Rare Breeds Trust Australia – Terra Madre Report
Terra Madre October 26-30, 2006, Torino, Italy
Even after two months, I’m still working through what attending Terra Madre meant to me. Here are some first thoughts, and when I edit the video I took, there will be some more that I’ll share with you. I’m grateful for the opportunity to ride shotgun as journalist with the Rare Breeds Australian contingent. Thanks for the invite, it was worth all those hours with my knees under my chin in the plane.
The Book of Terra Madre
Do you know the famous Woody Guthrie photo with his guitar painted with the slogan, “This machine kills fascists”? Well, this book could be similarly graffitied. Everyone, I’ve handed it to, or slid it to across the table to, gets my five minute rave but then they read a bit and go “Wow, amazing!’.
Food fascists, certainly the supermarkets, exploiters of small producers, promoters of unsustainable monoculture, instigators of environmental rape, perpetrators of divisive social changes and just plain food business stupidity all cop it here. Its matter of fact presentation just makes it more significant. It leaves the emotional arguments to us.
It’s a big book. Weighty, (you can drop it on aforementioned food fascists from a height and it would at least maim), 760 pages, soft cover. (They’re available online but it might be worth getting your Slow Food convivium to buy a bundle and save postage. Make sure you order the English not Italian version.) I’ve included links here to most of the information that’s in it.
As an object, the book has a lot of value.
It contains the addresses and specialties of the 1600 food communities that attended the Terra Madre event in Turin from 130 countries around the world. That’s pretty amazing itself as a list. But, there are also the projects of the Slow Food Presidia, set up to protect disappearing food specialties, crops, animals, wild produce and biodiversity. (The preservation of endangered regional food culture is under the Slow Food banner of Ark of Taste).
Stepping into the nearby annual food fair, the Salone del Gusto, the rows of stalls from the various Presidia are the first things you see. These were small booths, all with common signage, with printed brochures in Italian, English and the language of the Presidium – all supplied by Slow Food. Re-reading the ones in the book reinforces how amazing that was. There are 250 pages of the work of the European Presidia listed, something that reflects the Italian head start (or concern), 24 from the Americas, a mere 8 from Asia, 5 from Africa and from our area Oceania… none.
I could have spent days in these aisles alone, asking questions, looking at produce. There were a couple of larger stands such as for the Americas, but walking past these mostly European booths was both depressing to see what was threatened, and uplifting to think that people were being made aware of it so strongly.
Carlo Petrini, President of Slow Food International (who got a superstar welcome every time he appeared onstage, complete with adoring female fans), says in his introduction to the book
“…the book you are holding in your hands represents something different, something grander: it contains details of the extraordinary and painstaking labor of millions of people – farmers, shepherds, fishermen – from many parts of the globe and reveals the profound significance of Terra Madre. It describes the daily, constant commitment of 1,600 food communities that, through economies of small scale, defend biodiversity, the dignity of the rural world – a heritage of traditional knowledge and know how of inestimable value.
…At a time in which distorted development is proving itself unsustainable, the food communities are a dam capable of checking the menace of an environmental disaster already foretold.”
If you feel your local Slow Food convivium is just an excuse for a long lunch club, be grateful that part of your money goes to Slow Food in Bra and that at least they have the right agenda.
The list of Food Communities is here as a PDF, the book however also has addresses.
Get ready for the co-producer & eating as a political act
The main hall for Terre Madre was the one used for the ice skating events at the Winter Olympics. A huge barn with a long balcony on one side it had a minimal amount of support services (such as toilets). The space was divided up with low partitions that gave some flexibility in expanding rooms for sessions that had lots of attendees. The opening Plenary session that at the first Terra Madre two years ago was apparently such a moving experience, felt to me a bit flat and empty. The speeches by every related local politician from El Presidente down must have been pretty dull in translation in all the available five languages, and people wandered in and mostly out.
The podium had an uncanny resemblance to a McDonalds’ French fries carton, which I don’t think was intended. The hundred or so delegates from each country represented, who were sitting behind it, added colour, but they had no headphones for translations so after a few hours of politicians speeches, they looked pretty bored. They were obviously placed to add some ‘credence’ to the scope of the event and look good for the cameras.
