Standard bearers: Gastronomica

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Germana of Gastronomica

“You can taste the grass,” Germana of Gastronomica marvels, her face glowing with pride—“actually taste the grass. It is amazing.” She is talking about bettelmatt, a cheese which in its quality and provenance encapsulates the meaning of Slow Food.

It hails from one producer, living at the foot of one mountain near the Alpe Morasco, Piedmonte. Their cows graze on one pasture, the Punta dei Camosci, and the particular herb that pasture is home to is what Germana is tasting; Alpine lovage, or erba mottolina.

“These people are specialists. They have to be. If you are not, you cannot create such things.” Put bettelmatt at the mercy of market forces dominated by mechanisation, Germana argues compellingly, and it would disappear very quickly.

Small farmers
“The big supermarkets demand huge quantities so they can sell at low prices. Small farmers, who make by hand, who care about what they do and look after their animals, cannot possibly compete.”

They would die out, she continues, were it not for the likes of founder Marco Vineis and the whirligig of enthusiasm he brings, via Gastronomica, to Borough Market.

“The stall is about educating people—what to do with the food and why it’s different and special. Watching him unwrap a new product he’s found in Italy and brought back over, it is like seeing a child at Christmas.”

Expertly channelled
His quest for produce is insatiable; his enthusiasm contagious, and expertly channelled by Germana, the stall’s manager, during his food-finding missions. “Every month he finds a new product: last week it was a special wine and sugar breadstick, from Santa Maria in Puglia, made in a small family bakery.”

She hasn’t tried it yet—when you’re working with Marco there is barely any time between one delicacy arriving and the next—but she is looking forward to doing so.

“The thing about a small, family producer is they care passionately. They know their land, know their animals, look after them, know where they have grazed, make the cheese by hand,” she continues. “It is just not the same making a million wheels of cheese with milk from all over the place.”

Entire economies
It is not the same for the consumer, it’s not the same for the producer, and perhaps most importantly, it is not the same for the communities whose entire economies can revolve around an artisanal product.

Each region has its specialities: burrata from Puglia, salame toscano from Tuscany, pancetta coppata from Emilia Romagna and so on. Even within that there are variations among the many producers through which Mario has to sift.

“He goes to the region, visits a lot of producers, sees the animals and how they look after them. He tries the food and chooses the best,” Germana explains. A friendship builds up between them which, often, will lead him to other interesting products or producers in the area, regenerating the local economy and adding ever more variety to Gastronomica’s abundant supply list.

Famous cheesemaking
One powerful example of this happening occurred in a village in the famous cheesemaking region of Castelmagno in Piedmont. There the economy was in such straits, no children were born for more than 17 years.

Supported by Gastronomica through their eponymous cheese, Castelmagno has experienced a gradual resurgence to the extent that some months ago, his suppliers Riccardo and Maria had their first baby: a beacon of hope for the village.

“We believe that poor rural economies have great potential if supported by effective organisation,” is Marco’s mantra—“and that Italy’s mountain cheeses (and other traditional foods) are literally masterpieces.”

The nebbiolo grape
So what do we get out of it? Well, the merits of slow production are well documented (not just by us), and extend beyond the communities to your taste buds. As Germana says of the testun al barolo, a cheese which ages for five months under the husks of the nebbiolo grape: “I can speak and speak, but you have to put it in your mouth; you have to taste the flavour to understand.”

How can pork that’s intensely roasted for less than two hours (as the ‘slow-roast’ pork you’ll often find in supermarkets is) be the same as that roasted for six and a half? How can a parmesan aged for the bare minimum taste the same as one well matured by someone who Marco has met, from cows he knows?

“The thing I want to really express is the passion Marco has. Our job is to explain, he always says, not to make money: to teach people what is this cheese, this ham, this bread, where it is made, why it is different, what to do with it, which kind of wine you serve it with,” she says.

Little and often
“Everyone wants parmesan and mozzarella, but a small, beautiful cheese no one has heard of takes time to explain.” So she takes time to explain it, stressing that to get the best you should buy little and often—and savour each hard-earned mouthful. The proof of Slow Food, after all, is in the (slow) eating.