Dispatch from Terra Madre

Day 0 | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

Day 0: Getting to Turin

The throng of people at Charles de Gaulle Airport waiting to board the flight to Turin was like Noah’s Ark for farmers: two sporting ethnic Peruvian garb, a couple in tribal African gear, and our own Hog Island Oyster boys wearing shirts emblazoned with their logo. As soon as I got on the plane, I had flashbacks of the bus ride to summer camp. It’s that first moment when you can either break the ice—and start off on the right foot—or you can sulk in the corner (or in your jet lag) and tune everyone out. I chose the former and started talking to two Canadian farmers next to me. They had never been to Terra Madre and were excited about attending a forum where they could chat with like-minded people about common issues facing modern agriculture. They spoke in awe about the success of CSA (community-supported agriculture) farms in the States and how they hope it will catch on in their native Ontario. (It was nice to hear something positive about the U.S., as I had just been reading an article reporting on the WWF’s findings that the U.S. and Great Britain have the greatest annual emissions of anyone in the world—and, you know, all that other depressing stuff that Al Gore covered in his documentary.)

They spoke in awe about the success of CSA farms in the States and how they hope it will catch on in their native Ontario.

The conference has two parts separate in location and in intention. In the Lingotto conference center—a Renzo Piano creation which also happens to be the old Fiat factory—Terra Madre will take place, open only to delegates and the press. It is the opportunity for the world agricultural community to come together and discuss common issues and concerns. The theme this year is inspired by Carlo Petrini’s newest manifesto: that all food production should be good, clean, and fair. All the delegates I met were excited about the opportunity to have a common forum and a cause that they could really stand behind.

In the adjacent Ovale conference center, just built in time for the Olympics, they will be holding the Salone del Gusto. Open to the public, it works as a global market where everyone can showcase their presidium’s local wares. If anything is propaganda here, I suspect it is Salone del Gusto, but you can’t blame Slow Food for trying to recruit more followers. I am highly anticipating the Salone del Gusto’s Laboratori dei Gusti, or Taste Workshops, in which various topics, from wine to cheese and charcuterie, will be discussed and debated.

Day 1: Viva PERDI!

I am named after one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous operas, and yet I was told that his fame came about, not because of his accomplishments, but because during the Risorgimento, or Italian unification, his name was used as a coded message in support of the cause: “Viva VERDI” actually stood for “Viva Vittorio Emmanuele Re d’Italia” (“Long live Victor Emanuel, king of Italy”). I would sum up today, the first day of Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto with a similar phrase: “Viva PERDI” (Petrini è Re d’Italia). The whole day was charged with energy, like a political rally.

Actually, the whole day wasn’t so magical. I arrived at Salone del Gusto after having confirmed that I was properly registered, only to find that I had to wait in a very long line of journalists to get my press pass. An Italian woman said to me, “We’re going to spend our whole day waiting in this line, don’t you think?”

The easiest way to sum up the Salone would be to liken it to a cross between the Fancy Food Show and Babel.

Once I eventually got into the Salone, I was impressed by the sheer size—it’s being held in the old Fiat factory. The halls were packed with a sea of Slow Food presidia showcasing their specialties, and there were people of all ages running amok. The easiest way to sum up the Salone would be to liken it to a cross between the Fancy Food Show and Babel: There was food everywhere I looked, and a different language everywhere I went.

After a few hours, I headed to Terra Madre for the inaugural ceremonies. The European love of formality emerged, and I felt as if I were at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Flag bearers representing each attending country ceremoniously set the flags on the main stage, and the president of the Italian Republic showed up sporting his red, white, and green sash. After a half an hour of this, Carlo Petrini finally stood up to speak. He is one of the most charismatic individuals I have ever heard. He spoke of the importance of sustainability and how we must use our global economies to band together and shape the future of food; and he said that Slow Food’s new manifesto—”good, clean, fair”—is what everyone should strive for when producing (the farmers), cooking (the chefs), and consuming (the rest of us). His words won over the crowd, and thunderous applause broke out so often that it was hard to hear the speech. Many people who support and represent the Slow Food tradition spoke after Petrini, from an African political activist to Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.

Unfortunately, I had to leave in order to make the first of my taste workshops, and I didn’t hear the two Americans speak. I think it was worth it, though, because I learned more about culatelli (cured meat from Emilia-Romagna) than I could have thought possible in such a short span of time.

Day 2: Reflections of the Earth

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably either seen An Inconvenient Truth, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or at least heard about their themes: the future of just about everything. Those big issues quickly get confusing and overwhelming. This second day showed that one way to address the future is to concentrate on some of the smallest things.

