites resolved, Terra Madre was ready to begin. On October 19th we arrived in Italy with thousands of other delegates from all over world. Transporting, accommodating and feeding all of us would become the next mammoth task for the organizing committee. We were consistently amazed, however, by the quality and beauty of our meals at this event! Sustainable food service for this distinctive array of people would challenge even the most creative chefs but again, the Italians rose to the occasion. (One meal featured giant cheese wheels hollowed out and filled with risotto and exquisite fresh arugula.) While the logistics were mind-boggling (a city-wide transit strike on day three of the conference did not help) the Italians, along with hundreds of international volunteers, handled everything with an incredibly calm and relaxed approach.

Of the 5000 delegates, some stayed in Torino itself – in hotels, guesthouses, churches and the private homes of Torinese who came forward to offer hospitality. Others were lodged as far away as the Val d’Aosta, the French-speaking region in the Alps or in small fishing villages near Genoa on the Mediterranean coast. Between these two extremes, several hundred delegates were billeted with Piedmontese farmers in agritourismos, in small church halls and convents, on the estates of Langhe winemakers or independently with other generous citizens in northwestern Italy.

Every attempt was made to match participants with their hosts, so fishermen from Alaska, for example, were hosted by fishermen in Genoa and ranchers from the prairies were hosted by nearby Piedmontese cattle producers. Logistics being what they are, however, some matches were less than perfect. On our bus, for instance, several spirited young brewers from Canada and the USA were matched with classy vintners in the wine-growing area of the Langhe. This unlikely union forced each group to shift slightly from their respective comfort zones.

After our first full day at Terra Madre, still with luggage in tow, we were less than excited to learn that our accommodations were nearly 90 km away. In spite of our initial anxiety, the dreaded one-and-a-half hour bus ride (each way) to Farigliano turned out to be something that all of us on our bus would look forward to each day.

Each night, after the conference, scores of motor coaches would depart Turin to deliver the delegates to their accommodations. Our enormous bus traveled on implausibly narrow back roads, south through the Langhe hills (an ancient agricultural area famous for Barolo and Barbaresco wine) to our hosts in the small town of Farigliano near Dogliani. Along the way we would drop-off other delegates at tiny villages, wineries or agritourismos.

Our first bus ride was amazing! While we were waiting for some stragglers to get on-board, two of us headed across the street to a small bar/cafe and returned to the bus with several bottles of “vino locale”. That was all it took to “break the ice” and the monotony of a long bus ride. As the wine flowed, our new foodie friends or the “Bus Riders of Dogliani” as we became known, dug into their bags and packs to share some wonderful food treasures brought from home: smoked salmon from Steve an Alaskan fisherman; Kyle who raises elk in Wyoming had jerky; Tom a Colorado rancher brought buffalo pepperoni; Rick (a Vietnam veteran with a Ph.D in bio-chemistry) and his partner Kristy passed around dried fruit from their certified organic California farm. Sharing great food, drink and stories with like-minded folk made our time on the bus pass quickly. Every night, after that, someone else would contribute the refreshments for our long drive home.

Our pre-registration details from the Terra Madre team had indicated that we would be staying at the Parrocchia di Farigliano. We knew that  “parrocchia” was a church or parish but we had hoped that it was an old church that had been converted into a bed and breakfast or agritourismo. In spite of a wine induced haze, however, when our bus finally stopped in front of a three hundred year old church in Farigliano and a priest got on, the truth quickly became apparent!

The Mayor and several members of the town council, local dignitaries and of course, the priest, were there to greet us. Mayor Giancarlo Tavella gave a short welcome speech (he did speak some English) then we were escorted to our rooms in the old church.

It was what we imagined church camp might be like!  We had a room to ourselves with two small army-type cots and a shared bathroom. The crisp linen sheets were ironed and starched and you could have played a drum-roll on them they were so tightly stretched. Aside from the cots, all the other furniture in our room was as ancient as the church itself. We had a corner room with two windows. The view from one window was of small vineyard and orchard on the edge of a near hillside. The other faced the church’s bell-tower. Thoughtfully, the bells rang on the hour and half-hour, around the clock, just in case you needed to know the time in the middle of the night.

In total, there were 13 other “church mice” from North America staying at the parish: two brewers from Ontario (one of who looked remarkably like the lead singer from ZZ Top); potato growers from Maine; organic market gardeners from California; an ice-cider maker from Quebec; a hog-ranching couple from Tennessee; coffee roasters from New Jersey and a chap who owns a large organic brewery in Vermont. In all, they were a wonderful group of folks and we had a superb time together.

