Savor food, savor life

Slow Food movement exalts regional tastes, unhurried preparation, convivial consumption

By Christine Barbour

March 26, 2003

Like Dorothy's ruby slippers, food has the power to bring us home, connecting us to the people, traditions, and places that we love, in ways as personal as our fingerprints. Our food fantasies (doesn't everyone have them?) tell us a lot about the magical force of food in our lives. Most of mine revolve around delicious food that tastes exactly like itself (no fussiness, no clever-chef affectation), the company of much loved friends and family members and the blessed gift of time to savor it all.

As our harried lives make fast food eaten on the run the default meal for many of us, and chain grocery stores from coast to coast increasingly sell the same mass produced foods without regard to regional tastes and preferences, making our food fantasies happen takes a good deal of dedicated effort. And yet, whether our fantasies begin with farm market shopping and small, artisan food producers, or with gardening, foraging, hunting, or fishing for our food ourselves, more and more of us are drawn to finding ways of eating that restore our relationship to our food and to each other.

Food movement

It was with just that intention that Italian Carlo Petrini began the Slow Food movement in 1986. Fearful that the food available to consumers was becoming too standardized, and concerned that local food traditions and regional specialties were being lost in the process of globalization, Petrini founded the organization to support native food producers and food culture and to emphasize the satisfaction that can come from eating regionally, leisurely, and sociably.

The main project of Slow Food is to identify foods that are in danger of being lost to the Fast Food juggernaut — exceptional regional foods produced by artisans on a small scale that cannot compete with mass production techniques but which have a long and delicious heritage worth preserving. Movement members work to add these foods to the Slow Food Ark of Taste — a roster of foods in need of rescue which now includes all manner of cheeses, fruits and vegetables, honeys and preserves, meats and fish. Grassroots efforts promote, subsidize and defend these Ark foods — working to get them onto restaurant menus, household shopping lists and local political agendas to help ensure their survival. 

A respect for origins

I don't claim to be objective about this movement — I love the philosophy of Slow Food. Though I have made dinners for which most of the ingredients have arrived at my house by express mail from far off places, even that eccentric behavior reflects my effort to buy foods from the people who produce them when they are fresh and authentic and taste their best. For me, Slow Food is a way to cook and eat attentively and spiritually, rooted in deep respect for the food, for my companions and for the Earth.

My commitment to the ideals of the Slow Food movement, along with my political scientist's fascination with a grassroots effort to reinforce community and quality of life, sent me on my way, last October, to attend the Slow Food Salone del Gusto (Halls of Taste). The Salone is a gathering of hungry and food-obsessed people who congregate every two years at an elegantly renovated Fiat factory on the outskirts of Torino, Italy, to taste good things from the Ark and to talk and learn about food. 

For a food lover, it may be the most fun you can have. Part food fest, part trade show, part ideological showcase for the merits of biodiversity and ecological awareness, the Salone is a horde of people eating, sipping, chatting, and sharing a common passion. 

There are tasting workshops of all kinds (we looked like hungry U.N. delegates with our headsets tuned to our native languages), organized visits to restaurants with famous guest chefs from around the world, awards ceremonies, and speeches on culinary geopolitics. Mostly, however, there was the food.

While participants come to the Salone from all over the world, it is naturally easier for Europeans, and especially Italians, to make the trek. The British and the Irish were big presences, with lots of cheese (a Stilton that alone made the trip worthwhile), some wonderful preserves and chutneys, single malt Scotches and real ale. 

Besides smoked wild Irish salmon and English raw milk cheddar cheese, other international Ark foods included basmati rice and mustard seed oil from India, four kinds of Andean fruit from Peru, nutty Argan oil from Morocco, the Tolosa black bean from Spain, the smoked Oscypek cheese from Poland and the intense Huehuetenango coffee from Guatemala.

This year, Slow Food USA got hung up at customs and saw their cheese products confiscated. Still, they were present with samples of various microbrews, pecans, dried cranberries and apricots, and Sharffen Berger chocolate from California.

The Italian section was so massive, it was organized into separate roads or paths: la via del formaggio (cheese), la via dei salumi (cured meats), la via dei dolci (sweets), la via dei pescatori (fish), la via dell'olio (olive oil galore) and so on, and on, and on. 

