Monday, November 3, 2008

Quo Vadis, Salone del Gusto?

Last week was the week of the “Salone del Gusto” in Turin, in Italy. Organized by Slow Food as the showcase of artisan food, it was supposed to be a celebration of producers that handcraft traditional products, grow their food with care and are committed to keeping food traditions alive.

So, did the Salone del Gusto achieve this mission? I tend to give a negative answer. To me, the Salone del Gusto has lost its focus and I mourn the spirit with which it was run in the early days.

Slow Food certainly needs to be credited with the fact that it has created a huge PR machine that get’s the word on artisan food out there. A look at the long lines of people waiting to buy a ticket Sunday at 10.30am was the best proof – tickets that at a 20 Eur price point are everything but cheap – the same amount can buy you three tickets to the movies or a dinner in a Pizzeria, including an appetizer and a desert, just to give you an idea. It is a great achievement to get that many people curious about food and wanting to experience the Salone del Gusto.

Some of the exhibits that had been developed were splendid interactive and educational experiences. The region of Emilia-Romagna for example staged a show that communicated the value of such a basic staple as our daily bread. Three actors on stage five times a day, involving passers-by to get their hands “dirty” in flour and dough, explaining the process of bread baking, the properties of natural yeast and getting people to listen and smile. I am trying to convince technology to let me post the video for you to get an idea of the spirit that was buzzing around the stand, with everyone chanting “uno-due-tre, il pane lo faccio da me” (one-two-three, my bread I bake myself).

Certainly no doubt about the exhibits of the so called “Presidia” – these are groups of artisans collaborating in order to grow plants/raise animals threatened by extinction or to produce traditional foodstuff whose recipes would otherwise be forgotten. The underlying philosophy is that of “if you want to save it, eat it”. So Slow Food is promoting these foodstuff in Presidia, creating a demand and a market for these foods and hence incentivizing more artisans to join in the production. The Presidia presentation was a big celebration of local tastes and cultures: from Sicilian beans to French ham made of a black hog to vanilla from Mexico – producers were explaining their products, exhibiting their projects and discussing their food history and culture with the visitors. It was all that Slow Food is.

Besides these highlights, the Salone was one big market where all sorts of food producers had paid a lot of money to sell their products to the masses. And while it is absolutely legitimate to give a small butcher shop with exceptional products the chance to present his mastery in the “street of the butchers”, it is absolutely not acceptable that industrial producers are allowed into the event, exhibiting monster-sized prosciutto vacuum packed in shiny and colourfully branded aluminium wraps. That is NOT Slow Food. It is prostitution. As are the collaborations with the big industrial food brands such as Lavazza Café. They are one of the main sponsors of the Salone del Gusto, so all other small coffee roasters are banned from being present. And that in a country that has such a rich variety of coffee tastes and such a rich history of brewing this delicious hot, strong and black drink.

As far as I see it, Slow Food has found a cash cow and they are milking it to finance their other activities, such as the Terra Madre convention that took place in parallel to the Salone and gave farmers and chefs and other professional food people from all over the world a chance to discuss the future of sustainable food production. Which is a worthy cause and which I support with all my heart. But the fact remains, that the Salone has lost its soul and this is a pity, cause Slow Food risks to loose its position as “artisan food champion” and legitimate lobby for artisan food producers and consumers! Slow Food will certainly need to start a discussion on how to move ahead and to decide its mission statement. I, as a long time follower of Slow Food, have my doubts about where we are going with this.

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