The news that McDonalds is currently suing Italian restaurant critic Eduardo Raspelli over his comments about their food which they allege are 'defamatory and offensive' made me even more delighted to be renewing the acquaintance of Carlo Petrini, who has done more than anyone worldwide to safeguard the food we eat since he founded the Slow Food movement in Italy in 1986.
Although it was not a bucolic affair. Petrini is recovering from a severe and rare liver condition - as he succinctly described it, 'j'ai le foie gras' - which has caused him to lose over 18 kilos in the past two years. But now, fully recovered, he can see the benefits. 'Now I feel I have a new spirit. It has been the experience of my life to survive this and, although I have had to give up wine, I have come to learn and appreciate the culture of tea,' he added with a smile.
Petrini talks with all consuming passion about the Slow Food movement, its membership which now stretches to over 80,000 in 42 countries and its many successes in fighting homogeneity in our agrarian communities and food production worldwide. And in reinforcing Slow Food's solid organisation, Petrini's illness has inadvertently played a vital role. 'It's proved that Slow Food is not a one-man band, that we have built at our headquarters at Bra in Piedmont a strong organisation of almost 150 who do not rely on any one individual.'
Slow Food began with a very specific mission and what looks in restrospect as a simple and rather elitist one. Alarmed by the prospect of McDonald's opening in Rome's Piazza Spagna, several prominent, predominantly left-wing Italian academics got together to form the movement which would put the slow back into eating. It prospered, even forcing the French magazine Gault-Millau to fear that the hitherto undisputed French right to speak out and defend gastronomy was under threat and it drew in large numbers of people interested in food and wine, particularly to its biennial Salone del Gusto events which fill the vast halls that once housed the Fiat car assembly line in Turin with artisan food and drink producers and enthusiasts.
Then in 1996 Slow Food adopted a second goal. As well as promoting food and taste, the organisation sought to defend ecology and agricultural biodiversity, to safeguard our edible heritage. Petrini believes that this new role is fundamental and that now Slow Food has an even more crucial role to play throughout the developed and developing world.
'In retrospect I can see that Slow Food was being perceived as a club for gourmets but now our role is to ensure that the world's food heritage is safeguarded for future generations,' he explained. 'A rare foodstuff is as important as a Gothic cathedral or a rare painting and can be destroyed even more easily. And the relationship between gastronomy and ecology is very close. A gourmet who eats and eats and eats but does not appreciate where his food comes from is a fool and it is equally sad when those who work so hard to protect the world's foodstuffs do not enjoy or appreciate their taste.'
Slow Food has set up various mechanisms to ensure that the wanton destruction of the world's food biodiversity is halted. The Ark of Taste is a symbolic ship on to which will be loaded gastronomic products threatened by standardisation, hyper-hygienic legislation and the deterioration of the environment with the secondary aim of safeguarding almost extinct flavours. The Praesidia are more concrete, local initiatives to safeguard and promote speciality food producers - one exists in the UK to safeguard the 13 traditional Cheddar makers, for example - whilst the annual Slow Food Awards for the Defence of Biodiversity recognise and reward these pioneering individuals. Petrini hopes that in due course a Praesidium will be established to protect Herdwick lamb, the distinctive lamb that breeds on the fells of the Pennines. Slow Food also wants Stilton cheese once again to be made from raw rather than pasteurised milk.
But by protecting food heritage and biodiversity Slow Food has established a role for itself outside the developed world, too. 'Everyone has the right to eat well,' Petrini continued, 'and part of our mission is to restore the pride and respect that is due to the small farmer. This message is universal and I was particularly thrilled recently when a representative from Slow Food was in Brazil and discovered that a page of President Lula's 'Famine Zero' manifesto to eradicate hunger dealt with the work of Slow Food. Our campaign today is as relevant in Brazil, Mexico and Peru as it is in Europe and the US. We have to restore the balance. After all, a rich lawyer needs a poor farmer far more than a poor farmer needs a rich lawyer.'
Petrini's not inconsiderable ire is naturally directed at the seeming ignorance of politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington DC who do so much to support the vast agri-businesses, the introduction of GM crops and who condone massive over-production and equally large subsidies, as well as at the supermarkets. 'They all seem to show so little consideration for the individual farmer and sadly even in Italy massive, intensive low quality agricultural produce is conducted by the rich minority for the poor majority when it should be the reverse.'
But reclaiming our right to eat well is also down to the individual. 'In my grandfather's day 60 per cent of his weekly wage went on food for the family. Today, Italians spend 40 per cent of their wages on food and 10 per cent on their mobile phone bill. My message is talk less, eat better and our lives will be the richer.'
To reach this stage Slow Food has adopted several different tactics: an exciting quarterly magazine published in Italian, French and English; a website; an annual guide to those restaurants in Italy which serve their particular region's food and wine; and an annual wine guide which makes coveted Tre Bicchieri, or three glass, awards. But on 1 September 2004 Slow Food will cross what Petrini decribes as a 'new frontier'.
'This is when we are going to open The University of Gastronomic Sciences in two magnificent buildings, l'Agenzia di Pollenzo in Piedmont and the former Ducal Palace of Colorno just outside Parma in Emiglia Romagna, both examples of 17th and 18th century land management and landscape gardening.' The initial intake will be 60 students, 15 from Italy, 15 from the rest of Europe, 15 from the US and 15 from the rest of the world who will undertake a core three-year course in all aspects of gastronomy. This will incorporate the history of food and wine, economics, animal breeding, vegetable cultivation, food technology and the sensory evaluation of food.
'It will be a modern European university course devoted to gastronomy, a subject which was created in the 19th century by writers such as Brillat-Savarin and Grimod de La Reyniebut has never managed to shake off its rather folkloric image. We now want to put this on a scientific footing. There will also be a research faculty, a wine bank and a restaurant. The overall aim is that the University will be the representation of the direct connection between pleasure and knowledge which is one of the cornerstones of the Slow Food philosophy.'
Petrini is naturally excited about the University's progress and the spread of the movement worldwide but what I wanted to know is whether Slow Food could have started anywhere other than Italy, a country invariably associated with giving food and wine the importance each deserves.
'I am not sure,' Petrini replied thinking back over what have obviously been 17 hectic years. 'I don't think so. The origins were a combination of like-minded individuals meeting at a critical period in the history of the food we eat. But today I am most amazed by how quickly the movement is growing in France, Japan and Great Britain. And above all I am impressed by what is going on in America. Not everywhere, sadly, but there the quality that is on offer in the farmers' markets; the bread that is being baked in parts of California - often better than I can find in Italy; and even the range of the micro-breweries is fantastic.'
Anyone anywhere who appreciates the importance of good food for themselves, their children and their childrens' children ought to be grateful that the diverse aims of the Slow Food movement met the diverse talents, determination and charm of Carlo Petrini.
Via Mendicita 8, 12042 Bra, Italy
tel 0039 172 419611, email email@example.com