Slow Food: Salone del Gusto (Part I)

After returning from my first-ever visit to the Slow Food Salone del Gusto in Torino, Italy, on Monday, I began writing up the event, and looking at the photos I’d taken. As I wrote, I found myself writing a but at length of what this event was, and wasn’t, and how people (including me) perceive these kinds of events. I didn’t go with any agenda; I was simply interested in seeing what the Salone was all about, as I’d heard it was very interesting from some people I respected in the food world.

salonarabicman

Unlike the perception I, and other folks have, the Salone del Gusto was not a bunch of rich, elitist folks swilling wine and congratulating themselves on what fabulous folks they were for going “green” or indulging in “peasant foods.”

From what I saw, it was a chance for people from neglected parts of the world, like the women from a remote village in Transylvania who were displaced after the fall of communism and are trying to rebuild their lives while carrying on the tradition of jam-making using native berries from their region, or vanilla farmers from Mexico, who hand-pollinate and harvest wild vanilla beans; this was an opportunity to give their products and their hard work some exposure.

And contrary to what I thought, most of the crowd was everyday folks. Sure, there were those of us that took airplanes and trains to get there, but there was a huge amount of locals, from Italy (the majority of the crowd, from what I saw and from the language I heard spoken) who came to sample and perhaps learn.

Unfortunately the mobs got a bit intense at times. The solution might be to allow less people in, which unfortunately would necessitate a raise in ticket prices (which were €20) to cover costs. Or perhaps the best solution would be to sell or include chits or tickets, which guests would use to obtain samples. That way the exposants would be able to hold back the mobs and have time to explain their products, and visitors would get to taste things without the hectic jostling.

(There was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the event and some of the comments concerned the “trendy” crowd. Yet I don’t believe that any of those people commenting were actually at the event, so I’m not sure how they got that perception. But I guess I should cut them some slack, since I had similar fears as well.

And for the record, I spent €80 on a round-trip train ticket. I upgraded to first-class for the 5½ hour trip for just €10 each way, so I could’ve gone for less. But I splurged. Our hotel room cost €70/night, which I split with a friend and we took public transit in Torino. I was given a press pass.)

salone internationalze del gusto

To the folks who say that perhaps the money could be well spent fighting poverty, there were plenty of exhibitors here that obviously have very, very little money. So one could argue that this event gives those people visibility and is helping to rebuild their economies, which have often been unspeakably shattered by war, ethnic cleansing atrocities, famine, and natural disasters. Difficulties that most of us will never be able to comprehend. They came, at the expense of the sponsors, so one could say that the organizers were helping people who have little money. And hosting housing is arranged for participants that request it. I know that a lot of people talk about wanting to help others, but often, too few people actually do it.

Here, it seemed to be happening.

The flip side is that this is supposed to be an event that supports sustainable agriculture and practices, yet the sushi bar served farmed salmon and handed out disposable chopsticks, and many of the vendors were too-quick to put purchases in plastic bags, even though each participant was given a cloth bag, presumably for such a purpose.

salone internationalze del gusto

I didn’t listen to any of the speeches (how could I, with all that food around?) but the one that I did attend, the speaker raised the all-important question, “How do we pay farmers and the people that raise our food what they’re work is worth, and at the same time, make their food affordable to people of various income levels?” I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that. Factory-produced food is often cheaper, at least in the short-fun, and easier to obtain. Acorn-fed ham, microgreens and farm-raised veal are still a provenance of those with the means to buy them. (Unless you rear them yourself.)

Perhaps because I’ve been living in Europe for a while, where wine drinking and eating artisanal hams, pâté, and the like are everyday fare, and not considered ‘upscale’ activities or the provence of the rich. Indeed, to do those things in America, it does require quite a bit more money then they do here. I had two glasses of rosé at a simple pizza restaurant in San Francisco, which set me back $28, including tax and tip. Here, that would’ve cost about €6.

The Salone del Gusto takes place every other year and I, and my friend David that I went with, agreed that if we weren’t living in Europe, this was an amazing opportunity to sample a lot of things, all under one roof, that one would rarely have access to. My advice would be to try and visit during a weekday, or after 5pm, as the Salone is open well into the evening.

I know there was an event in San Francisco, Slow Food Nation, that raised the ire of some, but this was completely different and, I think, more in the spirit what Slow Food is all about. I don’t know.

