Eataly’s Got Nothing on Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto: Our Report from Italy

Salone del Gusto's ingenious butcher-case containers, developed by cattlemen from Lazio, Italy. Photography by Bernard Pollack.

TURIN, ITALY — The endless aisles of Slow Food‘s biennial Salone del Gusto, held at the massive Lingotto Fiere building in Turin, are laid out like a map of the world, albeit skewed a bit towards the land of Caesar. Imagine your favorite farmers market and then multiple that by 100. It’s hard to know where to start and it’s even harder to know where to end.

Cheese maker next to apricot grower next to caper forager next to oyster farmer. After a few days, directed grazing becomes sort of like a game of memory. Was that table offering up incredibly sweet almonds in the Spain section or somewhere in Africa? And did you see those ingenious butcher-case containers, developed by cattlemen from Italy, with a shoulder of rare breed cow along with a leek, carrot, celery and peeled garlic all ready for a busy family to become a stew or roast? And wasn’t it great that the Mexico section included mezcal distillers and cocoa growers, offering up both sips and chocolate nibs, a very fortunate pairing of food biodiversity?

American craft brewers like Dogfish Head and Rogue were pouring samples a short walk from small-batch beers from the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as an impressive display of micro-brews and micro-spirits from every corner of Italy–apparently the new wave of brewers and distillers ain’t just limited to Brooklyn and Boulder.

Salone is a rare coming together, an opportunity for the stewards of the world’s food biodiversity, to share and market their wares. Most stalls give out small free samples, but they are also selling bags of beans, sausages, hunks of cheese, oils, loaves of bread, and every manner of comestible. It’s a chance to garner international exposure with chefs and food buyers. And it’s a thank you to Slow Food International, whose chapters around the world have helped many of these producers find customers and thrive.

Things are never too far from changing the world at Slow Food happenings. And if you can tear yourself away from Salone, across a court yard of Italian food stalls–fried anchovies and fried olives, minestrone soup with heirloom beans, and rice balls stuffed with diced meat–is the hall that houses the more recent Slow Food creation Terra Madre.

If the Salone del Gusto is an enlightened trade show of food biodiversity, Terra Madre is where food communities and their allies get down to the work of saving and expanding that food biodiversity. It was conceived in 2004 as a way to bring food producers from Africa, Latin America and Asia into the Slow Food community, since these regions house the majority of the world’s food biodiversity and food culture. This year, 4,000 delegates representing more than 150 countries came to share seeds, stories and strategies for overcoming the common challenges they face–neglect of agriculture by governments, loss of crop diversity, erratic climatic and market conditions.

Like the Salone, it’s organized by region and food community, so Terra Madre includes beekeepers from Africa and America, pickle makers from Europe, farmers market organizers from around the world. They meet over meals or over coffee (Slow Food makes impressive use of corporate allies like Lavazza to ensure that attendees are always arms length from espresso kiosks). They meet at sessions on small-scale livestock marketing, and community seed saving, and an informal beekeepers powwow that took over a hallway and included a rainbow of men and women sampling each others honey and laughing over experiences repeated across continents.

This sort of information sharing also happens in the Salone halls, of course. Two young farmers from my own home region in New York, Amanda Merrow and Katie Baldwin of Amber Waves farm in Amagansett (Edible East End‘s cover girls in the summer of 2009), who have been experimenting–and sometimes struggling–with growing grains found inspiration and guidance from conversations with an Italian rice grower who was having success selling small bags of dry risotto mix and an Italian bean grower who was selling similar bags of ready-to-boil soup ingredients.

There was a standing room only Youth Forum that repeatedly exploded in applause or cheers, and a Food Justice in America session in which activists from around the country described how they were getting good food into Louisville, Kentucky food deserts, Northern California public school districts and into other neglected corners of our collective table. Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network described the key pressure points he saw for redirecting the Farm Bill for good. In a room filled with America’s Slow Food leaders, he suggested that Slow Food U.S.A., already mounting a successful campaign to change federal school food policies, turn its attention to the $60 billion the government spends on food assistance each year, with little regard for good nutrition or good farming.

This cross-border sharing of ideas continued also at the Earth Workshop organized by Nourishing the Planet, Worldwatch Institute’s project to highlight sustainable innovations to eliminate poverty and hunger. (I’m a co-director of the project.) To a packed room of attendees, Nourishing the Planet’s Danielle Nierenberg and I shared some of the major ideas in the soon-to-be-released Nourishing the Planet book. (See the below video for a summary. ) The workshop also featured representatives from three of the African projects we feature in the book, including Edward Mukiibi, co-founder of Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) in Uganda and Slow Food International convivium leader Seck Madieng from Mangeons Local in Senegal, both Slow Food related projects to educate children on cooking and farming skills to allow them to better use local foods. “In a country like ours where a majority of people live in poverty and we import most of our staple foods,” said Seck, “using local products can help families save money, even a little at a time, which can add up in the long run.”

Richard Haigh, founder of Enaleni Farm in Durban, South Africa, and also a partner in the Nourishing the Planet project, discussed the necessity of preserving indigenous breeds of livestock and crops which are more resistant to drought, climate change and disease, so they are a smart choice for farmers.

After the Earth Workshop, Haigh was able to take further advantage of the unique forum that Terra Madre provides. Back home, he’s been experimenting with small-scale sausage production, to offer another value added product to the mix on his farm and throughout his region. And while he’s read many books and consulted many websites on the topic, he still had certain questions about the finer details of charcuterie. Fortunately, he made friends with a handful of sausage makers from Austria and Italy, and was able to patiently pick their brains as the nibbled their food.

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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