Malcolm Jolley: Is ‘Slow Food’ the future? Taking in the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022

Slow Food was always about more than opposition to fast food
A booth on display at the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022. Photo credit: Malcolm Jolley.

The Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022 was held at the end of last month in Turin. Terra Madre (“Mother Earth”) is a sub-organization of Slow Food International, the Italian-based world movement founded by Italian Communist politician Carlo Petrini in the mid-1980s to promote the production and consumption of food that is “good, clean and fair”. I attended it for two of the five days that it ran, as a guest of the Italian Trade Agency in Canada.

The first Slow Food event I ever went to was in Toronto, in the mid-to-late-2000s. It was at Roberto Martella’s now defunct Grano restaurant, which was also established in the mid-1980s and quickly became a centre for the celebration of both Italo-Canadian culture (including, of course, food and wine) and a salon where new ideas learned about and discussed. True to form, that evening, Martella was right on trend.

Roberto and the Slow Food Toronto chapter organized a dinner, for a mixed crowd of foodies and trade people, comprised of local products and wines introduced by the makers and it was a good time. By the early 2010s Slow Food Toronto events, like their annual picnic at the newly renovated and repurposed Evergreen Brick Works, were hot tickets that attracted top chefs and winemakers and commanded the attention of the growing number of people taking a greater interest in what they ate, whether for epicurean, political, or cultural reasons, or some combination of all.

Slow Food was then more than a dining club, even if the main attraction to their events for many (like me) was more to do with the promise of a good meal made by an all-star team of top chefs than belonging to a political movement.1The galvanizing act that led to the formation of Slow Food was the protest against the opening of a McDonald’s at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

Slow Food was always about more than opposition to fast food. It was about the convivial and cultural power of “good food” and established the “Ark of Taste” to protect traditional foods. It was about “clean food” that’s made in sustainable ways that respect the natural environment. And it was about “fair food” that was made for the economic benefit of its producers.2Slow Food was, and is, a political movement, which skewed on the progressive end of the spectrum, and there would always be some kind of speech or polemic communication at their events.

More than a decade and a pandemic on, I wondered where Slow Food fit in a world where local provenance and environmental consciousness had been adopted into the mainstream. Would the Salon del Gusto be more like a political convention, where the Terra Madre producers and Slow Food convivial would meet and plot the vanguard action of the good food revolution? Or would it be more like a party? (You can imagine which version of Terra Madre I was hoping for.)

Terra Madre turned out to be a bit of both. There were all kinds of seminars and demonstrations that focused on the clean and fair aspects of Slow Food. There was also an official address by Petrini and a panel with the incoming board of directors of the organization, as well as networking going on between the delegates sent by various countries from around the world.3The theme of the show was “regeneration”, specifically after the shock of the pandemic, which had caused Terra Madre 2020 to be cancelled. It was held in the ruins of an old smelter, on the banks of the Doria, a tributary that flows into the Po in Turin. The industrial site has been converted into a public park, Parco Doria, and the event was open to the public.

It worked as a kind of giant farmers market, with tents full of producers from all of Italy’s 20 administrative regions, and another open area of stalls with producers and delegations from all over the world. I was there on Friday and Saturday and saw lots of families doing their shopping, as Slow Food delegates engaged in serious-looking conversations beside them.

It had the air of a fall fair, and displays like a long table on which samples of every known dried bean known to humanity were arrayed. With each was a card with information from whence it came, and sometimes a picture of it on the stalk. This was surprisingly popular with children. Another booth was run by the Italian association of free-range honey producers and encouraged visitors to rate blindly a selection of honeys from around the country.

It also worked as a kind of trade show. I was one of a handful of foreign journalists brought to Terra Madre by the Italian Trade Agency operating in our respective home countries. But we were in the larger company of buyers, who had come from around the world looking for interesting Italian products to import. Deals were being made all over (presumably fair ones).

Wandering around the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto, talking to producers and eating and drinking it all in, as it were, I came up with three main takeaways about the event.

The breadth and depth of Italian food and wine are colossal

I spent an hour or so one morning in the tent that housed exhibitors from the Southern Italian region of Calabria, in which I tasted roughly a dozen different ‘nduja’s.4‘Nduja is a tangy, soft, and moist spreadable sausage, liberally spiced with pepperoncini peppers that can be found in Canadian specialty stores but is still rare enough outside of its natural habitat to be considered exotic. I didn’t set out to taste all the nduja, but once I had two or three it seemed like a logical course of action. I don’t know how many nduja producers there are in Calabria, but I am comfortable speculating that the ones who travelled to Turin for Terra Madre represent a small fraction of the total.5The same must be true for all the dozens upon dozens of olive oil, pasta, salumi, cheese, and other items set out to be sampled or bought by the Terra Madre producers.

Wine at Terra Madre had its own tent and sitting area, the Enoteca. There one could buy tickets for a glass of one of just under 500 wines or vermouths. All of them poured by uniformed sommeliers, ready to answer questions about each label.6This would be a feat unto itself, except the wines all came from, and only came from, Turin’s home region of Piedmont. There are 19 other administrative regions of Italy, all of which produce wine, some of which produce a lot, but this insanely broad sample featured only one.

No doubt some of the pasta producers at Terra Madre dream of being the next Barilla, and some of the wine producers would happily take their place next to big producers like Zonin or Marchese Antinori. But the scale of small, family-run production throughout food and wine is impressive to ponder and sank in as I made it from the tent of each region, through the rows of tables laid out with their wares.

The (slow) food is the message

There were a number of stages and seminar areas throughout the Terra Madre grounds. Sometimes they would be holding tastings or panel discussions.7The most popular one I saw was for the Slow Food-run University of Gastronomic Sciences, which drew in groups of high school kids to visit the show. Who wouldn’t want to go?

But by far the most popular areas, and the places with the most action, were the stalls of the producers who engaged their churning audiences with madly sliced cheese, dried balsamic vinegar on little wooden spoons, or anchovies stuck with toothpicks. They not only knew how to speak on their products (sometimes even in English), but they were also doing brisk business. People came for the goods and real programming was eaten and drunk.

Italian food production is back to the future

The first rule of going on press trips is don’t complain about going on press trips. So, I am not complaining when I report that I had a six-hour layover at the Munich airport on my way home. The gastronomic entertainment at MUC was not nearly as diverse or interesting as what I’d seen and tasted in the days before in Turin. Over a schnitzel and a stein of beer it occurred to me that my hosts at the Italian Trade Agency had done more than show me excellence in that country’s food and wine production.

It also occurred to me that they had done more than show me that excellence can, and more often than not is, be made in a way that is good, clean, and fair. I knew all of that already; I am in the choir singing about it every day. What Terra Madre showed me was that smaller-scale companies, often family-owned or co-operatively run, can create an economic ecosystem that brings employment and growth across the entirety of Italy. Is this the back to the future of manufacturing, or even agriculture, in the West? If it is, we’re all going to eat and drink very well.

In my next column, I will profile a few specific producers, especially winemakers, I met at Terra Madre 2022.

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