I’m not much of a joiner and I’m not a member of Slow Food (the movement hasn’t taken much of a foothold in France), but this kind of event I could support, and in the next post, I’ll be showing some of the unusual, and delicious things, that I tasted, as well as some of the people at the Salon itself. And there was a few things that were so unusual, I couldn’t resist bringing home sacks and bags of them and you can see some of them in Salone del Gusto, Part II.

30 comments

  • If the culture of food and wine found in Europe was practiced in North America we could eat for comparable prices. There is much resistance to change and greater dependance on everything the Slow Food movement is not. North America created the fast food nation and it will ultimately be it’s demise both in terms of the health of the nation and the sustainability of the plants and animals. Hopefully out of the ashes will rise a reconnection with the land that feeds us, so that it isn’t only the elitist or privileged who can eat that way.

  • Wow, what an awesome time that must have been. And a pleasant surprise, I would have thought it’d be more of a “de rigeur” thing, too. One of the many things so wonderful about Europe: accessibility to many places via train travel! I can’t wait to get over there next month. Your blog is so inspiring, your photos and posts are fabulous, and when I’m not traveling I live vicariously through people like you who get to live abroad! One day…..

  • I’m really glad to read this. I’m a member of Slow Food – in Norfolk, UK, and we’ve been trying to fight the elitist label. It’s very grass roots where we are – a very rural, unpretentious community suporting their local producers, which is how I think it should be. I joined up a couple of years ago, when I read an article in The Independent about the last Salone del Gusto, and hearing the stories of some of the exhibitors (such as the young Peruvian farmer who had an epic journey getting there with his 240 varieties of potato) made me cry (I know, sentimental, but I couldn’t help it). I really wanted to be there this year and couldn’t make it – roll on 2010.

  • C: I think the concept of good food meets resistance in America is because we’ve somehow evolved away from it being ‘normal.’ Plus many of us have gotten so busy that it’s simply easier and cheaper to grab something not necessarily healthy. I must admit, I was a bit stunned when our two take-out salads and drinks at Whole Foods on my last trip to New York City was nearly $35.

    Julie: I always was skeptical of the event, but was glad that I went. Yes, train travel is great. Especially when you can upgrade to first-class for only €10! (Although I almost missed my train by 2 minutes, and would’ve had to shell out quite a bit more for a last-minute ticket.)

    AnotherCatherine: The “rural” nature of Slow Food was what I was impressed with the most. There was a whole section that was devoted to people from Central America, where I enjoyed the most. There was chocolate that was crushed and packed by hand, fire-roasted mesquite flour, and many spices and nuts I haven’t seen before.

    I just hope they can get the crowd-control thing going, as at times, it was a bit overwhelming. I like the idea of ‘sampling tickets’, which I think would calm things down considerably.

  • I couldn’t go either this year but have a couple of friends who did and have enjoyed catching up with them. The thing that struck me when I went, must be six years ago now, was that there was a very real and classless enthusiasm for food in Italy which we still struggle to emulate in the UK and probably in the US too. It just seemed entirely natural for people from all walks of life to go up to producers and quiz them about how they worked and how one product might differ from another.

    The crowd thing. Yes, I imagine that’s a trial, but it seems to be the same with every successful food festival now. I went to one of the UK’s best, the Abergavenny Food Festival this year and it was a total scrum, overtaken by stands selling very middle of the road produce and burgers. At least Slow offers a platform and support to producers who are trying to keep indigenous food traditions alive.

    Look forward to reading your posts on the ingredients you brought back. And love your blog – it’s a real pleasure to dip into.

    Fiona
    http://thefrugalcook.blogspot.com

  • I definitely agree with the overwhelming part of it…I would have loved to have had a few days to plan and savor the experience (I couldn’t even get over to Terra Madre :( with the time we had)…Next time! :)

  • Thank you David

    Often wondered what this event was like. You’ve enlightened me and I look forward to the pics.
    Perhaps they need to spread it out over more days or even other towns.(like a world cup event).

    Were the wealthier European countries, France , Italy….well represented with their “smaller producers”? What were your favs?
    Doolz

  • I live in the much-maligned American Midwest–land of field corn and soy beans. Many of the local farmers here live much more in the Slow Food culture than anyone who has never been here would believe. They raise organic livestock, poultry, dairy products, eggs, fruits and vegetables for their own use and to share or trade.
    It’s a very economical way to eat. Right now I have buckets and buckets of Fuji apples in the basement waiting for me to pass them around among friends and neighbors.
    Conversely, I recently ate lunch at an Iowa City, Iowa, restaurant which advertised itself as a Slow Food adherent. It was a very expensive lunch. The difference between living Slow Food and buying it retail is considerable. It seems that Slow Food has to be rural in order to be economically feasible.

