Organic? Free range? Fair trade? Forget it! During a financial crisis, people are far more concerned about where their next meal is coming from rather than whether it was hand-picked by monks in the Guatemalan wilderness.
Eating well is gradually becoming associated with the elite. Even the word “organic” is now more likely to conjure up yummy mummies than people who toil at weekends on their allotments.
“Food has become an incredible powerful fashion,” says Slow Food champion and olive oil expert Johnny Madge. “People watch programmes about it on TV, they read books about it, they blog about it and meet up in some car park in the middle of nowhere just to taste a special kind of salami.”
As good quality food threatens to become the new Prada, the work of Slow Food – which aims to take the snobbery out of the food industry – is attracting ever more followers.
“Slow Food is a clever name, but it’s also very misleading,” says Johnny. “People sometimes say to me: ‘Ah! You’re part of the slow-cooking movement.’ But, no, it has nothing to do with it.”
Founded in 1986 by Italian food activist Carlo Petrini, Slow Food began as a reaction to the opening of a McDonalds fast food outlet in Piazza di Spagna in central Rome. “People were ignoring the fact that we already have fantastic food in Rome, like ‘pizza a taglio’ (pizza slices) which are quick but healthy,” says Johnny.
You’d be equally mistaken, however, to assume that Slow Food is simply the opposite of fast food. Due to the confusion generated by its name, Slow Food adopted the slogan: ‘Buono, Pulito, Giusto’ (Good, Clean, Fair).
‘Giusto’ (fair), is a particularly important part of the Slow Food campaign, not just in terms of treating producers fairly – especially small-scale independent producers – but also of being fair towards the customer who purchases the food.
Although Slow Food strives to be as ‘Pulito’ (clean) as possible, notes Johnny, “They are not Taliban about it.”
“Lots of things in Slow Food guides about wine, food and beer are not necessarily organic,” he adds.
Most of all, food must be ‘Buono’ (good). This does not simply mean that it has to taste good. You also have to enjoy the experience of eating it.
The simple business of sitting round a table and enjoying people’s company is a crucial part of the Slow Food philosophy. It’s no coincidence that a Slow Food local group is called a “convivium” – which, as well as being Latin for “banquet” or “feast”, also has connotations of togetherness.
Johnny, 52, who organises olive oil and wine tours in Lazio, where he also owns his own olive oil farm and wine bar, is the only Englishman on the Slow Food olive oil tasting panel for the central Italian region of Lazio. He strongly believes that mealtimes must be a dynamic group experience. At his wine bar, ‘GECKO 107′ in Casparia, about an hour North of Rome, he holds regular ‘Wine, Singing and Oil’ sessions, where his guests are serenaded as they sample the region’s finest oils and wines.
Johnny, who’s also a professional sculptor, first got involved in Slow Food back in 1996 while taking part in a sculpture symposium in the town of Aswan in Egypt. Although most of the sculptors used machines in their work, Johnny insisted on working by hand with a hammer and chisel – “because in the world of art, if you take the time to contemplate and consider what you are doing, sometimes that can be a good thing.”
This led him to coin the term ‘Slow Sculpture’. His passion for good olive oil logically inspired him to join the Slow Food movement.
However, Johnny is concerned about the way Slow Food is evolving - in particular, he claims the leadership is non-democratic and he is critical of the way he believes it ‘sells out’ by allowing big brands such as Barilla and Lavazza to join.
“It’s strange that this movement which comes from a democratic Left background doesn’t seem to have a lot of space for real democracy and dissent,” he says.
Despite professing an aversion to food snobbery, Slow Food has often been criticised for its expensive events, which are chiefly attended by the well-off middle and upper-middle classes.
“I was once invited by Slow Food to do an olive-oil tasting at the Fromagerie in London, and the event cost 50 quid per head,” adds Johnny. “Some people refused to attend.”
Still, while the organisation itself may have some problems, its message is loud and clear. And, according to Johnny, the Slow lifestyle need not be restricted by lack of cash.
“I have a friend who is on the dole, and he only eats organic food. He may eat less meat but it proves that it can be done,” he says.
‘Master of Food’ is an example of a low-priced course organised by Slow Food that aims to refine our interest in food and help us identity good quality and ethically fair products. Slow Food also produce an annual guide to good – and mostly inexpensive – Italian restaurants called the Osterie d’Italia.
“Slow Food doesn’t have to be elitist,” says Johnny. “You just need to get yourself organised.”
the Experience Network