Listening to the English translation of Carlo Petrini’s opening speech, with the Italian speaking crowd applauding a minute or two before the translator got to the punch line, I found wasn’t the best way to follow it. It reads better.
In the preface to the book Carlo says “…these communities and products may give birth to a new alliance between food producers and food buyers, a relationship founded on complicity and brotherhood that turns the consumers of yesterday into the co-producers of today, ready to support with their choices anyone determined to practice agriculture that is good, clean and socially sustainable.”
‘May give birth’ sounds a bit tentative. A number of the speakers in other sessions, talked more positively about the consumers as being co-producers. Who we choose to support, the producers from who we buy, joins us in the production process. The idea that what kind of food we choose to buy can be a political statement, is also an obvious one. We could change what food is offered to us by insisting on it being ‘good, clean and fair’. Having enough people making those political buying statements is going to be the hard part. One speaker said ‘This funny little organisation called Slow Food, might just have enough clout to change things.” Although we are committed to it, Slow Food is just a smear on the dinner plate, our Australian membership is tiny. Punching above our weight is really important.
Over the week, I began to see this as not so much preaching to the converted, more as slightly pompous lecturing. “Take notes, you will be asked questions later.” It was an earnest way of trying to make sure we would take these ideas back and spread them around. It was well meaning but it lost me a bit. The workshops I attended were pretty dull, and the few which were great always seemed to happen to someone else, or I couldn’t get in. Talking about them afterward seemed as good a way to share the ideas around.
It was not the fault of the session topics, but one dynamic speaker or two per session, didn’t make up for the disjointed translation and a string of people who seemed determined to have their say no matter how full the timetable was. It wouldn’t have helped if I could have spoken fluent Italian, there were so many languages used in these presentations with no translator. After the first two days I headed into the nearby Salone del Gusto area. Then this event all started to mean something.
The answer is to eat well. What was the question?
The Salone del Gusto, is stunning. Overwhelming. You’d need days full time to investigate it and a few breaks from it are essential. You get overload and overwhelmed by the crowds (and tired of walking).
Obviously the €20 entry fee for the locals is expected to be offset against free samples, so don’t stand between a greedy Italian mama and a plate of San Danielle ham (see the feature image above). For producers, those samples and relatively cheap tasting plates were the ideal way to work out where your own products would sit against the world’s (or the EU in particular). If you actually bought something, then you were plied with other tastes and the stall holders were much more eager to talk about the origin of the items. All this was explained in as good a mixed language fashion as was available. Someone always spoke English, on the next stall, or a passer by who explained often obvious things such as it was ‘cheese made from goats milk’. Yep, I’d worked that out but thank you.
In the huge halls, there were many stalls with nothing available to the public, all aiming to sell to the EU trade buyers, and to food service. Signs went up (in English, as we were the ones who obviously didn’t get it) to say ‘nothing for public sale’. Deals were being done over glasses of wine and plates of food around small tables in the small booths. There were some sit down places to eat, with mini versions of their commercial restaurants almost as showcases of their skills but mostly you walked around and sampled. There was a lot of Italian TV cameras, booths with talk show presenters and interviewers. In parallel with the food exhibition were classes. I didn’t get to any of the ‘Laboratorio’ where for a fee I could have watched name chefs demonstrate how to make ‘bagna cauda‘ and producers discuss the finer points of prosciutto with samples for the audience. Next time.
After my ‘pig in mud’ delight at the incredible choice and individual variations of produce I was frustrated and humbled. We need this depth and variety in Australia, and we need to make sure that it’s sustainable. Is it all just about educating the eaters to be co-producers?
Cooking the books
The other invited group new to this Terra Madre were cooks. And they were treated with reverence, given their own meeting room, special sessions, and they all posed for a group photograph (left).
