Slow food: closer to home equals more sustainable

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After our wine tour in France, we sail eastward, swept along by a light breeze. The coast passes by slowly, allowing us to take it all in. The mountains burn bright red in the twilight, and soon the stars light up the sky over the Italian Riviera.

Slow food is about creating a world in which all of us can enjoy food that’s good for us, for the people who produce it and for the planet. Ivar Smits Skipper

Enjoying the artisanal delights of Italy

The next morning, we arrive at the picturesque fishing village of Portofino, and drop anchor close by. We explore the green surroundings on foot, and savour a gelato artiginale, or artisanal Italian ice cream. Why is it that the ice cream here tastes so good?

Italian cuisine

We soon realise it’s not just the ice cream that’s out of this world, but so many other local specialities as well. The food here is pure and delicious. And it’s no wonder, really, considering the traditional characteristics of Italian cuisine, which is known for its regional dishes made with fresh ingredients and in accordance with age-old artisanal methods. Even so, fast food is becoming increasingly popular in Italy – and the standardisation and large-scale industrialisation of the whole food chain along with it. Indeed, it’s a development which is diametrically opposed to Italian culinary culture. 

Carlo Petrini, who founded the Slow Food organisation in 1989, felt it was time to fight back. His aim? To give a boost to a wide range of locally produced artisanal food – the exact opposite of fast food. Slow Food now operates in 160 countries and boasts over 100,000 affiliated producers and restaurants all over the world.

Tasting the difference

We were first introduced to the slow food movement in Barcelona. Here we visited a restaurant called Somorrostro, where the Slow Food logo, a red snail, is proudly displayed outside. When we asked owner Andrés Gaspar what makes his restaurant slow food, he tells us, “All the food and drink we serve comes from this region – fewer than one hundred kilometres away, to be exact. 

“We buy fresh fish at the fish market from fishermen who stay close to the coast. Our meat comes from a few farmers we know personally here in the area. We grow all our own vegetables in our very own organic vegetable garden, not far from the city, which means our veg is always fresh and in season. We also serve wine produced here in our region – preferably organic, with no added sulphites.”

A bit more expensive, but so much better

A little later, we enjoy a fish we’ve never had before. Andrés explains that he makes a habit of buying the by-catch to show customers that the fish can be just as good, if not better in some cases. By-catch is often cheaper, since it’s less popular. On the whole, though, it has to be said that slow food is generally more expensive than fast food: after all, the food on your plate is of much better quality. Plus when producers take the environment into account, that means production is more labour-intensive. Most are small-scale producers, and they’re paid a fair price. The chef at Andrés’s restaurant prepares everything himself and works with pure ingredients. Slow food does require less transport, though, since it’s all sourced locally. And that makes it environmentally and socially more sustainable.

International network

But back to Italy. In Bra, a town in the region of Piedmont, we pay a visit to the headquarters of the international slow food movement. What exactly do they do here? Ester Clementino explains: “Slow food is about creating a world in which all of us can enjoy food that’s good for us, for the people who produce it and for the planet. We do this by working closely with small-scale producers whose products are under pressure and need to be protected. These include certain vegetables, fruit, cheeses, seeds and plant varieties. And that’s how we promote biodiversity.”

Slow Food connects these small, sustainable producers with buyers like restaurants and shops. It also encourages its members to share their knowledge with one another. And to get consumers involved, it organises events such as markets, workshops and multi-day festivals around local and artisanal food. “So many consumers out there have no idea where their food comes from any more,” says Ester. “The farm and the dinner table have grown further and further apart because of the industrialisation of the food we consume. Our mission is to make that distance smaller again.

“We also work closely with renowned restaurant chefs. They’ve teamed up with local, artisanal producers, and come up with all sorts of innovative recipes using the special ingredients the producers supply them with. These chefs don’t just serve up fresh products – they also showcase our local producers. You might say that the slow food movement is about promoting eco-gastronomy.”

Higher culinary education

The slow food movement has close ties with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. The curriculum shows that students are taught to approach food from different angles. They learn about the history, cultural background and economics of food, as well as the role that sustainability plays. There’s even a cooking course devoted entirely to slow food cuisine.

It’s here that we meet up with Alessandra Abbona, who’s in charge of communications. She says, “We train food lovers from all over the world here. The master’s degree in slow food cuisine focuses on local, traditional ways of preparing food. We also organise meetings with traditional producers such as bakers, salami makers and butchers.

“Our students do a three-month internship at a slow food family restaurant, followed by another three months at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Study trips teach them to map out the whole food chain. We train cooks to become chefs who are equipped with a knowledge of sustainable food production.” Having produced thousands of graduates, the university has already disseminated a great deal of knowledge and expertise to help create a more sustainable food system.

Local is more sustainable

We like this emphasis on healthy, environmentally friendly food for which producers are paid a fair price. Small-scale, artisanal food preparation puts less strain on natural resources and preserves biodiversity. We’ve also loved sampling all these delicious dishes, each one having been prepared with care and attention. What could be nicer than enjoying a local speciality in a beautiful natural setting? We’ll certainly remember our slow food experience here for a very long time.

The slow food revolution is also under way in the Netherlands. Numerous restaurants and producers have joined the organisation. Keep an eye out for the red snail logo, and discover all kinds of surprising and delicious food right at home!

Local currency

We plan to stay local for a little longer. For our next blog post, we’ll be sailing to Sardinia, where we’ll be discovering how the Sardex works. Could this parallel local currency have a positive knock-on effect for sustainability?

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