  • Linda: I agree, and think the concept of “Slow Food” is nothing new, but the idea is/was to reintroduce the concept to a generation who is on the verge of losing it. When I was taking food science classes in college, I remember the professor telling us that conserving and shipping foods over great distances was good because it made for a healthier society, since we were exposed to a wider variety of foods all the time.

    As we’re seeing now, with the skyrocketing price of oil and decline in health, perhaps this isn’t really the ideal solution. Unfortunately many of us live in cities or places where access to local, fresh ingredients can be sketchy at best. (Or expensive.) But I think that’s why so many people in America have re-embraced the idea of local, as evident by the successful farmer’s markets that are popping up constantly. Like the speaker said, the hard part to make fit is making the food accessible to people of various income levels while paying the farmers and people who grow the food, a decent wage.

    A friend of mine who is a prominent food producer says, “I do Slow Food. Why should I join it?” The same can be true about your neighbors in the midwest. And I, for one, don’t malign it—I’ve been and there’s lots of great food there, including outstanding buttermilk and cheeses. Perhaps you could trade some of those excess Fuji apples with a neighbor? Either that, or I predicts lots of applesauce in your future. : )

  • You hit upon exactly the problem I have with the event, it has gotten too big, a victim of its own success. The first time we went in 2002, it was a joy, we got to spend time tasting, talking to producers and discovering new products. In fact we bought so many things to bring back to France with us that the Italians were pointing and laughing as we tried to make our way back to the car. When we returned in 2006, it was a much more frenzied visit, trying to push our way through crowds, to visit with and taste with the producers was much more difficult. We left thinking we probably wouldn’t return in 2 years. When I saw that you were going though, I felt a pang in my heart, I wanted to return again, but to the type of event it was in 2002. That said, it’s an amazing experience and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t been!

  • Looks fantastic David, thank you for sharing.

  • Sounds like a great time. . . aside from the crowds.

    As to fine food being the provenance of the rich, I feel there is a shift happening right now. More and more affordable options are becoming available. We just need to keep demanding them.

  • LindaH, SlowFood restaurants here in Italy are not elite nor expensive. They are not even necessarily good! The SlowFood tag is obtained be not using any pre-prepared foods or mixes. Lots of our local joints could qualify and haven’t tried.
    Lots of other can’t because they use frozen things when the fresh are out of season, but those tend to be more cafes anyway.

  • I really like that first photo. Could anyone tell me what exactly people had problems with during Slow Food Nation in SF?

  • i’ve also heard of the slow food movement. it hasn’t taken much root here in the state of utah either. although it may just be that i don’t know about it.

    love your perception of it all.

  • Very interesting! I went to the Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco, and friends of mine who went to both said the Salone is more down to earth and a little more diverse – which seems to match your description. I think I’m going to try to go next time around, in two years. I should be ready for a trip to Italy by then. ;-) Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Yikes–the acts of grocery shopping and eating have become activities fraught with risk. If we choose mass produced, processed food we are contributing to a clearly unsustainable (and unhealthy) system. If we attempt to select food grown the ‘old fashioned’ way, we may be labeled elitist. Well, the only way the costs of the latter approach are going to come down is if more and more people adopt it, so that’s my choice. Call me a pioneer. (Yes on Prop. 2!)

  • Call me slow…

    but I only recently realised what the slow food movement is about. I understand the reasoning behind the name “slow food” but as a movement I think it is always going to be misunderstood. The name says casseroles and home baking to me, so I was surprised to find that it isn’t a trendy way of saying “put dinner on before you go to work” but a philosophy Susan and I have been practising for years.

    Susan has always market shopped, buying direct from growers whenever she could – even in Australia 15 years ago it was occasionally possible. To find out that we are now in danger of having a trend catch up with us will do our street cred no good at all! :) Luckily, our move to France means that we can buy direct from the producer more often; we could now almost do all our shopping from locally grown and produced food.

  • Hi This is very Good blog. And it’s very useful.

  • David you’re right about the price of eating “well” being lower here (France/Italy).

    I tell my friends when they visit to avoid the tourist places. The food is usually more expensive and not good. The locals are very picky about where they eat. After all they are used to excellent home cooking, why pay to eat mediocre food?

    The culture of food is different here. It’s not elitist to eat food like arugula. Everyone eats it rich to poor.

  • Interesting post. I’ve read much about the Slow Food movement and want to learn more.

