Slow progress

Categories: Features

Food writer, chef and regular Borough Market blogger Ed Smith tells us all about the Slow Food movement

Words: Ed Smith

Slow Food began in Northern Italy in 1989 as one man’s response to fast food and the increasingly fast pace of modern life. Now it is a movement spanning 160 countries, with more than 100,000 members, which seeks to support sustainable and diverse agriculture and traditional, artisan methods of food production. There are more than 10,000 recognised producers and around 1,000 forgotten foods catalogued for protection. A number of these producers and products can be found at Borough Market.

If, like me, you feel you have always known of Slow Food and its snail logo, but are not fully aware of what the words and symbol really stand for, then here’s a quick(ish) summary.

First and foremost, Slow Food is not about braising, pressure cookers and 12 hour stews! Rather, Slow Food links the pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and the environment. The aim is to reconnect people to where food comes from and how it is produced, so that we can understand the implications of the choices we make about the food on our plates.

The heritage of farming
One objective is to ensure that consumers understand how their food choices affect others further down the food supply chain. What is the real effect of buying cheap, mass produced food? What happens to farming and food in the long term if the world focuses on short term, quick and cheap gains? What methods of agriculture suffer and what might we lose? What role, as eaters, can we play in supporting food production, small-scale producers and the heritage of farming practices and native breeds?

The movement also promotes a change in pace of life. At a very basic level, that includes eating at the table and in a social environment—enjoying the company you’re in and thinking about how the food got to your plate, rather than guzzling on the go.

This all sounds pretty sensible, right? It’s my feeling there’s a direct and immediate benefit in seeking out the products Slow Food recognises, because those products usually taste damn good!

Traditional techniques
On a longer-term level, the Slow Food movement promotes and seeks to preserve certain exceptional (and indeed tasty) livestock and food products, the existence of which is threatened because the small-scale, traditional techniques used to produce them are at odds with industrial agriculture (and modern consumerism).

Slow Food UK, for example, runs a programme as part of Slow Food’s global Ark of Taste, which catalogues products and producers and aims to protect methods and breeds from extinction. On the list are breeds like Herdwick and badger face lamb, lop and Welsh pigs. There are also Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, Colchester native oysters, and artisan cheeses such as caerphilly, stichelton, red leicester, Somerset cheddars and double gloucester.

If those items sound familiar, it’s because they are all available at Borough Market. In fact, at least 43 Borough stallholders produce or sell Slow Food-recognised products and the Market has the highest concentration of Slow Food approved traders in Europe. Indeed, Borough was recently named Best Market by Slow Food London members for the fourth year running.

Stop. Think. Eat
I should mention that while Slow Food supports ‘local’ small scale producers, the movement is global. Slow Food’s message is not that we should only shop British—The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand, for example, is Slow Food recognised because it imports culatello di zibello, a rather stunning cured ham, which is catalogued as a global Ark product; similarly, Bianca e Mora, a charcuterie stand, stocks another Slow Food acknowledged ham, mora romagnola. How far and wide you choose to extend your shopping basket is just something to think about as an individual—and that, in fact, is the Slow Food message: Stop. Think. Eat.

A food market provides an opportunity to interact directly with artisan producers, and knowledgeable stallholders. This means a market such as Borough—and I write this with my freelance, impartial hat on—is the ideal place for the exchange of information and knowledge about food. That exchange is key to understanding and enjoying what we eat, and hopefully goes some way to support diversity provided through traditional methods of food production.

I wonder if some people, at a quick glance, might regard Slow Food as something that’s frugal, narrow, a bit old fashioned. After reading into the movement’s principles and aims, I think it’s anything but. It seems to me to be about pleasure, conviviality, diversity and richness.

Worth saving
Borough Market publish a monthly series called Standard bearers, which introduces the Slow Food traders and the Slow Food products made available to us through them. The series explains why those products are worth saving—I, for one, look out for it.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe that is both seasonal (brrr, it’s getting cold) and one that can use Slow Food-recognised, British native breed pork from Rhug Estate, Northfield Farm or The Ginger Pig, as well as artisan Somerset cheddar from a number of the cheesemongers in the Market: madeira braised pig cheeks and cheesy polenta. Enjoy (and take your time).