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Slow progress: dispatches from Terra Madre

Categories: News and previews

A report from Slow Food’s biggest ever festival: Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016

Words: Mark Riddaway
Images: Tullio M Puglia/Getty Images, Alessandro Vargiu/Archivio Slowfood

It was almost exactly 30 years ago that Carlo Petrini and a group of fellow activists, appalled by the planned opening of a branch of McDonald’s by Rome’s iconic Spanish Steps, began to lay the foundations for an organisation that would fight back against the encroachment of industrialised food production into a nation with a deep-seated pride in its culinary traditions. Since then, what began as a local protest has evolved to become a truly global movement: Slow Food. Every two years, its members return to its birthplace—Italy—for a truly epic celebration of good food, sustainable production and regional diversity.

The first Salone del Gusto food festival was held in 1996, while the first Terra Madre conference took place in Turin in 2004. The two events now been combined into single gathering with the rather wordy name (albeit one that sounds great when enunciated by an Italian) of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. In part, it is a vast forum for idea, in part a massive marketplace.

Kate Howell, Borough Market’s director of development and communications, was one of the delegates at this year’s event, which closed last week. This was her first visit to Terra Madre, and one that left her with plenty to digest, both literally and figuratively. “It was overwhelming in the best possible sense of the word,” she says. “Even if you came away with just a nugget, you still came away richer.”

The whole of the city
For Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016, proceedings moved beyond the walls of Turin’s famous Lingotto building, its usual venue, and out into the city’s streets and squares—and the impact of this change was huge. Shane Holland, director of Slow Food UK, says: “It literally took over the whole of Turin. More than 1.2 million people attended. The last time we had Terra Madre, two years ago, 300,000 attended. This year, it quadrupled in size, and that’s all about Slow Food values: it was free to attend and had a direct relationship with the city, so people flooded to it. It was just extraordinary.” 

For five days, delegates gathered from far and wide. “It was the whole of Slow Food worldwide, gathering in one place,” says Kate, “with thousands of people from across the globe bringing their experiences together, their foodstuffs together. We talk about Borough being a melting pot—this was the whole of Turin being a melting pot.”

Themed around ‘loving the earth’, a huge programme of lectures, seminars and panel discussions covered subjects ranging from food waste to the future of food. Kate sat on a panel discussing how best to ‘shorten the value chain’—in other words, reduce the number of steps between producer and consumer. The entire debate was simultaneously translated into four languages—Italian, English, French and Japanese—a further indication of the vast scope of the event.  

Triggering interest
With so much on offer, the hardest thing at Terra Madre, according to Shane, is deciding what to do at any given time. “I would wake up every morning and I ask, what am I going to look at today? Even if you go out to Terra Madre with a really fixed plan, it will quickly disappear. You’ll go to something or hear something and it will trigger an interest you didn’t even know you had. I think that’s what’s really exciting: you end up discovering things that you previously knew very little about, if anything.

“I met a fascinating group of African apiarists, who told me how they climb trees without any ropes or ladders to collect honey. Equally, I was talking to my European colleagues about dealing with some pretty dry regulatory stuff. There’s a whole variety of things, from very technical things to really astounding stories about traditional food production.”

Kate was there to absorb as much as possible, but also to offer her own insights into Borough Market’s highly unusual model. “We wanted to share our experiences of how we operate—and it was a real mind-opener for some people,” she says. “They were blown away by the fact that the Market is run by a charitable trust and has survived here for a thousand years. We met lots of people who run markets, or who are looking at setting up new markets, and I think we were able to give them some really valuable perspectives.”

Affecting choices
For Kate, one of most striking things about Terra Madre was seeing the influence of Slow Food on the city as a whole, and the disparity between its profile in Turin and its profile in London. “Here at the Market, we have the largest concentration of Slow Food traders anywhere in Europe, but Slow Food maybe doesn’t resonate with the British public quite as strongly as we’d like,” she explains. “In Italy, it means something to the man on the street. It is not only part of their way of thinking, their way of life, it is also an active campaigning organisation that genuinely affects consumer behaviour. People choose restaurants that are Slow Food rated, they’ll shop for ingredients that have Slow Food credentials. They recognise the logo and they know exactly what it means. That’s what we want to see more of over here. Slow Food status has to mean something; it has to affect your choices.”

Shane agrees that increasing awareness of Slow Food in the UK is an important challenge for his branch of the movement. “This year’s Terra Madre was officially opened by the Italian president, which I think really underlines the importance of Slow Food in Italy,” he says. “There is clearly a difference between how people in English-speaking countries—Australia, the United States, the UK—view food, compared to our continental cousins. They have a less industrialised food system and one that works in a different way to ours.”

The answer, he says, is to keep plugging away, promoting the ethos of Slow Food and telling the stories of the devoted producers who work hard to keep alive traditional forms of production. “We have just had Slow Food Week, which had events and festivals running right across the country. There was been a huge amount in the media—articles in newspapers, lots on Radio 4. Our relationship with Borough is really important too—it’s a relationship that’s really long-standing. That’s why it’s really important for them to be out there at Terra Madre, experiencing it.”