Today was all about niche products. I began with a tasting of wine from a little-known grape called yellow Ribolla. When the moderator noted that we were all a bit shy to jump in and try the wines, he exhorted, “Try the wines. If you know the way we work around here [at these tasting labs], you know we’re here to enjoy ourselves and not to tell you that this wine tastes like apricots or that one like pears.” But the real marvel here was that yellow Ribolla grows only on the 750 acres straddling the border of Italy and Slovenia, places called Collio and Goriška Brda. “In a world such as this, where the wines are very globalized, this is a wine that truly expresses the terroir. All others lack something,” said one of the Slovenian producers.

The Salone del Gusto is so big that I have been limiting myself to just a few rows of exhibitors each day. While looking for lunch, I came across some obscure yet intriguing products, such as red-fleshed watermelon pear, red-skinned red eggplant, and some delicious oven-dried olives. In a world where previously local food—be it baguettes or potato chips—is now known worldwide, it was amazing to find such products, and gratifying that they have found a global organization that sustains and promotes them.

Afterward, I fought for a seat at a lecture titled “The Evolution of Man and the Earth’ s Biodiversity.” Professor Bulatti, of the University of Florence, explained how Darwin’s theories teach us that there should be a “benevolent disorder in the world.” The parallel of biodiversity and evolution came to light when he noted that “we think often about how we should maintain biodiversity because it’s nice or the right thing to do, but we forget that without biodiversity we [as humans] will die.”

Michael Pollan then took the stage and elaborated on the theme of his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He discussed what could be summed up as the rise of corn and the consequential fall of diversity. “Is this something we did to corn, or did it do this to us?” he asked. It was disturbing and intriguing to see how awestruck the audience was when Pollan described the one-dimensionality of the American food system. The majority of the audience members laughed in disbelief when he said, “Corn can do anything oil can do … we can even feed it to our cars.” The forum emphasized a reverberating idea that capitalism tends toward monocultures and monocultures are completely unsustainable. This parallel of evolution and diversity is one that has been discussed relatively little, but the relationship is something we have to address before the diversity in “biodiversity” escapes us completely.

Day 3: It’s All in the Family

Despite a gluttonous meal last night—what can I say, it’s Italian food—by the time I arrived at the conference this morning, my stomach was growling for more food. The most notable difference between today and the previous two days was that entire families appeared to be attending the event. With a rather hefty entrance fee of 20 euros per person, it was remarkable to see whole families running around the Salone as if it were a trip to Disneyland.

As a means to further education about local foods, representatives of various Italian regions set up restaurants. I snuck into one of the last available seatings at the restaurant representing the region of Lazio, where Rome is, and I shared the table with a father and son who were taking a break from the chaos. Franco Saccà and his son, Vitto, entertained me for almost an hour and a half as they talked about their passion for food and their hopes for Slow Food’s future. How they hope it spreads more robustly beyond Italy—where it is already well received—and into neighboring countries that have been relatively apathetic toward the movement, such as France.

Interview with a young (Slow) Foodie

After lunching with the Saccàs, I asked 14-year-old Vitto a few questions about his impressions of Slow Food and what he thinks it all means.

What do you think about Slow Food, and why are you here?

I think that Slow Food is an amazing organization. And then we are here with our booth, Latimia, to let people know more about us—first of all that we Sicilians aren’t all in the Mafia—and also to show off our great products.

And what is it that you do with Latimia?

Well, I help with everything. We have products such as eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, and black olives. And then we have seafood products like tuna, sardines, and even various pasta condiments such as a local tuna sauce; black squid ink sauce, which is, well, the ink from the squid; pasta with sardines; and even olive oil and olives from our area.

And would you say that the Slow Food ideal is truly a part of your life?

Yes. It’s an everyday thing for us.

In what sense?

Because, well, you need to eat the right way. Eat so that you really taste the food and not in the mentality to just eat for the sake of it—the “fast food” way. Slow Food, what is it? How can I explain it? It’s really taking care and not eating all the industrially produced foods, like fast foods. And we have access to all the foods that come from the Sicilian convivia.

What kind of future do you think the Slow Food movement will have with your generation?

With my generation it will be critical because these days most parents let their kids eat all kinds of gross things—fast foods. These days, most parents don’t really know how to cook, so if they think there’s stuff that their kid doesn’t like, they think, “Whatever. It’s easier if I just let them eat their potato chips or whatever it is that they want.”

So you think it has a future?

I really hope that it has a future. Because it’s important for ourselves and our own chance at a healthy future.

Day 4: To Think or to Buy

There are two different events going on at this gathering. Terra Madre is the intellectual and philosophical element. Salone del Gusto is the social and commercial part, a marketplace of rows and rows of booths showcasing products mostly from across Europe. All of Asia, Africa, and the Americas are crammed into a small corner one-fifth the size of the rest of the space. One attendee lamented to me, “When I heard the name of the event [the international Salon of Taste], I hoped to see an equal representation of all the countries that partake in Slow Food, but it’s all Italy.” It is undoubtedly more difficult for a farmer from the other side of the world to get an exhibit to Turin than it is for an Italian.

So while attendants of Salone gorge on cheese, coffee, and cured meats, the delegates of Terra Madre spend the majority of their days disseminating their knowledge and research on topics such as market access for small-scale fisherman and water availability. Attempting to strike a balance were the twice-daily lectures known as the meetings of Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto, standing-room-only events. Valuable as they were, they would have been improved with some debate; after 20 years the movement should be able to sustain criticism. But it was clear that for a healthy future of food, the culinary and agricultural worlds must work together.

Day 5: The Stars Come Out

Nearly 1,600 presidia sent almost four times as many delegates to Terra Madre, and after a glut of five days of lectures, food tasting, and dinners, almost all of them attended the closing ceremony.

Carlo Petrini took the stage to yet another standing ovation. He couldn’t finish a thought, it seemed, without a standing ovation. “You are the protagonists of your own future,” he proclaimed. “The future of this world is in your hands.” He addressed the possibility that Terra Madre may not be sustainable, yet he noted that even if the organization were to wither, the philosophy could—and should—still live on.

Second only to Petrini in the Slow Food universe, Vandana Shiva then got up to declare a philosophical war against agro-organizations such as Monsanto. Her statements were some of the most politically charged of the conference: One must, she said, “fight against ‘food fascism’” and “the politics of Brazil’s President Lula.” The Brazilian delegates cheered criticisms of their recently reelected president and his support for GMOs.

Ferran Adrià, the revered Spanish chef, then took the podium and postulated how fusion cuisine and Slow Food could coexist. He stressed that the Slow Food movement would only be bolstered by support—and consequential media attention—of these celebrity chefs. But despite any attention these chefs might draw, “it is on the local level that products should be consumed,” he said. Third World countries should learn from the mistakes of developed countries, he said. “The western world is not an example to follow.”

Day 6: Goodbye to Turin

Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto officially ended Monday, but Tuesday morning was the real exodus from Turin. I wanted to sulk quietly in the taxicab about having to get up so early, but as soon as the driver realized I spoke Italian, he wanted to hear all about the event. I suggested that everyone would probably be happy to see life in Turin go back to normal, but he lamented that the city would “go back to sleep.”

In the seemingly endless airport check-in line—I am still wondering if it is kosher for one person to wait in line only to let their whole village check in—everyone was eager to talk, discussing their impressions and critiquing the last days. One delegate wanted more opportunities to network among delegates, press, and chefs; another felt that it was not as authentic as the previous meeting (she claimed that some African presidia that had brought dried insects had only brought crafts this time); and another felt he might as well have been at a conference in Los Angeles because there was so little time to explore Turin and Piedmont.

Complaints like these, or about disorganization and poor translation, were common and valid—but everyone agreed that Terra Madre achieved something uncommon in the food industry: a setting for worldwide food communities to convene. So after the complaints, they started discussing topics such as whether HACCP regulations are a help or a hindrance, the different challenges of producing in the States versus in the EU, and the lack or availability of production freedom in their areas. While a merchant from Nova Scotia and an American compared the challenges of farmers’ markets, one woman from Wisconsin and another from New Mexico discussed the restrictions of USDA inspections in dairy production. So, in the end, the talk always returned to the reason why they were there—to share and support in each other’s food production and marketing.

Everyone agreed that Terra Madre achieved something uncommon in the food industry: a setting for worldwide food communities to convene.

One American cheesemaker questioned whether such an event would be possible in the United States. Terra Madre was possible because of the support of all of Italy, from the 800 volunteers who worked each day of the conference and the innumerable Piemontese who hosted delegates in their homes, to the funding and ideological backing of the local, regional, and national governments. And I was impressed that locals seemed to feel as though it was their civic duty to support the conference.

Initially, I found myself criticizing the movement for being too utopian and too far-reaching. But the idealism gives hope to delegates who come from lives and places (such as Dakar) where cynicism and hopelessness reign, while the long view makes us realize that Slow Food’s objectives take time and patience to reach. And anyway, where else would Tibetan plateau yak cheese producers and Azerbaijani beekeepers connect?

I was left with the thought that a challenge for the movement is to strike a balance between the objectives of developed countries with those of developing countries–- to convince the haves to be less self-absorbed and the have-nots to stay strong in order to overcome the difficulties of their everyday battles. Petrini acknowledged this when he stated in Italian that “you need to be strong and have self-confidence … [because] self-confidence is what moves the world.”