The world, well at least its food and wine lovers, owe Carlo Petrini and his colleagues who founded Slow Food in Italy a decade ago a great debt.
They have forced many to consider the awfulness of a world governed by fast food; put a great deal of attention - from government, retailers, restaurateurs and consumers - back on the future viability and survival of artisanal producers and managed to achieve all this within a great spirit of conviviality and good humour. The biannual Salone del Gusto giant tasting of fine wine and food which is held in the former Fiat factory in Turin in November is a really spectacular affair that should not be missed - the next one is November 2002.
And like all the best and simplest ideas, Slow Food has had no trouble jumping international boundaries. The current edition of its extremely lively quarterly magazine Slow (www.slowfood.com - annual subscription 30 euros) highlights the fate of endangered foodstuffs such as pescado blanco, a small fish from a lake near Patzcuaro in Mexico where the annual catch has fallen from 115 tons in 1984 to two tons in 2000; a highly persuasive argument in favour of farmed salmon by a leading French writer only too aware of its inherent problems; and, at the end of the magazine, a round up of Slow Food's meetings and progress around the world including a report on US Slow Food's meeting in a rustic barn on the Marin Coast where Alice Waters from Chez Panisse and Deborah Madison, founder of Greens Restaurant, led the speakers. Slow Food in the UK is regrettably making slow progress but anyone keen to join should contact Wendy Fogarty (email@example.com).
Whilst Slow Food has brought enormous benefit to Italy's farmers, artisanal food producers, wine makers and image it has now just been paid the ultimate accolade, of being replicated within its own country. With the blessing of Slow Food, which is based in Bra in Piedmont, the regional authority of Tuscany together with the University of Florence has been working to establish Toscana Slow, an event that will alternate biannually with Turin's Salone del Gusto, and the first Toscana Slow took place in magnificent late autumn weather over the first weekend of December 2001.
It is probably true to say that no other region in the world could have offered such a combination of food, wine and culture: an opening ceremony in Florence's Piazza della Signoria; a wine tasting in an annexe of the magnificent Duomo in Siena; a remarkable combined wine, olive oil and soup tasting in a palazzo in Arezzo which housed the city's medieval jousting equipment; and the final event a market in Grosseto where it was quite obvious who the journalists were because they were the only ones without children - all the Italians had come along with at least one other generation of their family.
And this is really why these Slow Food events are so magnificent. There is no question that there is a commercial purpose, that there is a substantial sponsorship from banks and the like, and that one reason that they receive government support is that agro-tourism - visits and holidays to farms and so on - is a growing part of the Tuscan economy - but all the events are organised along truly democratic lines. Journalists may have their cards marked for them and good meals laid on but the organisers never lose sight of the fact that they have to entice in as much of the general public as they can to buy the products once and then come back for more. The atmosphere at the gates of the Salone del Gusto was fantastic and around Tuscany there was a great sense of camaraderie amongst those wearing the blue, green or red bibs around their necks which contained a tasting glass for the day - and miraculously never broke!
See the account of my travels from Florence to Arezzo, Siena and Grosseto with wine and the odd food writers from Japan, Poland, Holland, Denmark, Spain and Germany as well as several Italian national and regional representatives. To try and convey the impact the whole trip made on me and maximise its usefulness I will keep it as general as possible - although there are certainly restaurant recommendations.