Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy's Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.

Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
Naples book
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.

Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.

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Upheaval In The Categories Of Chianti Classico Wines Image

Chianti Classico DOCG is one of Tuscany’s most prestigious wine appellations: Any wine bearing that name must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict regulations about its making. So when the Consortium of Chianti Classico producers announced a change to its categories, wine critics and appassionati took notice.

Chianti Classico’s consortium recently launched a “Gran Selezione” category: a group of wines touted as the pinnacle of the area’s wine pyramid. The Gran Selezione will account for about 10% of Chianti Classico’s annual production of 35 million bottles, for a value of 70 to 100 million euros.

The launch may have taken place, with much ado, in the spectacular frescoed Renaissance hall of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, but the reaction — in Tuscany and beyond — has been mixed. Although 35 of the area’s top wineries have so far bottled a wine in the new category, many others are giving the “Selezione” a wide berth — for now, at least. To understand the reasons for this, it’s worth taking an overview of Chianti Classico.

The delineated area known as Chianti Classico is located in the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, and has long been recognized as one of the region’s best for wine production: It was first shaped in 1716 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Modern Chianti Classico gained elevated DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) in 1984 with the “Black Rooster” wines; its consortium now represents more than 600 members.

The overall area for Chianti production is much larger, however. It stretches farther into the provinces of Siena and Firenze, and into those of Pisa, Arezzo and Pistoia. This is confusing for consumers: Although Chianti Classico and appellations such as Chianti Rufina DOCG are recognized for their premium wines, simple, inexpensive — and often not great — “Chianti” wines abound from these other parts of the region.

In Chianti Classico DOCG wines, the primary grape is red Sangiovese. Each wine must contain 80% to 100% Sangiovese, with the remaining percentage made up from other specified red grapes, including “international” varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Until recently, these wines fell into just two groups: Chianti Classico Annata (the “normal” vintage) and Chianti Classico Riserva (aged for at least 24 months), which were considered the appellation’s best wines. (Some producers, however, choose to make their top wines outside of the DOCG rules. These wines are bottled under the IGT appellation, and are the so-called Super Tuscans). Now a third group has been added.

To be admitted into this Gran Selezione, a wine must pass an additional taste test and be aged for a minimum of 30 months, of which three are in the bottle. (Note that “gran” is a shortened version of “grande,” and here means top, not grandmother.) It must also be made from the grapes of a single vineyard or from a selection of an estate’s best grapes. “The idea of this top tier is to help consumers identify an estate’s best wine,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the Chianti Classico Consortium’s president.

There’s the rub. Objectors note that the Riserva system was already in place to do that, and that the new Selezione may increase confusion in the cluttered Tuscan wine map. The Gran Selezione has stimulated a lively debate among the Italian wine world — in Tuscany and beyond — about the pros and cons of the new classification, and about alternative ideas for a change in the appellation’s structure. (Changes must be ratified by law, as the Gran Selezione’s have).

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, left, and Filippo Mazzei of Fonterutoli, Chianti producers and joint vice presidents of the Consortium, at the Gran Selezione news conference. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, left, and Filippo Mazzei of Fonterutoli, Chianti producers and joint vice presidents of the Consortium, at the Gran Selezione news conference. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“During the recent economic crisis, the production of Chianti Riserva wines has increased, and they’re competing with Chianti Classico’s higher-level Riservas,” says Leonardo Bellaccini, the winemaker at San Felice, a leading Chianti Classico estate. Its well-known Riserva, Il Grigio, recently passed the tests to become a Gran Selezione. “We hope that once the Gran Selezione branding is recognized, it will stop the confusion between these two types of Riservas.”

Many cutting-edge wines here come from small estates with forward-thinking winemakers at their helm. Paolo De Marchi, of Isole e Olena, is one. His award-winning, pure Sangiovese Super Tuscan, Cepparello, would qualify for the Gran Selezione, but he’s reluctant to change its status.

“I don’t agree with the Consortium’s vision on this,” he says. “For me, great wines are made by their location and vineyards, not by the hands of men. I’d much rather see us differentiate between the sub-zones within Chianti Classico as a way of emphasizing the diversity of our terroirs.”

