An everyday meal in classical Rome was frugal – a simple porridge of emmer wheat and broad beans would have been typical. But Romans set aside this frugality for civic banquets which played an important role in political, social and religious life. Such events, ostensibly a gathering of equals, was called a convivium.
The modern expression of a convivium lies at the heart of the Slow Food movement, which has over 1300 of these local chapters around the world, working to defend their culinary culture and support sustainable food production.
I was a delegate at Slow Food’s recent biennial celebration, held in Turin, Italy, at the invitation of its Northern Ireland convivium. The Salone del Gusto featured more than 1000 food producers from 130 countries, a dizzying culinary extravaganza, while the parallel Terra Madre conference explored the role of food and farming in tackling the world’s ecological, economic and social problems.
It is no wonder that the Slow Food movement was spawned in this region. Italians, it is clear, are as concerned about what they eat as what they so stylishly wear. They made up the vast majority of the 220,000 visitors to the event over its five days – eating, drinking, debating and buying with care.
To wander around the vast pavilions is a gastronomic education in itself. You’re confronted by delectable displays – threaded bunches of pomodori tomatoes, huge wheels of aged parmesan, salt–dried reindeer suovas, pungent, expensive truffles, rare wheats and rices, coffee beans and aromatic teas. There are great mounds of a hundred different cheeses, huge Iberico hams and delicate slices of prosciutto, Breton oysters and dried Icelandic catfish.…. and on and on and on. From Ireland, we brought raw milk cheese, the produce of 10 artisan dairies, all members of an Irish Presidium devoted to making distinctive high–quality cheeses.
If the Salone is a gastronomic celebration, the Terra Madre conference is altogether more cerebral. Over 300 events explored every avenue of the food debate. The renowned activist, Vandana Shiva, led a discussion on seeds as a key to food sovereignty; conference voices were raised against the devastating effects of over–fishing; the founding father of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, made an impassioned plea for better access to food, noting that more than enough food is produced to feed the world’s population.
Perhaps the most impressive thread of the event was the emphasis on learning. There were dedicated spaces for children and families, with a plethora of suitable activities, including the practical emphasis of the Master of Food courses. Then there were the students of Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Science, who invested the conference with all the energy, enthusiasm and joie de vivre that only committed young people can truly bring to the party – and party they did!
For me, one of most compelling sessions was on the capacity of agriculture, ecotourism and organic produce to stimulate beneficial development in some of Europe’s embattled economies. The focus was on the southern Mediterranean states but they could just as well have been talking about Ireland, North or South.
Discerning visitors to this island will already have discovered the quality of our raw ingredients, turned into culinary excellence by superb chefs in every county. The economic importance of agriculture is well recognised but most of it is for export on an industrial scale. There’s a clear case for enhanced support to our small scale producers – among them, the cheese–makers, brewers and bakers, organic growers and breeders. The growth of farmers’ markets in the last decade has been pleasing but the Italian passion for food, its deep–rooted culture of valuing food, shows us that, in Ireland, there is rich potential for much more development.
Our Belfast Food Network, working to turn Belfast into a Sustainable Food City, can work alongside Slow Food to realise some of that potential. And we’ll have learned a lot from the Turin Crowd.