Auto-indoctrination at the feet of Petrini

Monday was our first face to face meeting with Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, and therefore our patron saint, since the University of Gastronomic Science fell out of the folds of the cloak of the Slow Food movement in 2003.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, he arrived late, his excuse being the exquisite tortelli he’d had to stop and sample at an excellent local restaurant. Well, he lives the dream all right. And he lived up to his reputation as a charismatic and passionate speaker.

He talked about the founding of the Slow Food movement, and the university’s role in delivering to its students a thorough education in all aspects of gastronomy. Throwing down some of the catastrophic examples of large scale farming and fishing enterprises driving small, local food producers out of business, he said each time: what is this but gastronomy?

He has a passion for the value of education, and sees, I think, the students of this university as the seeds of an educated future. Teach people what is wrong with the food of today and you initiate the action that will change it for the better. He spoke on the three principles of Slow Food (good, clean and fair = Buono, pulito e giusto, just like the name of his latest book..) and about the movement’s expanding scope, to raise public awareness about issues of biodiversity and the perils of a market-based food economy.

Produce food for profit alone, is the message we’ve been hearing from all three of the Slow Food speakers we’ve had so far, and you sever the social and economic links that allow you to produce food for reasons of hunger, tradition, love, and community — and you destroy the very means of reversing the damage. And so there is a shift in the organisation’s focus now towards community building. The remarkable achievements of the Terra Madre meetings were groundwork for this, but it will be interesting to see how the structure of the organisation changes to accommodate – or not – this wider vision.

Well, I think I was not alone in enjoying our first major indoctrination session. There is something cozy and deeply reassuring about being addressed intimately and respectfully by a leader in a field we all already believe in. This experience I’m in for the next year does feel so validated by the zeitgeist; it feels to me that we are on the crest of a wave of righteous knowledge about the evil being done to what literally feeds our most fundamental human need.

We were invited last night to join Petrini for informal drinks in a local wine bar. And so about a dozen of us descended into a private room in the cellar, picking our way around cases of wine, greeting the owner – hard at work on the meat slicer – to find a full table already of students from another program in our uni, as well as a few uni staff and unidentified (to me anyway) others. So, dodging flaking plaster, we perched on makeshift seats – boxes of wine – and nibbled on excellent salumi and bread and sipped excellent wine, and listened to the mostly Italian banter around the table. Those of my classmates present were mostly unilingual English speakers, so it was not as entirely convivial as it might have been, and as we were more or less at nose level with the table we had the distinct feeling of being literally at the feet of Petrini. But it was pleasant enough, and I made an early exit into the fogbound streets around midnight, leaving the others to enjoy it for a couple more hours.

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