In the last week I have been on a food pilgrimage to the biannual Slow Food Festival, Terra Madre in Turin. The Piedmonte capital city becomes the destination of 7000 delegates from 160 countries, representing every corner of the planet. Farmers, food producers, cooks, teachers and young people all connected in a common interest of the food we eat and issues of food security at local and global level. Terra Madre is a festival of food communities, where food culture and diversity are celebrated, like minds and hearts meet, ideas are exchanged.
Workshops, seminars, talks, debates and national meetings take place, translated into 6 languages. Films, music, art, craft and national costumes colour the spectacle. Running alongside this Olympic games of food culture, is the Salone Del Gusto, a food exhibition where 2000 traders from all over the world exhibit their wares in an epic market place, under the roof of the former Fiat car factory. Yes, it’s mad. The overwhelm of olive oil, balsamico, Canadian red wheat, blue corn, cereals, poppy seeds, air dried Romanian mutton, fruit pasta from Azerbaijan, apricots from Afghanistan, rare varieties of Dehradun rice, more cheeses than can be comprehended, all create a gastronomic cacophony.
This is not the preserve of the privileged, alongside the likes of Lavazza and San Daniele hams, trades the small producer from the humblest background with a delegation of indigenous communities with air dried meats and forest berry preserves. The united nations of the small producer food world gather, trade and exchange ideas. The gastronomic cognescenti mix with culinary novices. For 5 days a few acres of Turin becomes the centre of the food world.
Despite having mixed opinions on the running of Slow Food UK, I remain resolutely committed to message of Slow Food’s core tripartite of Good, Clean and Fair. I spent time with some inspiring and creative members of the UK food community. Amongst them, Highland crofters from Shetland Isles and Skye, a breeder of Welsh sheep, farming on the side of Snowdon, a charcuterie producer (and winner of the Observer Food Magazine Producer of the Year no less) from Monmouthshire, a food scientist and academic from University of Plymouth, a talented and accomplished Indian chef specializing in British cuisine, who runs Slow Food Cornwall, and some of my old muckers from Slow Food London, to name but a few. In a 4 day marathon we tasted, sipped, compared, recounted this or that lecture and debated the food frenzy.
Slow Food founder and leader Carlo Petrini
The Terra Madre is about the spirit of community and for me the salient issue is how this that can be realistically channelled into the work we do and love.
After the Last Terra Madre in 2008, the UK chef delegation pledged to teach young people about food and the wider issues. I committed to teaching young people in deprived areas of London.
After nearly 2 years of this work I have started a teaching programme, which teaches cooking and places equal emphasis on sitting at the table, eating and talking. It has successfully linked urban young people with the bigger picture of their food.
Over the last year, I have run a weekly class with London Local Authority Southwark, in their Targeted Youth Service, teaching young people involved with crime or those at high risk and their families. The experience convinced me of its benefits and the potential for further developing it.
At a summer course I ran, I asked the group how the recent Pakistan floods & Russian fires might affect us here. ‘Wheat prices will increase’ they said. I was bursting with pride as my cohort of Bermondsey youngsters had clearly been paying attention at a visit to London craft baker, Flour Power City, who generously indulged us in a bread tasting of their entire range with a talk which commanded their full attention (no small task).
Which leads me straight into the co highlight of the last week. I gave a demonstration on an estate in Camberwell, which was launching a new food growing garden project. My demonstration featured the vegetables planned for harvesting next year. A wide selection of residents ranging from half term holiday school kids, to older pensioners from an eclectic mix of backgrounds and cultures enjoyed a 4 course vegetable based feast.
The most inspiring thing about community cooking is the way a group comes to life as they engage in conviviality and food discussion. It is never long before stories of ‘my nan used to make….’ and 'back home, we would ....’. And the exchange of ideas and wisdom unfolds. A far cry from a packet being opened and thrown in the microwave, eaten in isolation.
One resident made a tea from the leaves of the quince tree. Adnam is originally from Turkey and is a Camberwell forager, although he doesn’t consider it foraging, more like common sense. He explained that quince and lime leaves should be picked when flowering, then dried and used for making herbal teas. He indulged us all with quince leaf or lime leaf tea, sweetened with his own Kennington Park Lodge honey. This will see off sore throats and build up immunity for winter months. I imagined that this has passed down a very long line of Turkish wisdom. Everyone was touched by this example of zero food miles, available and free in their own estate.
The menu of hearty vegetable broth, cheddar, leek & onion potatoes skins, spicy cauliflower fritters and quince, apple & pear stewed in syrup which was whipped up in front of them within an hour was well received and critical acclaim was in order.
The residents all enjoyed the demo and said they were amazed at how these standard everyday vegetables had been transformed into a delicious meal so quickly and easily. I had really enjoyed being part of this day, learning myself yet another pearl of wisdom about the blessed quince and witnessing the residents of a South London estate becoming engaged in food growing, cooking and seeing their food horizons, visibly expanded.
This was a real Terra Madre story.