You may have heard of Slow Food already, or maybe you've seen the red snail sticker in restaurants and food stands that represent this movement. But do you know what it actually means? This week Food for Thought has invited Elizabeth Hewson author of the cookbook, moving out... eating in. Elizabeth has just completed a year of whole food immersion at the University of Gastronomic Science or perhaps more commonly known as the Slow Food University in Northern Italy.
My background is in Public Relations and Communications but I have always had an obsessive passion for food. When I told people what I was doing they couldn’t understand how I could go off and study slow food, “so you are going to learn how to cook food slowly?” or “how do you study slow food?” were the most common responses. The philosophy of Slow Food was just not clearly understood, and to be honest I didn’t know how to properly explain it. I knew that the Slow Food movement was founded by Carlo Petrini 1986 as a response to the spread of fast food and the hustle and bustle of modern life. I knew Slow Food investigates, defends and broadcasts agricultural and culinary traditions from all over the world. I liked what it stood for but I didn’t really understand how it could affect me and how it could make my world better, let alone explain to people why I was running off to study it. What I did know was that I wanted to learn more.
I packed my bags and moved to the small town of Bra, the birthplace of Slow Food. My master’s course consisted of lectures in food law, sustainable agriculture, food philosophy, food tourism, anthropology, food history, medieval studies, food photography, food writing, documentaries and more. We had courses in cheese, wine, beer, cured meats and chocolate. I travelled to Friuli, Valtellina, Calabria, Tuscany, Spain and Devon to meet with producers and farmers that lived and breathed Slow Food. In my master’s class alone I had 19 people from 12 different countries. We shared ideas, recipes, food and thoughts from our cultures, which gave me a deep understanding of the food systems that existed around the world.
I have had a year full of food experiences that has changed the way I cook, eat and think about food. It has dawned on me that the best way to explain what slow food is and its benefits is to tell people about the experiences I had.
A few months ago I found myself on a small family run farm just north of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Pipers Farm was a visit organized by the University on one of our study trips. We were standing in a paddock fenced with two-meter deep, 400-year-old hedgerows with a backdrop of rolling hills, staring at a small herd of beautiful Ruby Red cattle. Farmer, Peter was kneeling down in the rich red Devon soil holding out a clump of old-fashioned grasses, clovers and herbs that he had just pulled from the ground. He passionately explained the importance of working in harmony with the natural landscape around us. How his “common sense” of traditional and sustainable methods of farming allowed his animals to have a nutrient rich diet from just the grasses he was clutching in his hands.
The cows, a breed native to the area, peacefully surrounded Peter, with some affectionately rubbing up against him. He told us of the importance and advantages of working with cattle breeds that were indigenous to the environment in which they were raised. He explained, from valuable genetic traits such as disease resistance, survival, self-sufficiency, fertility, longevity, foraging ability, maternal instincts and climate adaptions, raising the right breeds in the right eco-system allowed the cattle to thrive.
We wandered down the hill, past a flock of heritage breed sheep that were kept in line by Peter’s trusty sheep dog, Fly, and through a wild bush of mulberries that stained my hands, until we reached his butcher shop. Here the meat is prepared and packed up to be sent out to his city owned butcher shop or via online orders across the country. I asked where his animals go for slaughter, “just a five minute drive down the road, I take them myself so they don’t get scared.” That’s devotion until the end!
We followed Peter over to the house paddock. A beautiful table was set next to a fire pit cooking a chunk of beef, a bunch of sausages and brood of chicken wings. My mouth was watering. We sat down on bundles of hay around the table with Peter, his family, the farm hands and the butchers and tucked into lunch. Salad from the garden, elderflower cordial made from his neighbour’s tree and potatoes roasted in left over goose fat graced the table. I was interrupted from this amazing meal, by the sound of pigs snorting – I turned around and noticed the pig paddock right behind us. I’ve never seen a happier herd of pigs and they squealed with delight when we walked right up to them and patted their heads.
Lunch was spectacular and incredibly memorable and, dare I say, one of the best meals I’ve had. I valued every mouthful and I know this is because I saw the true definition of paddock to plate.
This is what Slow Food is.
Slow Food is all about taking pleasure in good, clean and fair food. It’s food that excites the palate, food that is produced in ways that doesn’t harm the environment, and food that is sold at a sustainable wage for the farmer.
My goal now is to continue to cultivate a lifestyle that gives food the proper recognition and devotion I feel it needs. I hope you can all join me in embracing slow food.