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JOURNALIST Carlo Petrini helped to establish Arcigola, the forerunner of Slow Food, in Italy in 1986. The organisation grew from his concern that the world was fast losing interest in the food it ate, where it came from, how it tasted and how industrialised farming was affecting the planet.
It began with food and wine-loving politicals, and a group called Libera e Benemerita Associazione Amici del Barolo – Free and Meritorious Association of Friends of Barolo – the great wine of the Piedmont region of northern Italy. It was hardly fashionable – particularly not for those on the political Left – to promote good food and wine. But their aim was to promote awareness of local products and how to appreciate them.
This led to an association called ARCIGOLA – a play on the name of a cultural and social club, affiliated with the Italian Communist Party, called ARCI, and gola, which, in Italian, means ‘throat’ or ‘gullet’. As Carlo Petrini himself recalls in an early publication, the founding of Arcigola was celebrated, memorably, with an all-night dinner, toasted towards dawn with a 1939 Barolo.
Also in 1986 clouds of nuclear continamination left a Ukrainian town called Chernobyl and devastated the environment for thousands of kilometres beyond. And the food supply. It was also the year that 19 people died in a small Piemontese town from drinking wine laced with ethanol. And it was the year a MacDonald’s opened by the Spanish steps in Rome.
A number of Italians, Carlo Petrini among them, assembled in Rome in protest – armed with nothing but bowls of penne, traditional Italian pasta. The Slow Food – as in ‘anti-fast food’ – movement was born.
Its official launch took place in Paris in 1989 with delegates from 15 countries. Its symbol became the snail. Carlo Petrini was elected president, an office he still holds today.
‘A firm defense of quiet material pleasure,’ its founding manifesto read, ‘is the only way to oppose the universal folly of fast life….Fast life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.’
It was a prescient message. Twenty years on, thinking food people know all about the threats of the fast life and all it symbolises. Slow Food has grown from a relatively small Italian movement – still with its headquarters in Carlo Petrini’s hometown of Bra – to an international phenomenon, with more than 100,000 members worldwide.
The original eno-gastronomic – food and wine-related – message has developed into to an eco-gastronomic alert. The movement has broadened its focus – not only concerned with preserving food traditions but the promotion of agricultural sustainability, biodiversity, small producers and endangered foods. There’s an emphasis on education – of children in schools through to adults at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, and on local food systems through the global network known as Terra Madre.
Petrini was he was born in 1949. He studied sociology at university and became politically active early on. By 1977 he was writing about food and wine for major Italian publications – something he still does today, through the prestigious La Reppublica newspaper. He helped found the Slow Food Editore publishing house and he himself has written several books, including Buono, Pulito e Giusto: Principi di Nuova Gastronomia – translated into English as Slow Food Nation. He has been widely honoured academically and was named, in the United Kingdom’s The Guardian in 2008 as ‘one of 50 people who could save the world’.
- Slow Food in Australia acknowledges Joanna Savill for her contribution to this brief history of Slow Food.