As we strolled up and down these wide, indoor boulevards, 138,000 of us over the course of the Salone's five days, we sampled cheeses both common and rare, along with dried meats, proscuittos, salamis, and sausages. We sipped and compared olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars; we swirled and sniffed and tasted innumerable Italian wines and spirits, including grappas poured from stunning glass bottles, and sticky sweet liqueurs. We savored cool gellati, (the granddaddy of ice creams), crunched biscotti and bread sticks, and gleefully consumed chocolates, cheesecakes, and candies. 

Trips to countryside wonders

In the end, however, it was the Slow Itineraries, organized day trips out of Torino, that brought home to us the living heart of the Slow Food movement in a way the giant food hall and clinical taste workshops, no matter how impressive or how much fun, did not. 

We saw it most clearly in Novara, during a day spent with husband and wife tour guides who introduced us to a family who made wine on centuries-old vineyards, to a young cheese maker who supervised the production of sweet blue veined Gorgonzola, to bread lovers who traveled high up into the hills to beg a stingy and eccentric baker to sell them his incomparable rustic farm bread, to a young chef who cooked a savory Sunday lunch in a small town restaurant while her toddler played on the dining room floor. 

A t the close of a full, satisfying day we asked them whether they led such tours often. No, as it turned out, these were not even their real jobs. He was a doctor, a professor of internal medicine at the local university; she worked in a bank. They were local Slow Food leaders, devoting their Sunday to sharing with strangers the treasures and pleasures of their own regional table. For many Slow Food supporters like these two, there really is no place like home.

Click here for more information about the Slow Food Movement

Here's just one slow food fantasy, dreamed up from the depths of a blustery March.

I am up with the sun on an early spring Saturday, drinking a honey sweet cup of tea, infinite time on my hands to plan a dinner for friends. Visiting the Farmer's Market for spring onions, rhubarb, goat cheese, and crusty baguettes. Out to my garden for fresh asparagus, early peas and baby lettuce, scavenging the woods for hidden morels. A fricassee of mushrooms to start, then homemade fettuccini with spring's first vegetables, buttery, flaky rhubarb tart and aged goat cheese. Setting aside time to prepare wonderful local food, taking pleasure in good talk with good friends, letting the evening unfold with each unhurried course, each story told, each burst of laughter.

Pasta with spring vegetables

Serves eight as a first course, four as a main course

1 pound asparagus, tough ends snapped off, cut on diagonal into 2 inch pieces

1 cups shelled fresh peas (or thawed frozen)

2 cups other green spring vegetables, as available (pea pods, baby artichokes, broccoli rabe or broccoli florets), cut into bite sized pieces

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (homemade if possible, but canned is okay)

8 spring onions, sliced

1 head green garlic, chopped (if available, use one clove regular garlic, if not)

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.

1 pound fettuccini, fresh or dried

1 handful (at least 1/2 cup) of finely chopped herbs (flat leaf parsley, basil, chervil, or tarragon will all work, but the flavor of the dish will vary depending on which you choose, so taste first).

1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (you can use other kinds of Parmesan, but this tastes better)

1/2 cup lightly toasted pine nuts (Don't skip the toasting step. It takes just a few minutes in a sauté pan or a 350 degree oven, and it makes a big difference in the flavor).

Salt and pepper to taste (Vegetables need a lot of salt, but broth can be salty. The only way to get this right is to taste).

Combine butter and olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onions and garlic until softened. Add 2 cups of broth to sautéed vegetables and bring to a simmer. Add vegetables according to length of cooking time required (asparagus needs 5-7 minutes, peas 2-3). You want the vegetables retain some crispness. Add more broth if necessary. Stir in herbs.

While vegetables are simmering, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water according to package directions. Do not overcook, pasta should remain firm to the bite. Drain and transfer to a warm serving bowl.

Toss pasta with vegetables, broth and 1/2 cup grated cheese. Sprinkle with pine nuts.

Serve immediately, passing extra cheese at the table.

Food Fare columnist Christine Barbour can be reached at She's still collecting readers' thoughts on the area's best french fries.