December 21, 2012

Visions from Terra Madre

This October, farmers, artisans, and food movement leaders from around the globe converged in Turin, Italy, for Slow Food International’s biennial gathering, Terra Madre, and the accompanying Salone del Gusto, an exhibition of foods from around the world. This year, Cindy Alfieri of G.L. Alfieri Farms traveled to Terra Madre with help from CUESA’s seller scholarship program. Hunter Wade from Devoto Gardens and CUESA’s education intern Emma Sharer also attended. These are their reflections from the conference.

Cindy Alfieri, G.L. Alfieri Farms

Announcing Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto in the Italian paper La Stampa, Carlo Petrini, Slow Food’s president and founder, cautioned us that agriculture is now truly in crisis. He wrote about the drastic reduction across the globe in the number of farmers, the true bastions of rural lands.

The conference, Petrini said, would help us reflect on the power that is in our hands when we buy our food. There would be incredible varieties of foods to taste, people to meet, and fascinating stories to hear—making us aware of food that is good, clean, and just. He asserted that we need to reaffirm food at the center of our lives, not only because it is pleasing, but also because it directs our future. In those ways, the conference offered a strong message of hope.

So here I was, an American on a bus from Milano to Torino (Turin), eager to talk with others about this very fundamental topic of food. I was a delegate from the Slow Food Central Valley of California chapter. We traveled through Piemonte, a region near the Alps and the French border, with decidedly French accents and epicurean influence. Piemonte evoked memories from my past. My maternal grandfather is from Monferrato, just south of Torino. His culture and history were captured in the foods I ate growing up in California.

Our bus was late to the opening ceremonies in Torino, but we arrived in time to see the parade of flags, one of the most moving experiences of the conference. Two people at a time, representing each of the 96 nations present, marched into the auditorium, country flags held high. We temporarily forgot the wars and other maladies around the world, and warmly welcomed each nation into the event.

One session I attended was with a chef from Modena who’d been “talking about pure food long before it was a fad.” He said, “Today we will taste things that are hardly found anymore. It takes a long time to make these dishes at home.” He continued, “The farmer should be paid to maintain the land, to maintain the food quality that used to exist but which is falling away. Families used to make a living on six animals. They’d have a balanced relationship with the land. Today, monocultures have spoiled all of that. People who buy for convenience are not helping.” There was so much in his words. It left me wondering: What is the balance between what people want and what we, as farmers, want to provide to them?

Wherever I ate in Torino, I sensed a definite decision to retain the tradition of the region’s food, both culturally and historically. The 10-minute meals and conveniently packaged cut-up foods found in so many US homes today are not embraced here. An hour-long meal and additional time set aside to talk with people aids digestion better than Tums. The message of Torino seems to be to slow down, eat simply, and live fully.

Hunter Wade, Devoto Gardens

Terra Madre was not what I expected it would be. I had been to farming conferences before, but Terra Madre was more like a global food exposition. It was a feast for the body, mind, and soul. 

During the conference, I had time to roam around the many huge Olympic buildings that housed Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto. I found the magic of Terra Madre not just in tasting the foods of the farmers, bakers, and food artisans from all over the world, but also by listening to their stories. The food they brought to share is more than just sustenance for them. It is the creator of their culture. Its growing season and preparation dictate their entire lifestyle and that of their community. Their crop is their heartbeat, their daily planner, their ritual, and their mother—their Terra Madre.

I thought about that as I returned to our farm in Sebastopol and joyously fell back into the rhythm of life created by our Madre: the apple tree. Now, when I tell our farmers market customers the history behind each heirloom apple we grow and see their eyes light up as they take their first bite, I don’t think of it as a new experience for them. It’s more like reintroducing them to their own past and heritage. 

The biggest takeaway for me is that Slow Food is not just about preserving heirloom varieties; it is also about valuing and preserving culture. As Carlo Petrini warned us, the greatest threat to our food and cultural heritage is the consumerism that is beginning to dominate across the globe. Before coming to Terra Madre, I thought the Slow Food movement was primarily about food, but it is just as much a political group. Wendell Berry said that “Eating is an agricultural act,” and Terra Madre taught me that eating is also a political act.

Emma Sharer, CUESA Education Intern

One might compare Slow Food’s five-day-long Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto convention to New York Fashion Week, but replace the outlandish clothes with one-of-a-kind food delicacies and the swanky fashion designers with farmers, food producers, and activists from around the world. I was overwhelmed, but after several deep breaths I settled into my intention to connect with my fellow advocates and satisfy my curiosity about international food and thoughtful consumption.

I shared countless experiences with individuals from all walks of life. These included Chef Zhen Yang’s “China meets Italy” dumpling tasting, Chef Duminda’s Sri Lankan sticky rice meal and survival story, and Eric Holt-Giménez’s motivational talk on uniting international food movements. A culmination of my experience was a locally sourced “eat-in” dinner hosted by the University of Gastronomic Science’s team of undergraduate students, where Carlo Petrini stopped by to say “Salute!” to our joyous group. The delightful dinner consisted of fresh pumpkin marinated in ginger, a pickled cucumber salad, and free-range pork empanadas. With a full belly and an open mind, I left Turin feeling inspired to be a part of a global movement by taking action at a local level back home.

Help farmers learn and make their businesses more sustainable in 2013. Support CUESA’s seller scholarship program by donating today.

Photos by Cindy Alfieri (top) and Emma Sharer (middle and bottom).

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »