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Slow food: The lefties who believe in pleasure

2005: Slow food - You don't have to be miserable to oppose globalisation and care about the environment. You can eat the tastiest food and drink the finest wine - as an essential part of your mission. William Skidelsky reports

Charles Martell, a distinguished-looking, bearded man in his late fifties, has dedicated a large part of his life to rescuing rare varieties of apple. Most of his efforts have centred on Gloucestershire, where, since 1972, he has owned a farm. He roams the country interviewing fellow farmers and orchard-owners. When he discovers a tree of a rare or unfamiliar variety, he takes a cutting, which he then grafts on to a rootstock in a special orchard on his farm. The orchard now houses 99 varieties, all of which, were it not for Martell's efforts, would face extinction. Some of the trees Martell has discovered - for example, the one that he came across in the village of Tibberton - were the last remaining specimens in existence. "The tree was really little more than a stump, with just a few remaining apples," Martell recalls. "Using a guide written in 1888, I identified it as a Hagloe crab - a tree whose apples once were used to make a delicious cider. I came back in the winter, and managed to take a cutting. When I returned the following year, there was a field of maize where the tree had been. But for me, Hagloe crabs wouldn't exist."

As well as rescuing apples, Martell has contributed to the preservation of the county's livestock. Around the time that he bought his farm, he became interested in the Old Gloucester breed of cattle. Over the years, numbers of this once-successful breed had diminished to the point where only 68 remained. Martell purchased three cows, and began breeding. Today, thanks in part to his efforts, there are more than 730 Old Gloucesters dotted around the country. Martell uses the milk from his Old Gloucester herd to make a range of cheeses, including an award-winning Single Gloucester. The cheese for which he is best known, however, is Stinking Bishop, which he makes using milk from Friesian cows.

Not long ago, Martell would have seemed an eccentric, quixotic figure, fighting a hopeless one-man crusade against the forces of standardisation and commercialisation. For some people, he probably still is these things - but at least he is in good company. Martell has become a leading light in Slow Food, a movement it would not be wholly inaccurate to characterise as the largest collection of oddballs ever to exist.

Until now, especially in Britain, Slow Food has been thought too idiosyncratic, too far removed from the mainstream to be capable of making a difference. Recently, however, this view has changed. Concerns about the scale of obesity, the success of Morgan Spurlock's anti-McDonald's documentary Super Size Me and the publication of books such as Felicity Lawrence's Not On the Label have all led to an upsurge of interest in the effects of fast food, and the ethics of food production.

Slow Food has seized the opportunity and shown itself capable of accommodating a range of interests. Membership has shot up; numerous newspaper articles have appeared; the Ecologist magazine dedicated a whole issue to the movement. Even Prince Charles has declared Slow Food a good thing - although it is debatable whether this is an endorsement any organisation would want.

Nevertheless, despite its new-found respectability, Slow Food perplexes people - especially in Britain, where its membership (1,500) is lower than, say, in the US (12,000) and even Japan (2,300). What exactly does it stand for? Above all, what does it do? The movement may be well-intentioned, but is it really anything more than the hobby-horse of a group of idealistic, well-off lefties? Well, yes; Slow Food is emphatically not a hobby-horse. However - and this is where the problem lies - its philosophy and structure make it difficult for British people to comprehend.

To get a handle on Slow Food, we need to understand how it originated, and the philosophy of its founder, Carlo Petrini. Slow Food's birthplace (and headquarters) is the small city of Bra, in Piedmont, north Italy. The movement began as an informal network of friendly societies which grew out of the Italian Communist Party in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, a number of these clubbed together and formed an organisation called Arcigola, dedicated to protecting the interests of small-scale producers and promoting the enjoyment of food and wine. As Petrini recalls in his book Slow Food: the case for taste: "[Our aim] was to create awareness of local producers and awaken people's attention to wine and food and the right way to enjoy them. And so we had our first tasting courses, organised sample sessions and get-togethers, set up circuits for distribution, and began selling wine and speciality food by mail order."

In 1986, McDonald's opened its first outlet in Italy, close to the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini characteristically used the opportunity to turn his network into something more ambitious. Arcigola became Slow Food, a movement dedicated to resisting the global scourge of its polar opposite - fast food. Today, although Slow Food has 80,000-plus members worldwide in 107 countries, it remains in many ways true to its origins. Its backbone is its network of informal groups (convivia) which, just as Arcigola once did, bring like-minded people together, disseminate ideas and promote the interests of small producers.

No less distinctive than Slow Food's structure is the philosophy of its founder. When Slow Food members refer to Petrini, they do so in tones of hushed reverence, using words such as "visionary" and "prophet" - and with good reason. Petrini's philosophy is based on the fusion of two principles not often seen as natural bedfellows - a belief in the importance of pleasure for its own sake, and a concern for the well-being of the planet. At the heart of his vision lies the recognisably Italian idea that appreciating food and wine, and having an ability to share these pleasures with others, make life worth living. More than for any other reason, Slow Food exists to prevent such pleasures from disappearing. However, as Petrini recognises, this also requires people to take an interest in the natural world - and, in particular, to pay attention to the way food is produced.

Left-wing political movements, as Petrini has acknowledged, tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of pleasure. In the past, he has written, "people on the left, no matter how sophisticated and modern they might be, had an odd relationship to gastronomy". This remains broadly true today. Environmentalists find it hard to rid themselves of their earnest, do-gooding image. And there is something horribly joyless and negative about the approach of many anti-globalisation protesters. Slow Food is not incurably earnest, nor does it vandalise branches of McDonald's. The movement's aim is not to bring down globalisation, but to put something more positive in its place.

Over the years, Slow Food has expanded its operations. From its headquarters in Bra, it publishes a bestselling wine guide as well as a quarterly magazine. Every two years, it hosts the Salone Internazionale del Gusto, a huge jamboree, at a former Fiat factory in Turin. Producers from all over the world flock to this event; for those interested in food, it is an overpowering experience. Recent innovations include the Citta Slow, or network of "slow towns" (including Ludlow in Shropshire); the Terra Madre ("Mother Earth"), an international convention of producers; and the establishment, in Bra, of the world's first gastronomic university. Slow Food also campaigns vigorously to protect the interests of small producers. One of its biggest successes to date is helping to prevent the multinational corporation Monsanto taking out a patent on the genetic code for basmati rice.

Perhaps the clearest example of Slow Food's usefulness, however, is the concept of presidia, a network of local initiatives to preserve foods. This is a typical invention. Realising that the disappearance of products and knowledge from the world has parallels with the story of the Flood, Petrini came up with the idea of an "Ark of Taste", into which all the earth's gastronomic treasures could be put. Slow Food members identify products, plant varieties and animal breeds that are in danger of disappearing. The organisation then tries to prevent this happening: this could involve anything from helping a product's manufacturers with marketing to actually taking over production. Through its presidia (the word literally means "garrisons" in Italian), Slow Food has helped ensure the survival of more than 200 threatened Italian products, as well as another 60 worldwide - including a yak's milk cheese from Tibet and guarana, an energy-giving root from Brazil.

In Britain, where the concept has been slower to take off, there are currently four presidia: Somerset cheddar; the aforementioned Old Gloucester cattle; perry pears from Hereford- shire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire; and salted Cornish pilchards. Salted pilchards are produced at a single factory in Penzance by a man named Nick Howell. It is telling that Slow Food has deemed them worthy of protection. Salted pilchards aren't eaten in Britain; all Howell's produce is exported to Italy. Even in Italy, the demand is not that great, as a similar product is available from Portugal. Yet Slow Food believes salted Cornish pilchards deserve protection. Fishermen have been exporting salted pilchards to Italy for 500 years; they are part of the heritage of both countries. As a result of Slow Food's efforts, it seems that their future is now secure.

So this is a movement that judges local customs and traditions to be worth saving not simply because they have always existed (the traditionalist line), or because they are part of the planet's natural diversity (the environmentalist view), but because they are part of our heritage of taste and pleasure. A growing number of people feel this is a philosophy worth supporting. As Howell says: "It is just a relief to know that there are like-minded people out there. It makes what I'm doing feel as if it has a point."

This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.

Editorial Notes: First published 1st Jan 2005 -AF

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