Interview: Carlo Petrini

Categories: Features

Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food and one of the food world’s most influential thinkers, talks to Market Life about markets, tradition and a very special English cheese

Words: Alice Philipson
Image: Kunal Chandra

“I leave the young people to come up with ideas now,” says Carlo Petrini, taking a bite of a toasted ham sandwich in one of his favourite Art Deco cafes in the tiny Tuscan town of Montalcino. “I’ve had my time.”

For a fleeting moment, I almost believe him. Carlo founded Slow Food almost 30 years ago and has seen his Italian-born movement spread to all corners of the globe including Brazil, Kenya and South Korea. His success is undeniable and it seems unlikely anyone would begrudge him a quiet retirement in his native Piedmont, where he has lived all his life.

But he is still in the thick of it when we meet, ushering me to a quiet side street to escape a pack of TV journalists gathered to hear him speak at an annual celebration of Brunello, a fine Italian red wine produced in the surrounding vineyards of the hilltop town.

At 65, it is clear his passion for good food and protecting local produce is as strong as ever; he barely draws breath as he explains his “10,000 gardens in Africa project”, Slow Food’s response to the economic crisis, and why food markets are “crucially important” for the average grocery shopper.

There is one particular market, however, that he has grown to love since he first began working with local producers in the 1980s, helping them to protect and promote endangered foods: “Borough Market has transformed since I first knew it,” he says, “but it’s always been one of the best examples in the world of not just good produce, but of culture and a growing, sustainable economy.”

Defending traditions
The traditions of Borough Market, he says, are an embodiment of the spirit of Slow Food, the movement originally created by Carlo and a group of activists after a 1986 demonstration on the intended site of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome. Both institutions aim to defend regional traditions, good food and gastronomic enjoyment.

In the late 1980s, as fast food became widespread in an increasingly quick-paced, globalised world, Slow Food offered an alternative way of thinking about the way we consume and the way we live. Three years after the McDonald’s protest, the Slow Food manifesto was released in a Paris theatre. “Against the universal madness of the ‘fast life’,” the manifesto declared, “we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure. Against those—and there are many of them—who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practised in slow and prolonged enjoyment.”

Italy’s European neighbours Switzerland and Germany were among the first outside Italy to embrace the movement (Slow Food Germany was created in 1992, Slow Food Switzerland in 1993) and two decades on, it is now represented in more than 160 countries. Britain arrived late; Slow Food UK was created in 2007. But Carlo is keen to emphasise the importance of the British Isles, and Borough Market in particular, to the cause.

“Over the past 15 years, Borough Market has played an important role in the development of British agriculture, allowing a relationship to develop between citizens and food producers,” he reflects. “Its rise marked a new beginning for British production and a new way of doing things.” He believes passionately that food markets have a big role to play in the success of the Slow Food idea. Not only do they cut short our food’s journey from field to kitchen by allowing the producer to sell directly to the consumer, they crucially allow communication between the two. “Going into a market means meeting the producer, talking to them, and discovering what you’re eating,” he says.

Risk of disappearance
Borough Market is filled with Slow Food-accredited traders who reflect the movement’s philosophy of producing or sourcing ingredients. Many of the products sold in the Market have been given Slow Food recognition, marking them out as small-scale local products at risk of disappearance.

Carlo also relates to Borough Market’s strong sense of history. Traders selling grain, vegetables and livestock came to London Bridge as far back as the 11th century. The market then relocated to what is now known as Borough High Street in the 13th century, and a food market has existed there ever since. “Borough Market has strong ties to London’s past,” he says. “Which makes it not just a good market because it sells great produce, but because it maintains a cultural dignity too.”

Food rooted in the culture and traditions of its origins is a key part of Slow Food. Before its politicisation in the 1980s, the movement began in Carlo’s home town of Bra as an informal foodie group whose members liked to try out homemade specialities of age-old trattorias and drink the local wine. “Our movement changes day after day,” Carlo explains. “But it always relies on the knowledge of ancient techniques and ancient flavours. This is the strength of the movement and its people: we keep these memories in our heads but try to constantly create something new.”

Given his clear love of Borough, I wonder, does he have a favourite product from the Market? He leans back against the period red-velvet sofa, pondering my question. “There are so many I like,” he says, by way of explanation for the pause. “But stichelton is something special. Witnessing its birth was quite extraordinary and it’s wonderful to see how it has acted as a springboard to the renaissance of English cheese.”

Stichelton, made by Joe Schneider on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire and sold at Neal’s Yard Dairy, is one of very few unpasteurised English blue cheeses and achieves its distinctive taste due to a slow acidification of the curd and a very gentle set.

Famous admirer
No matter how far the movement spreads across the globe, it’s still vital to Carlo that Piedmont—the Northern Italian province where it all began—continues to embrace the Slow Food motto. Every two years a network of farmers, fishermen and food artisans, known as Terra Madre, meet in Turin to discuss the local food economy. It’s yet another scheme devised by Carlo to ensure all the key players in the food chain talk to one another and a love of good food is kept alive.

The Terra Madre concept spawned a book of the same name and in turn, earned him many new fans in his home country—including one rather famous admirer. On 28th September 2013, Pope Francis called Carlo on his mobile phone. “Around 7pm I saw that I had a phone call from a blocked number,” Carlo wrote in an Italian newspaper at the time. “Curious, I answered and on the other end of the line I heard a now familiar voice saying: ‘This is Pope Francis. I received your book and your letter and I wanted to thank you’.”

The pair talked about farming and the important role played by rural communities in food production. The Pope reportedly told Carlo that the work of these small-scale farms was “extraordinary” and that “money must not be the primary goal” (Italy is still struggling to emerge from the financial crisis, with its economy suffering three consecutive years without growth).

The words were music to Carlo’s ears. Across the world, he says, the pursuit of high profits has led to the degradation of the local environment and a shift in values. “We thought that the planet had infinite resources,” he tells me. “We didn’t respect the local produce, the local environment, the local citizens and now we’ve ended up in a mess.”

So, I ask, is this the most important challenge facing Slow Food today; to convince the world that it needs a new set of priorities post-financial crisis? “Yes,” he agrees. “In Europe—in countries like Italy and Britain—we are working so that the production of food has as little impact on the environment as possible. We must find new ways of doing things. This is today’s battle.”

And with that, he returns to his ham sandwich.