As soon as we had we dropped off our bags at the church, we were whisked-off to the local community centre where a group of town ladies had prepared a substantial meal for us in the traditional style of that area. We all sat together at one long narrow table that was groaning under the weight of the food and wine laid out for us. Our meal included: Salumi di Maiale; Carne Cruda; Insalata Russa; Tagliatelle; Gallinella di Vitello Arrosto; Miglior Formaggio and Bunet della nonna. We ate, drank, visited (aided by several pocket dictionaries) and laughed with our hosts until 1:30 a.m. This was a pattern that would be repeated at different venues each night of our stay in Farigliano.

The next morning we were on the bus at 7:30 a.m. heading back to Terra Madre. During the conference itself, we mingled with diverse people from five continents, many in their traditional dress ranging from silk saris or lederhosen to feathered headdresses and blue jeans. Conversation among the delegates was easy and immediate with the common language being food, farming and entrepreneurship. It was truly a United Nations of gastronomy with the delegates being unified by food rather than divided by politics.

Although there were many European representatives in attendance, most of the delegates had traveled long distances to arrive at this monumental event.  We spoke to an African woman whose journey to Torino from her home in Kenya took seven days – two of which were spent walking from her town to another village where a scheduled bus would stop. An attractive young lady from Kenya, Suli Abdi Guhad, told us that she was a “pasturalist”. When we inquired what that involved, she told us that she and her family were nomadic herders of cattle, goats and camels on a 56,000-acre pasture.

Each day we broke into smaller groups to attend structured “Earth Workshops”. These workshop sessions had a truly international perspective as issues such as seed saving, agricultural policy, the destruction of rural economies, vineyard biodiversity, artisan cheese-making and the role of women in agriculture were discussed by a broad representation of cultures. In addition to the proceedings being translated simultaneously into seven languages, there were “roving translators” and student volunteers to help out with one-on-one communications.

At one workshop, “Oilseeds: Ancient Cultures and New Technologies”, Tony presented a paper on cold-pressed non-GMO canola oil. Fellow presenters were a university professor from Morocco who had set up a women’s cooperative to produce oil from the argan tree; a lady from Gambia who pressed oil from sesame; and a man from Serbia who produced pumpkin seed oil.

The Moroccans had received funding from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) for their cooperative and were exceptionally pleased to meet and thank us for Canada’s support. They also spoke of the technical help they had received from Slow Food International, when two Italian olive oil producers were dispatched to Morocco to give an opinion on why the argan oil was going rancid so quickly. The experts promptly established that the answer was to store the oil in airtight metal or dark glass bottles rather than in plastic containers.

This type of assistance to small producers is consistent with the scope and objectives of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. This branch of Slow Food organizes and funds projects that defend our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions. This year, Red Fife wheat became the first Canadian product to be granted Presidium status. (Presidia is a Latin word meaning garrison or fort and the Presidia are just that – a safe haven for important foods that protect them against the destructive tide of globalized food production).

Red Fife wheat was first grown in Ontario in the 1840’s. Hardy and resistant to the diseases of the time, Red Fife also boasted exceptional flavor and baking properties. However, due to the introduction of newer higher yielding varieties this breed almost vanished into extinction. At a North American delegate meeting, we tasted fresh bread made by Cliff Leir of Wildflower Bakery in Victoria, B.C. using Red Fife wheat. It was by far the best bread we ate while in Italy! An excellent book, A World of Presidia: Food, Culture and Community, documents 65 presidia products and tells the stories of the farmers and their food cultures as an alternative to industrialized agriculture. For more info go to:  <>.

In between the workshops, we connected with producers from developed and developing nations, exchanging addresses, ideas and life stories. Many of these innovative entrepreneurs gracefully set up an impromptu world market place selling and sharing their goods: fermented yak milk from herders in Kyrgyzstan, dried mango from producers in Burkina Faso, anchovies from Kiongsag-Namdo, argan oil from Eassouria, legendary beer from monastic brewers in Belgium. It was during these spontaneous meetings – chatting casually over a cup of excellent coffee or waiting in-line to use the Internet – where some of the most insightful and meaningful cultural exchanges took place.

We experienced first-hand how the Slow Food movement is about much more than food. We listened while Carlo Petrini expressed a fear that, “we all become top-class gourmets and connoisseurs of rare delicacies while ignoring the need to prevent the disappearance of those who actually work the land and supply the products.” He continued by saying agriculture needs peace and stability in order to prosper and grow. Listening to Petrini and observing him network effortlessly with farmers and world leaders, it becomes obvious that the Slow Food movement has the potential to be a powerful global political force.

We visited with members of the Kenya Livestock Marketing Council who acknowledged that Africa needs food aid in the short term and that “food rights” are human rights. “Ideally”, they said, “there would be international support for homegrown African initiatives. Let African scholars, researchers and extension employees inform our farmers instead of the mercenaries of corporations that are only here for short-term financial gains.” They believe that if more village-based farming practices were rediscovered, African famine could end within 25 years.