  • For some of you unfamiliar with the controversy, here’s a few links to various articles. I didn’t include them in the post since they’re about another event entirely, but they do make for related reading.

    I didn’t attend the event in San Francisco so can’t comment, but I do know from experience that organizing and participating in large-scale events like these is a challenge, to say the least. Long lines are, invariably, the result of an event being popular and I normally choose to avoid them. Coupled with what some say was a steep ticket price, I can imagine some of the grousing was merited.

    Hopefully if they do another event, they’ll learn from past mistakes. The Torino event was completely different and, from what I’ve read, more accessible. Of course, there were problems, but I think the event is extremely worthwhile and I was glad that I attended. (Except now I have a pantry-full of unusual grains and a fridge full of cheese and salumi, that I’m gonna have a hard time plowing through!)

    Leisurely Thoughts About Slow Food Nation (Jennifer Jeffrey)

    Slow Food vs The Farmers One, Two, Three: (Rancho Gordo)

    Bay Area Bites (by Stephanie Lucianovic)

    Slow Food Notion (I Heart Farms)

    Slow Food USA Preps for it’s Big Moment (New York Times)

  • Hi David! I think I saw you at Porta Susa in Torino. I was on the train coming from Lyon. That’s so cool. Sorry I didn’t speak, but it was the first time I’d ever seen you in person so I wasn’t sure it was you.

    Anyway, I have similar feelings to yours about the event. My absolutely favorite parts I’d never heard anyone talk about. I notice that the photo that you’re showing is actually of the sort of impromptu world marketplace that takes place in the lobby of Terre Madre. This was absolutely one of my favorite parts of the event. It was absolutely wonderful to sample Libyan dates rolled in spices that the vendor told me would make me strong! It was just wonderful to hear people breaking out in song and dance in every corner. I was trying to bring myself to sing some of the traditional Appalachian ballads of my roots but I chickened out.

    Did you check out the Presidia — or the heritage artisan foods section that was separate from the Salone? Truly inspiring and diverse stories of cultural foods and of course so many delicious things…. I wonder if you tried the Mayan unconched chocolates. So wonderful!

    Last, the crowds were intense, but at Slow Food Nation (I was a featured artisan pickle and preserves maker there), they issued tickets and though it did help a bit some with allowing some communication between vendor and taster, it lead to ridiculously long lines and agitated people. My other biggest beef with SFN is that unlike at Salone del Gusto, the people who were sampling the product weren’t connected to it and some couldn’t tell you much about the products at all. There was a disconnect between the producer and the food.

    I’m looking forward to more!

  • David, how did it compare to – for example – the Salon des Saveurs in Paris or the Salon des Fermiers? Is it similar but just a whole lot bigger? Just curious as I don’t know much about it.

    I’m jealous though – wish I could have been your companion!!

  • I can’t say for the farmers, but I can say this for the retail supermarkets. Once you tag a product with “natural”, “organic”, “local” or any other such tags, you can increase your profit margin even though the original price is the same. Unfortunately businesses know that people will spend the extra bucks because the food is labeled a certain way.
    I will go for local before organic anytime. The blame also goes to consumers. We look at a price tag and subconsciously think that if it is more expensive it means its better.
    Will the prices of such foods ever be the same as ‘regular’ food? I sure hope so.

  • It’s refreshing to hear about an event where they are actually thinking about questions like how to bring good food to people of all incomes. This is what has been missing from any food movement.

  • So strange to see myself in the picture you have taken!
    I am a woman chef from Istanbul and I was one of the Turkish delegates in Terra Madre. It was quite a whirlwind experience, but I am also a bit disappointed that nothing new has been said in the workshops (at least the ones I have attended). Maybe seeds, agriculture and production side was better. But still, it was good to be part of such a community and it certainly gives me hope about the future.
    S.D.
    ( the woman in the background with black trousers and grey shortsleeved pullover is me)

  • I wonder what you think about the Modica chocolate, if you tried it (I’m pretty sure you did!)…

    Alice

  • We are very interested in going to the 2010 Salone del Gusto. We have never been but have heard so many wonderful stories. Is the show open to the public or does one have to be in the food industry or have a “food” sponsor? What do we need to do to make arrangements to attend? We would appreciate any help that we can get plus any hints that would make the trip eventful.

    Mille gracia, Lee and Chris

  • The show is open to the public and there is usually information about it on the Slow Food website. Websites in certain countries tend to be not as updated as we think, so you may need to be patient waiting for addition news about the Salon del Gusto in 2010. Or you can try writing to them as well.