Just like massaging the politicians and the academics, the Slow Food agenda wanted to make sure that the message of ‘good, clean and fair’ was part of the ‘take home’ for the cooks. They’re seen as an important agency of change as they start to challenge the entrenched practices of the food service industry. One big restaurant creating a demand for rare breeds meat and small producer vegetables, cheeses and wine can make a difference to financial viability. At a time when we’re eating out more and demanding to know what we are eating, this seems a great strategy. The ‘co-producer’ idea works with good chefs promoting the raw product and helping us to get the best from good produce.
Somehow they still have to convince the owners and financiers and that’s an ongoing issue. The best regional ones can do it. Barbara Santich from Adelaide Uni’s Graduate Program in Gastronomy asks the question in an interview with Mark McNamara, one of the Australian chefs who came to Turin. It’s here on the Terra Madre Blog.
The year of the Americans
My money is still on the Italians to control Slow Food Inc, but the American’s arrived en masse this time, and could easily swamp the agenda. They’re smart, organised and have huge membership. When we arrived at the stadium to register, there were alphabetical booths, ours was A for Austria, Australia, Africa, Afghanistan etc. but there were at least six booths just for the United States. It might have been just my bias but although there were many actual producers who were great to talk to, there seemed to be a lot of tourists, or as their neck tags said, observers. They were strong participants, when an American jumped up at a producer session they were inevitably lively, well prepared and interesting. Conversations with them on the buses and waiting in lines suggested they understood what was happening globally.
In some American delegate speeches, there were lectures about overeating, offering lines like – ‘of course we all eat too much anyway’ which is a new, and to me, disturbing trend in the polemic, part of the American’s fear of food. Maybe they do need a decade of austerity as a compensation to current Fast food Nation excesses, but it’s not going to be the Slow Food movement that brings it about. I figure we’ll have to let them wear their hair shirts for a while until they realise it’s quality not quantity that’s important. Alice Waters got a roar of adulation from the Americans in the audience but her message was just part of the same sermon and didn’t add anything new. C’mon America, thanks for the Farmers’ Markets but let’s move this along a bit.
One couple, John and Shelby, who I met in the lunch room (yep the organisers were happy to feed the multitudes when they were hungry. You can imagine the queues), I offered a taste of a small fresh goats cheese that I’d been given and a bread stick I’d bought. They were organic heritage tomato growers (fresh and seed). We talked about the few Australian heritage varieties I knew, and their astonishing range of varieties. They pushed a small packet of seeds across the table to me.
I questioned if there was any problem getting them through quarantine into Italy? (Knowing AQIS and how I’d be pilloried if I tried to get them into Australia). They didn’t have to declare them apparently, and that packet sat burning a hole in my luggage for days until I gave it to the waiter at our hotel who said he had a garden. Then I worried about doing that for days. Looking at the hand written labels on small jars and bags of produce that was for sale in the open ‘agora’ market in the Terra Madre hall. There were strange things from Africa and South America up against fruit and vegetables from Italy. I wondered at how much a cultural event such as this spreads nasty things around. Maybe I worry too much.
We (Australians) all envied the free exchange of produce across the EU however. Access to that size of a market can really make a difference for small producers. With the right marketing, niche products can be pushed around multiple country borders and Slow Food, with their Presidiums are well placed to take advantage of that.
Walking through the Salone, it was the sign that said ‘cured Galloway beef’ that stopped me at this stall. Introducing myself to Andrew Sharp, he said he’d just met Allan and Lizette Snaith. I showed him my last copy of the King Island issue of the Regional Food magazine I was carrying. And from the way he snatched it and tucked it under the counter, I figured I wasn’t getting it back. We talked and I took some short bits of video that I’ll post here soon.
The Borough Market sign in the background is where Andrew and 27 co-operating farmers in the English Lake District sell their meat every Friday and Saturday. (The co-operative’s website says he’s manning the Market Porter pub next door in the evenings.) Every Thursday they also have a stall in Bedford.
