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SLOWFOOD AND THE SALONE DEL GUSTO FOOD & COOKING ARTICLE

Returning to the Salone del Gusto, it's a biannual quality food extravaganza put on by Slowfood, an organization founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, who was horrified by the opening of the McDonald's under Rome's Spanish Steps (he's a journalist and was working in Rome at the time). Mr. Petrini was doing more than making a simple decision to take tajarin (Piemontese taglierini) over burgers, of course - the idea behind the movement is that people should cultivate the Art of Living, savoring life and the things that give it meaning and value. In other words, enjoy genuine foods rather than industrial junk, appreciate the history and culture of both where they live and the places they visit, respect the environment and our resources, avoid profit-driven biotech developments, and so on.

To this end Slowfood publishes an excellent series of regional Italian cookbooks and travel guides, and will be expanding to cover other countries too; they also have good books on traditional cheeses, oils, beer, and other things, and publish hotel and restaurant guides too. It's obvious that a bunch of people in Bra, Mr. Petrini's home town, couldn't hope to do this all on their own, and they don't. Slowfood has established chapters called Condotte throughout Italy and is exporting the concept elsewhere, where the chapters are called Convivia; members pay their dues and in exchange are kept informed of an astonishing variety of enogastronomic initiatives, from tastings of one sort or another, to hikes and outings, to special dinners. At present there are about 400 chapters with more than 60,000 members, in more than 35 countries, and the thing seems poised to take off.

For more information on the movement see http://www.slowfood.com. The membership gives Slowfood the financial backing necessary to do more than just publish guidebooks, and this is where things get interesting. They are devoting considerable energy to local specialties that are in danger of dying out (in Italy now, but one can expect them to export the concept), and are trying to support/save them. Some of the specialties are simply obscure, for example the Pitina, a kind of smoked meatball people used to make in the Alpine valleys north of Pordenone in Friuli when an animal died unexpectedly in an accident, so as to preserve the meat. Now, with refrigeration and such, making pitine is no longer necessary, but they are a reminder of a more frugal way of life when what now seem little things were instead very important. Others are well known, though most people only get to see the industrial versions.

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For example, factories in the Veneto region churn out huge amounts of Asiago cheese, much of which is frankly insipid. In the past Asiago was made in the malghe (singular malga), the barns in the high alpine meadows where herders would spend the summers with their cattle. Asiago d'Alpeggio, the Asiago made with milk derived from mountain forage, is a completely different cheese: rich, and extremely complex. But it's a hard life staying up there for months on end (few creature comforts of any kind, including electricity in many cases), and as one producer said, young people aren't interested in doing it unless they can earn a decent living from it. As things stand individual farmers cannot, so Slowfood is working to provide them with incentives, and to explain to consumers why they should be willing to pay more for a vastly superior cheese, rather than buy the cheapest Asiago they can find. Here, in addition to preserving a product, the aim is to preserve a way of life and a region: if people can no longer survive in the malghe, they will go elsewhere and the land will return to nature. While some may argue that this is not a bad thing, it would mean the loss of a rural culture, and a way of life.

Other projects include protecting particular strains of plants and animals (e.g. Albenga's purple asparagus, or Sardegna's Sardo Modicana cattle, which are deep rust red and produce the milk used to make Casizolu cheese), and foods or techniques threatened by EEU bureaucrats (e.g. the spectacular lard cured in the caves of Colonnata, which the EEU health people have decided are unsanitary). All the various preservation projects, called presidi, had booths in the one of the pavilions of the Salone, and there was quite a bit to see. There were also regional booths, and many booths from which artisan producers were presenting and selling their foods - hundreds of kinds of cheeses and cold cuts, truffles, olive all'ascolana, and much more. The end effect was like an extremely high quality big city gourmet market, with lots to see and many people to talk to; the one criticism one could make is that the registration fees were such, I was told, that some of the really tiny producers of quality foods couldn't afford to come.

Endangered Cheeses!
The other thing Slowfood did a fine job of organizing was tasting sessions of one sort or another; they weren't free, but were interesting; I went to one dedicated to American microbrewery beer and American cheese, and was both delighted and shocked. Delighted because the beers assembled by Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and the cheeses assembled by Rob Kaufelt, owner of Muray's Cheese Shop in New York, were superb, and shocked because Rob said that the US FDA is seriously considering a ban on all cheeses made from unpasteurized milk. For health reasons, they say, and while it is possible to catch something from unpasteurized milk, by the time a cheese has aged for 2 months all the pathogenic bacteria are dead. And even before then cheese made from unpasteurized milk is safe; if it weren't there'd be a tremendous number of sick Europeans, because many fresh cheeses, for example French Brie or Piemontese Toma, are extremely popular.

Who does the cheese only from pasteurized milk law favor? Big American dairies that can afford pasteurizing equipment. And who does it harm, in the US? Consumers, who may find themselves unable to purchase cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano, Roquefort, real Cheddar, and the list goes on. But more importantly, it will harm small American dairy farmers and sheepherders, who have discovered that making high quality artisan cheeses gives them a means to survive. If the FDA approves this law, many will simply go out of business because they cannot afford the equipment, while others will collapse more slowly because the quality of their cheese will decline (pasteurizing makes a dramatic difference in the flavor of the cheese), and people will then buy the cheaper industrial versions.

One would expect the US National Dairy Association to be against the provision, but it instead supports it because the larger members that supply industry have more pull. This is a classic Slowfood issue, about preserving a way of life, and giving consumers the option of buying good quality food. If you're upset by the possibility of loosing the option of buying cheese made from unpasteurized milk, Slowfood is setting up a signature campaign.

Alas, things aren't rosy in Europe either. There's no move here to ban raw milk, because the tradition is too firmly entrenched. But the Bureaucrats of the EEU health service are well into passing a law that will equate commercial homogenized milk and with the fresh unhomogenized milk used by artisan cheesers, thus allowing the big industrial cheese makers to produce "raw milk" cheeses. As has often happened before, the health people show more concern for industrial bottom lines than they do for the consumers they're supposed to be protecting.

This article has been published with the kind permission of its author, Kyle Phillips. Kyle resides in Florence, Italy, where he works as a translator, food and travel writer, and photographer. He is also the Italian Cuisine's guide at About.com - to visit Italian Cuisine <click here>

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