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The Accidental Conscience: Slow Food lessons in lockdown

Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

We’re on the naughty step. Fate has put us in the corner with a dunce hat on. When we’re allowed back to the front of the class, maybe we will have found better values and have taken to heart the value of eating what we grow, being frugal in our use of ingredients and respectful of their value and the stupidity of waste when resources are precious.

Slow Food. It’s been a thing since its nascence in the late Eighties and exploded into a worldwide movement in the Nineties when the world grew a food conscience. Now, in our strange new locked-down world, it finds itself with a massive inadvertent following. The new “adherents” to the concept of Slow Food and what it means may largely not know that they are that; many of its new “followers” are accidental adherents of a cause they might not even have known was there.

When I first became aware of the Slow Food movement in the early 1990s I thought, “oh, it’s about cooking food slowly” – tough meats like oxtail and brisket, and mutton for curries. Turns out, that’s not what it is, even if it is a part of it. I had thought Slow Food had come out of peasant cooking, traditional ways, and it’s not entirely untrue to say or think that. But it’s not the movement’s raison d’être.

The Slow Food movement is a counterpoint to the massive popularity of fast food. Traditional cooking, cooking what is near you and what is produced sustainably. Cooking good and clean and fresh, like the old soap suds ad. But not cooking it to death so that your dish elicits a rebuke from the lady doing her washing in the old Eighties Omo ads: “Aaah nearly daaahd!”

In fact, good, clean, fair (not fresh) are the bywords of Slow Food. Good quality, clean as in free of bad things like insecticides and herbicides, and fair as in produced by people who need to make a humble living from what they grow or produce. Slow Food is the antithesis of f0od that is packed with preservatives and other nasties we’d rather not read on the tin. It’s the opposite of greasy fried food.

The movement started small in a town called Bra in northern Italy in 1986 and started to take off internationally in 1989. The mission was to prevent the disappearance of “regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life”, according to its official website: “The movement has evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognises the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture. Today Slow Food represents a global movement involving thousands of projects and millions of people in over 160 countries.”

In the words of the movement’s founder, northern Italian Carlo Petrini, the movement stands for certain clear values: become a co-food producer; eat food that is good, clean and just; build community.

Slow Food, he says, is a diet based on food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, using high quality locally sourced ingredients. Petrini has said the movement was born “with the aim of defending our extraordinary food heritage: the expression of territories and different cultures. To counteract the uniformity of fast food … Slow Food has been working around the world to protect biodiversity … not just of species, fruits, vegetables and animal breeds but also the diversity and therefore the savoir-faire of farmers, fishers and processors in every corner of the planet, to produce a diversity of foods.”

Savoir-faire is one of those hard-to-define concepts, like élan or ubuntu. You have a good idea of what it means but to explain it tends to fudge it more than define it. If a food producer of any type has savoir-faire, I imagine they feel they have the freedom to adapt to consumer demands, to trends in trade, to selling to whom they wish to sell, without being fettered by the red tape and overregulation that strangles the ability of many food producers to make a fair living from their very hard work. Read my colleague Louzel Lombard Steyn’s astute take on this.

In the Slow Food movement there is democracy, there is equanimity; the food of my corner of the Karoo (the lamb, the prickly pears, the fruit preserves, the citrus, the pecan nuts) is equal to the supposedly finest ingredients in France or in the grand food halls of First World capitals.

Petrini has said: “In the mid Nineties we realised it was not enough to simply say these products and production methods need to be protected, but it is also important to defend the communities and their economies that help to create and protect these products.”

So we need to look after the guy in the township who is growing vegetables in his yard … this happens and we should find that guy and buy from him. There are the wonderful women in Namaqualand who are modest but proud small-scale vegetable farmers, we need to be part of their market if we live somewhere nearby. 

Out of the quest for this, more than two decades ago, came something called the Presidia, as Petrini explains: “And so the idea of the Presidia was born, along with the idea of sponsoring a global meeting of food communities, those thousands of fishers, farmers and nomads who throughout the world produce our daily food. The meeting is called Terra Madre and every two years we meet in Turin.” One is scheduled for October 2020 although we must w0nder if it will happen at all.

But isn’t that a wonderfully grand vision in a world where most of the “grand visions” are not always helpful to the environment or to our human well-being.

Defend nature, air, water and soil. Defend the planet. Defend ourselves and our common future. That’s how I read the slow movement’s core ethos.

And don’t overcomplicate food. I often encounter people who see or taste a dish and remark, “That looks really simple to make”, as if that is somehow an insult, or just not good enough. That a good dish is a difficult one, a challenge to produce. While there are great dishes that most of us could not pull off, there is greatness too in the simplicity of a coq au vin, a tarte tatin (no, it’s not difficult to make, it just requires focus) or a tom yum soup.

Some of the best cooking is easy to do, as many of us have learnt during lockdown. More important than kitchen trickery and chopping board wizardry is to source (or better still grow) your products near to home, to support local people by buying their produce, and by treating raw, dew-fresh ingredients with respect by not destroying them in the pot.

Make your artisanal bread after our lockdown ends, keep that starter yeast going that you learnt to make when you weren’t allowed out of doors. Without wishing any ill on the massive bakeries that churn out dull, lifeless loaves, and mindful of the jobs that would be lost were they to go under, keep your newfound bread making abilities alive. A bit of a drop of interest in their lacklustre loaves department might be what our bakers need to persuade them to put more effort into creating a better loaf and consequently a profit better earned. Anyway, they must be paying attention and know, now, that they can no longer pull the wool over our eyes. We know now what a great loaf of bread looks and tastes like. And it ain’t that thing we used to buy.

Let’s buy sustainable everything. Let’s find the township prince who tends a patch of land and buy the vegetables he grows; let’s become a part of his market. Let’s choose the farm over the factory, the artisan food producer over the bulk supplier. Let’s buy fish from the fisher, right there on the slipway, instead of having to pay a premium to buy it from the firm he is bound to sell it to. Let’s take back what we lost when the franchises came along and cornered out all the small guys. Let’s find a space for the small guys to come back, to open their little gems in the streets of our cities and towns. The bulk food producers might not be the richer for it, but the rest of us will be. DM/TGIFood

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