In 1986 a group of passionate people gathered at the Spanish Steps in Rome brandishing bowls of homemade penne pasta. They weren’t there for a picnic, they were there to protest: MacDonald’s was planning to open a new outlet in this iconic spot and the locals weren’t happy.
What started out as a protest against the encroaching uniformity and soullessness of fast food quickly became a worldwide movement to support, encourage and protect local, sustainable and heritage produce, and it was dubbed – aptly enough – the Slow Food movement. More than twenty years on, Slow Food is headed up by founder (and penne-brandishing protester) Carlo Petrini in Italy, but it reaches its message across continents and has a firm foothold here in Melbourne.
You’ve probably seen the snail logo, or heard people talking about Slow Food, and as a community we’re certainly asking more questions about where our food comes from, but what exactly is Slow Food?
“Awareness of Slow Food is on the rise,” says Ron O’Bryan, Executive Chef of SlowDown!, a Slow Food focused venture in St Kilda. “But there are still people who think Slow Food means it’s cooked really slowly or that it takes a long time for your meal to come out.” He laughs, and then goes on to explain: “Actually, Slow Food is food the way it’s supposed to be; natural, produced with good animal welfare and husbandry, and sustainable. Sustainability with a minimising impact.”
Miranda Sharp, President of the Melbourne Farmers’ Market Association and active Slow Food member agrees. “It can be confusing,” she says. “People often think it’s about slow-cooking your food, but it’s not just about that. It’s about being involved, rather than having a backseat in all aspects of what and how we eat. Being aware of how our food is produced and being responsible for that,” she clarifies, pointing out that supporting small-scale local producers is a large part of it.
“It’s got such a double meaning in a way. It is the antithesis of fast food but in saying that, Slow Food in not anti anything. It’s more about being inclusive and involving and just getting back in touch with the production of our food, rather than to reject modernity.” And as the driving force behind the Melbourne Slow Food Farmers’ Market, she would know.
The precepts of Slow Food, as defined by Slow Food Australia, are that: “Slow Food fosters community awareness of food that is good, clean and fair – that the food we eat tastes good and should be good for us; that it is grown and made in ways that respect animals, the environment and our health; and that the producers who grow or create it should be fairly rewarded for their endeavour.”
It’s these ideals that Katherine Clarke, Slow Food devotee, baker and founder of the cake company Frank Food & Me, works with every day.
“Slow Food harks back to my childhood in Tasmania,” she says when we catch her between cake deliveries. “I grew up in a place where Slow Food was the order of the day. I feel I have this intrinsic connection to farmers and the way food is produced so that’s why it’s important to me to pass these messages and information on. Seeing people lose that connection to their food is like watching them get really ripped off.”
As a result, all Clarke’s cakes are baked with the Slow Food ethos. She uses only seasonal, local and sustainably farmed ingredients wherever she can, knows all her suppliers, and at her regular farmers’ market stalls can even point them out and introduce them. It’s this kind of transparency in food production that Slow Food is all about.
“It’s celebrating small scale producers, their individual products and the land and area they live in and produce from. In that one idea it wraps up the whole food miles issue,” she says, indicating that without our support this community, their skills and their knowledge will disappear.
So considering that Slow Food is about making educated choices in food production and consumption where do you go if you want to find out more about Slow Food ideas and projects, particularly in Melbourne? “Slow Food Australia is a good place to start,” says Sharp, pointing to the Australian branch of the international not-for-profit organisation (and the first national association in the southern hemisphere). Here, each state in Australia is broken down into convivia (or smaller local groups) that help each another organise Slow Food events.
“There are about ten convivia in Victoria including Slow Food Melbourne,” Sharp says. “They do all sorts of things including run events like Eat Here and Now, which in conjunction with farmers’ markets encourages people to explore their local produce and food heritage. The best thing to do is to find your local convivia and see what they’re planning.”
Another suggestion is to always get to know as many producers as you can. “Farmers’ markets are inherently a colourful and active example of Slow Food happening. It’s giving credit to the people who are doing the work and to the farmers themselves, which underpins Slow Food philosophy,” says Sharp.
“It might be easier to go to the supermarket in the middle of the night, but anyone coming to the markets is engaging with and supporting local producers in the exchange. A great example of Slow Food.”
In the end, the best thing you can do is be aware of where your food comes from. Ask questions. Get to know your producers and suppliers. Visit Slow Food Australia to learn about Slow Food activities (including the current push for Australian raw milk cheeses) and find your local convivium.
Ultimately all we need to do is slow down just enough to find out more about our food.