Eating the Slow Food way

2008-05-30 00:00

Slow food is a phrase that seems to have entered the language although no one’s quite sure whether it means you should cook slowly, eat slowly, or if it’s something to do with slow service in restaurants. In fact it is the name of a movement that originated in Italy in the eighties and has since spread worldwide. Slow Food — Cucina Lento in Italian — has its headquarters in Bra near Genoa in northern Italy and was started by journalist and gourmet Carlo Petrini in 1986 in response to the advent of fast food.

“Everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that makes this pleasure possible,” reads the Slow Food philosophy on the website www.slowfood.com “Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy — a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.

“We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.”

The Slow Food organisation now has 83 000 members with 1 000 convivia (branches) in over 130 countries. There are two Slow Food convivia in South Africa, in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

To start a Slow Food convivium you need a minimum of four or five people to form a committee; once the membership reaches 20 it can receive official recognition. That’s what local restaurateur Peter Hall, who with his wife Cathy runs the Cooking Bear Restaurant in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, is hoping to do in the near future. “Slow Food mustn’t be a commercial thing. The convivium will be run outside the ambit of the restaurant,” he says. “It should be a group of foodies who want to find out more about food.”

“Take beef. We would go and visit farms, see how the animals are bred — look at feed-lot beef and free-grazing animals. One method gets beef to the table in 14 months, the other in three years. We would cook the meat in different ways, and see if one tastes better than the other.”

Tim Truluck, spokesperson of the Johannesburg Slow Food convivium, says members are food enthusiasts. “Convivium means ‘a feast’ and our members range from accountants, engineers, housewives — the chair of the Johannesburg convivium is a retired chemical engineer.”

Truluck says the purpose of Slow Food is to learn about the taste of food and different kinds of food. “We look for the smaller producers, we are basically against the industrialisation of food. Slow Food is really about the rediscovery of food, we try to get members to think about the food they are eating, its freshness, taste and where it comes from.”

Thinking about what you are eating sooner or later raises ethical concerns over methods of production: “Ask your butcher where your chickens come from. If they are battery don’t buy them,” says Truluck.

Asked about environmental issues resulting from transporting food long distances, Truluck says the Slow Food emphasis is on food produced locally. “It’s about what’s available in my neighbourhood. Like the markets you see in Italy and France where a farmer will come along with a couple of geese and 20 eggs. We try to find those smaller local producers and support them.”

Very often smaller producers grow or produce foods that are out of the ordinary both in taste and quality. Truluck cites the case of Spanish ham. “It is imported into South Africa but there is a local version and it’s cheaper. Slow Food is about hunting out these food gems.”

According to Petrini, Slow Food’s founder, you cannot be a true gourmet without being a conservationist and Slow Food is also about protecting our food heritage. “Slow Food believes the enjoyment of excellent food and drink should be combined with efforts to save the traditional grains, vegetables, fruits, animal breeds and food products that are disappearing due to the prevalence of convenience food and industrial agribusiness,” says the Slow Food website. “It does this by creating ‘arks of taste’ to identify and record threatened species.”

In South Africa this means searching out ingredients that are in danger of disappearing because of the industrialisation and commercialisation of food production, says Truluck. “For example, supermarkets want only one kind of tomato and as a result indigenous local products are disappearing. ‘Arks of taste’ are about trying to support them.”

Truluck recently held a tasting of jams and preserves made from indigenous fruits ranging from marula jelly through to Cape gooseberry jam and umsobo (nastergal) jam that is made just up the road at Van Reenen. “The umsobo berry is a member of the nightshade family, they are usually poisonous but this is one you can eat. The jam is a good example of something that qualifies to be included in an ‘ark of taste’.”

The midlands throws up its own “ark of taste” with slow food practitioners such as Fran Vermaak of Swissland Cheese. “We keep to the old style of cheese making,” she says, “hands-on and no chemicals.”

Swissland Cheese is well known for its many varieties of goat’s cheese. “We produce these in the summer months,” says Vermaak. “But in the winter goats do not produce milk so we shift to cow’s milk, but we do not mix the two.”

Bill Frost of Graceland Organic Dairy Products produces quality cheese and yoghurt using organic milk that he sells at the Karkloof and Shongweni farmers’ markets. “The milk is sourced locally from cows that are pasture fed,” he says, “They are not fed any additives or premixed meal and hormones.”

Another regular at the farmers’ markets is Graham Taute, well known for his authentic French breads. “I’m influenced by French traditional methods of bread making,” he says. “The French refer to the sort of bread you buy in the supermarket as ‘cooked dough’.”

Taute makes his own yeast and uses stoneground flour. “It’s a 36 to 48-hour process,” he says. “The slow process lies at the heart of what bread is. It’s all about lengthy fermentation periods, increased nutritional value and low GI [glycaemic index].”

Pino Canderle adopts the Slow Food approach at his La Lampara restaurant. “We try to work to Slow Food principles, using local farmers for the products we want.” This includes tomatoes and vegetables that are otherwise difficult to obtain such as artichokes, celeriac and radicchio. “And it’s not just about eating. You should embrace how you eat, what you eat, how you approach your food.

“Slow Food involves everything, including bringing back vegetables we’ve stopped using and methods of farming that have been lost as a result of commercialisation. In Italy and France every square inch of available land is cultivated, every house has its vegetable patch. Slow food is a whole lifestyle, you need to get away from fast food, slow down and enjoy life more.”

• Recipes from Slow Food Festival participants are on our website at www. witness.co.za

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