Once, man’s occupation was hunting and gathering. Today, somewhere between diet fads and burger joints, males of the species stand emasculated. Who’d have imagined his indomitable spirit to be challenged by frozen food and calorie charts? One man, a brave soul who wished to see this reversed, started a vendetta against commoditisation of food. The magazines he smartly overlooked.
Carlo Petrini appears unassuming, till you get him talking about his favourite topic. His vehemence is hard to miss, as is his infectious passion, so much so that Time magazine elected him a hero in 2004. He believes in the Slow Food movement he started in the late-’80s to represent all that’s “good, clean, and fair”. It was meant to combat fast food, to oppose the idea of perennial supplies of seasonal ingredients, and minimise the carbon impact of what we eat by reducing dependence on intercontinental items. Consequently, it would support local producers—at least those who were organic. It’s a celebration of local food and culinary customs, an appeal to people to slow down and elicit interest in what they consume. What began as a spontaneous protest—against the opening of a fast food outlet in Rome’s historic Spanish Steps—is now a 150-nation-wide non-profit, with members and associates—from producers to chefs and enthusiasts.
As an example, flying in fish from far corners of the world may sound exotic but it burns fuel, kills artisanal and small producers with cheaper, industrial goods at economies-of-scale, and any notion of rarity. Not surprising then, that such products are often bland, flavourless, or too chemical-laden to retain quality. But their availability and cheap prices have made them ubiquitous. A small revolt became a grand idea, and took up a larger platform. Carlo and his comrades didn’t limit themselves to opposing every new pizzeria, but set themselves up to change the mindset of people, help them understand why the alternative to fast food is better, not just healthwise, but also for society—creating local employment, instilling pride in local produce. At first it took time, but then it caught wind and spread. Terra Madre celebrations are now held worldwide to show respect to Mother Nature and enjoy what she gives.
Restaurants provide the biggest impetus to this movement today, especially chefs who solely use local produce. Rene Redzepi holds grills at Noma, Copenhagen, where the menu is designed around what’s available locally. No imported spices or condiments for him, just what the near-Arctic belt provides, cooked elaborately to preserve and enhance natural flavours. He is not alone. Elena and Juan-Mari Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain, ensure they not only use local ingredients but also present them in a manner reminiscent of the local scenery. Others too, have championed this—from French peppercorn-specialist Gérard Vives to Spanish Eduardo Sousa and his ‘ethical foie gras’.
In the end, a movement is as strong as the people in it. Farmer’s markets may bring a product close to you, but establishing why you should pay more for it will be crucial to true sustainability.