The concept of “villages” as used in Burgundy — which would allow the wines’ labels to cite the township within which they are made, such as Gaiole, Castellina or Greve in Chianti — is a hot issue among premium estates wanting to differentiate growing areas within Chianti Classico’s 7,000 hectares (about 17,300 acres) of vineyards.

“The Consortium is beginning to take steps in that direction, but it may be several years in the coming,” says Robert Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono. “The diversity of Chianti Classico’s terroirs is one of its strengths.”

Some producers and wine experts believe the Consortium has missed a precious opportunity to requalify Chianti Classico by limiting its grape varieties to Sangiovese and other native Tuscan grapes such as Colorino and Canaiolo.

“A Gran Selezione of just Tuscan grapes would have made sense by emphasizing the link between these varieties and this specific area,” says Bellaccini. That “first tier” would have been clearly understood by everyone.

Will Gran Selezione wines cost more? “That will be up to the individual estates,” says Consortium Vice President Filippo Mazzei. “We have not imposed price hikes for these wines, though they are of course the estates’ top bracket wines.” The Consortium hopes producers of other high-flying Super Tuscans will be encouraged to reclassify them as Gran Selezione wines, and that the word will spread positively about its latest category.

Top photo: Gran Selezione wines sit on a higher podium than the rest of the Chianti Classico wines at the media tasting in Florence. Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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Cook_Inc. On A High-End Path To Food, Art And Adventure Image

It takes courage to start a new high-end food magazine — whether in print or in app form — in an economic climate such as today’s. Cook_inc. was launched in November 2011 by Anna Morelli, an Italian-Peruvian woman living in Lucca, Tuscany. Its scope is the new and the up-and-coming in top gastronomy, whether it be the latest food discoveries in the Amazon jungle or the new cuisine of young talents from Asia, Europe and beyond. The magazine takes its visual cue from art books, with striking images by some of the world’s most dynamic food photographers.

“It may be a difficult time economically, but it’s an exciting time for food,” she says as she demonstrates the magazine’s state-of-the-art English app on her iPad. “I want to spread the word about the really talented young chefs that are out there, and about new global trends in food.”

Cook_inc. has established a loyal following from within the food world. “Lots of chefs and foodies worldwide subscribe to keep up with the latest trends and their setters. Word travels so fast these days, and it’s great to be a part of that: I’m always happy when one of the new chefs we’ve discovered reaches a broader audience. For me, it justifies the risks we’ve taken to produce the magazine.”

Morelli’s obsession with restaurants began early: Her father, an economist for the European Union and an “old-fashioned gourmet,” lived with the family in Brussels and often took them on expeditions to international Michelin-starred restaurants. “I was just 15 when I first went to Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain,” she recalls, “and it was a life-changing experience for me.”

Morelli speaks a handful of languages and switches between them with ease. The magazine — which is published three times per year by Morelli’s company, Vandenberg Edizioni — reflects her multiculturalism by featuring chefs from every continent. A recent issue included in-depth, beautifully illustrated articles about Chilean chef Rodolfo Guzmán, British chef Sat Bains and Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York. A handful of Italian subjects also were covered, including chocolatier Paul De Bondt in Pisa; vinegar-maker Josko Sirk in the Collio, Friuli; and food performance artist Andrea Salvetti. The printed magazine is published in Italian; the apps are in English and Italian.

Cook_inc.’s look is as important as its content, and the printed version is as beautiful as an art book. The magazine commissions great photography to accompany the texts and recipes. Morelli’s years running a photo agency have stood her in good stead.

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A feature in Cook_inc. on a restaurant in Stockholm called Oaxen Krog. Courtesy of Cook_inc.

“For me, image quality is very important,” she says as she taps through a slide show on the Cook_inc. app. “Whether photos are printed onto great paper and bound into a volume, or appear on today’s many screens, I like to pair talented photographers with the writers.” Ease of access is also key.

“Many people — especially today’s young foodies — are never without their smartphones. So we recently created a mini-app just for them. It’s like an aperitivo that makes them hungry and whets the appetite for the larger tablet app that can be downloaded and has nearly as much content as the printed magazine.” In some cases, additional material is added to the app, like extra photos from a shoot sequence or special animated images using the app’s state-of-the-art technology.

Cook_inc. explores the fusion of food and art. “People think that the ‘inc’ in the name stands for ‘incorporated,’ but actually it means ‘inclusive’ — I wanted to create a magazine that spoke not only of high-gastronomy restaurants and chefs but also of art, bistros, destinations, workshops and food-related environmental issues.” It looks like Morelli has understood a gap in the market and is filling it, in style.