Everyday we had many opportunities to learn and share ideas with a wide range of people. We heard Michael Pollan, a journalist best known for his investigative articles on food production, define industrial agriculture, as “any time you need a journalist to find out where your food comes from”.

Renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant, implored us to “Ask ourselves, what am I eating?” He said, “We often spend three hours a day eating, yet we seldom spend even 15 minutes a day learning about, speaking about or trying to understand our food.”

We heard the story of Myrtle Allan, an Irish cook at Ballymaloe House in Cork, Ireland. A regular customer was walking by the restaurant and saw Myrtle outdoors and commented on the exquisite butter served the previous evening. Myrtle replied, “Yes, that field always gives good butter”. The world would be a much better place if we could all eat food that had such an authentic and direct connection to the land!

Alice Waters, chef, writer and international vice-president of Slow Food said, “I believe that the destiny of humankind in the twenty-first century will depend most of all on how people chose to nourish themselves. And if we can educate the senses, and break down the wall of ignorance between farmers and eaters, I am convinced – because I have seen it with my own eyes time and again – people will inevitably choose the sustainable way, which is always the most delicious alternative.”

We were repeatedly surprised and impressed by the passion of all the Italian politicians who spoke at Terra Madre. The Mayor of Turin, Sergio Chiamparino, said their support of this highly political and cultural event was done with “their hearts in an effort to keep together the health of the person, the health of nature and the health of the economy.” This is true growth!

The Italian Minister of Agriculture, Gianni Alemanno, expressed a resolve to protect agriculture because it is different from other economic activities as it is linked to the land. He said that it was critically important for the world to gain an awareness of the fact that “…good food eating cannot exist without a form of agriculture firmly rooted in the values of the land and the community. Only through this awareness will it be possible to legitimate a new farming culture and rural economy as inalienable components of sustainable development at every latitude.”  Alemanno told us that we would all be stronger when we returned to our respective communities because we are now connected to an international agricultural network. He continued, “What is truly revolutionary and original about Terra Madre is that it attempts to place small-scale food producers at center stage. This is a difficult, but necessary, experiment as it provides a rare opportunity to bring together the many faces of a down-to-earth, everyday agriculture capable of coming up with veritable food masterpieces. Good food eating cannot exist without a form of agriculture firmly rooted in the values of the land and the community”.

Prince Charles, well known as a supporter of organic and localized agriculture, was the final and keynote speaker and his message had a profound impact on everyone present. In his conclusion, he said:

The importance of the Slow Food movement cannot be overstated. That is, after all, why I am here – to try and help draw attention to the fact that in certain circumstances, “small will always be beautiful” and to remind people, as John Ruskin in the 19th century did, back in England, that “industry without art is brutality”. After all, the food you produce is far more than just food, for it represents an entire culture – the culture of the family farm. It represents the ancient tapestry of rural life; the dedicated animal husbandry, the struggle with the natural elements, the love of landscape, the childhood memories, the knowledge and wisdom learnt from parents and grandparents, the intimate understanding of local climate and conditions, the hopes and fears of succeeding generations. Ladies and gentlemen, all of you represent genuinely sustainable agriculture and I salute you.”

Nothing like being honored by royalty! Needless to say many of us were moved to tears by his powerful words.

Immediately following the conference, we joined tens-of-thousands of other food lovers at Salone del Gusto, a premier “festival of responsible taste”. Tasting pavilions included the Buon Paese Market where each street brought together the best Italian artisan food, a World Market of international food exhibitors and the Enoteca, where over 2000 of the finest Italian and International wines were available for sampling. At the World Bistro we could taste a collection of Presidia foods such as Indian Basmati rice or ice cream made with Mananara vanilla.
Experiencing all the great food products at Salone del Gusto and hearing representatives from other continents at Terra Madre has given us a much broader picture of how food and agriculture could be protected, promoted and advanced. Being exposed to other cultures and ways of thinking has shifted our perspective and allowed our thoughts to leapfrog over current North American agricultural inclinations. Knowing that there are so many other like-minded people in the world has helped us to realize that we are not isolated or alone in our quest. We have been passionate about food for a long time, but we now have a renewed passion to work towards shortening the food chain from farm to table and in so doing celebrate fresh, local, seasonal and artisan food production.

Terra Madre was a place of exchange and networking for the common good. For five fantastic days we were wined and dined (and wined some more) by our Italian hosts! Their warm hospitality begs to be imitated and we have pledged to continue the exchange of food and conviviality that we experienced there. For us, Terra Madre was definitely the beginning of something bigger and as Mahatma Gandhi so aptly said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

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