Andrew is the public face of the co-operative and has been a master butcher for 24 years (you couldn’t tell from that boyish face), he also raises Herdwick sheep and Galloway cattle. We talked about the relevance of marketing at the Salone of the Farmer Sharp brand, but he said they were comfortable with their local market sales, valuing the personal contact and feedback, and with a standard direct producer complaint, said they just needed to get more of the less popular cuts sold. He also wished there was a small tannery who could add value to the hides, currently sold way too cheaply mixed with regular cattle skins in an abattoir batch. He said he also gets barely 50p for a Herdwick sheep skin.
The www.farmersharp.co.uk site has links to BBC radio interviews and a clip from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes program. I figure the idea of doing a similar marketing group here would need someone as charismatic as Andrew to work, and someone who will front the public every week with credibility.(That’s air cured mutton being finely sliced, made from a seven (?) year old Herdwick ewe)
There were 411 professors and representatives from 225 universities visiting Turin. About half the number of the cooks attending. They’re a vital part of Slow Food’s agenda and Slow Food, born from Italian academia know how to talk academe. (Teach them a secret handshake, and make them swear to an agreement.)
Slow Food have created a network of universities to collaborate with the food communities and cooks in defence of sustainable food production. “The universities and research centres in the Terra Madre network pledge to protect the biodiversity of food and related cultures, natural resources and a food community’s right to make use of them for the common good, as well as the special characteristics of products threatened by genetic pollution.”
It puts Slow’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in charge of creating a ‘synergy between agriculture and gastronomy with a particular focus on biodiversity’. You’ve probably come across the ‘gastronomy’ term in other Slow Food literature, but you should see Carlo Petrini’s explanation to understand it. (The Nation have a nice explanation as well.)
I’m watching anxiously as the money and Government strategies appear to be pushing Australian agriculture to innovate to grow bigger, and that inevitable means towards ‘functional food’, a title that has been hijacked to mean modified produce and products that have healthy attributes added (after all the goodness has been removed from the raw ingredients so they can be packaged and shipped). And I see Universities leading the charge with their research departments.
If you can’t get a copy of the Terra Madre book, nick out to your newsagent and buy a copy of Colors Issue 69. (Back issues here)There are some articles online, but you’ll enjoy the presentation more in print.
“Slowing down has benefits valuable far beyond money. The dust and soil run through our hands. The sun and rain receive special notice. We watch out for the seasonal influences that affect paddies of rice, the blood of grasshoppers, the habits of the sardine and the temperament of trees. We begin to treat our food the way we should treat ourselves. Fast has one great advantage, it has made slowness more special and more precious. As some produce becomes more expensive, it now demands purchasers’ money as well as their time.”
And in conclusion?
Thinking back, the most important stuff came from the first Terra Madre workshop session I attended. (Or maybe I was just a convert after that.) It was grandly titled Economics – Market Access: More than consumers: the power of co-producers.
The session summary for the day pretty much said what it actually was about, (in fact they all did, suggesting that the agendas were pre-ordained and we were just there to listen and learn. This session said “The buyer’s role is much more active than what the word consumer suggests. The final link in the food chain has its place in production, education, markets and the environment. Farmers markets, buyers groups, community supported agriculture and many other initiatives demonstrate that eating is an agricultural act, producing a gastronomical act and purchasing a political act.”
(Online there’s there was, the full program list with some short Mp3s audio’s available, and there’s a PDF of all the speakers here). One was Vandana Shiva who won bursts of applause and and a whoop from me at one stage when she was talking about State regulation of whole milk cheese making at a local level (it’s recorded permanently on the soundtrack of the video – sorry) She concluded…
“We don’t need food dictatorship and food fascism, what we need is food democracy. Which means a democratic State regulating irresponsible corporations that are destroying the planet, and our health, and our farmers. It’s in our hands, reclaiming democracy through reclaiming our food.”
Which is were I started this with Woody’s guitar slogan. What I did bring back with me, and didn’t declare at customs, was the potential political impact of Terra Madre. Which was significant in spite of my cynicism.
But then, maybe it was just having a week away from the regular grind that gave me time to think, or maybe it’s what you’d expect from hanging out with all those lefty, organic, bio-dynamic and rare breed people?
The next Terra Madre will be held in 2008. The organisers plan to merge it with the Salone del Gusto. That will be an event not to miss.