Top image: Anna Morelli, left, and the cover of Cook_inc.  Courtesy of Cook_inc.

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AsiO Gusto Takes Slow Food Where It’s Never Gone Image

The global importance of Slow Food — the food activism movement that was born in Italy in 1986 — continues to spread. Its South Korean chapter — in collaboration with the city of Namyangju and Slow Food International — recently staged an ambitious and highly successful event, AsiO Gusto, the first of its kind to be held in Asia. The impressively organized festival hosted 500,000 visitors over six days.

“Our goal was to gather over 400 artisan food producers and cooks from 40 countries within Asia and Oceania under one roof, to celebrate their diversity and to spread the word about the many unique foods we have in Korea,” says Kim Byung-soo, a member of Slow Food’s International Council and one of AsiO Gusto’s main organizers.

 A precedent for this sort of gathering has been set in Turin by Slow Food‘s international food events, Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto (they are held biennially; the next will be in October 2014). Emphasis is placed on sharing knowledge about sustainability and food culture and about the more than 1,300 ingredients from 74 countries that are currently listed in the “Ark of Taste“: They’re in as much danger of becoming extinct as any wild animal. Korea’s include the prized Chik-so cattle, otherwise known as “tiger beef” for their magnificent orange-striped coats, and the edible lily bulb of Lilium hansonii, from Ulleungdo island.

AsiO Gusto (the capital “O” stands for Oceania) took over a large, modern youth sports center on the outskirts of Namyangju, a city southwest of Seoul that is home to the world’s first organic agriculture museum. Three vast tents pitched on pristine artificial turf pitches formed the nucleus of the show. Each pavilion had a subject: South Korea’s featured more than 100 Korean products, including fermented, eco-friendly and local foods. The International Pavilion focused on foods from 32 Asian and Oceanic countries, including marvelous dried fruits from Afghanistan; Rimbàs black pepper from Malaysia; Palestinian olive oil; Nagasaki yuko vinegar from Japan; Indonesian coconut sugar; Tibetan plateau cheese; heirloom rice from the Philippines; raisins from Iran; Georgian wine and taro and yam from New Caledonia. It also housed six international restaurants and a taste workshop. The “Theme” Pavilion showcased some of Slow Food’s most important projects — the Ark of Taste, Presidium seeds and A 1,000 Gardens in Africa — as well as South Korean temple food and local Slow Food educational activities.

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Traditional Korean musicians tour the AsiO Gusto fair. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Outside, a large, lively area was given over to street-food stalls from South Korea and beyond: vendors cooked everything from barbecued pork and griddled mung-bean pancakes — made from freshly stone-ground soaked beans — to ash-roasted soya beans and Indian naan breads baked on the spot for thousands of visitors exploring the festival’s “streets.”

An organic vegetable garden was grown on the site, with neat rows of rice, amaranth, squashes and beans on display for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited the fair to learn from. They were also encouraged to enter a walk-in beehive — though not before they’d been covered from head to toe in protective netting; their anxious mothers waited outside until they re-emerged, sting-free. A jovial South Korean farmer made narrow baskets for holding hen’s eggs from rice straw, and used his docile brown cow to give children rides on a converted plow.

Elsewhere, in a gym-turned-hall, visitors attended authoritative conferences on the culture of fermented food, animal welfare and food justice; or witnessed the Korean tea ceremony enacted like a synchronized dance by seven beautifully groomed women in long, traditional dresses, accompanied by their distinctive songs. Music is ever-present in South Korea, from the national passion for karaoke to the lively displays put on during the festival by entertainers from the South Korean armed forces who sang everything from pop to opera and even performed magic tricks on the baseball field where families picnicked and rested in the shade of gazebos.

Buddhist monks’ temple cuisine

One of the most fascinating Korean stands was dedicated to the temple cuisine of the country’s Buddhist monks. Under the discerning eye of the Venerable Dae Ahn, this display showed the remarkable diversity of natural foods — cultivated and wild — the monks eat during the year. Their diet is meat, fish and dairy free, and also avoids foods from the onion family (they’re considered too “hot”). Yet the range of fresh and fermented foods the monks enjoy is impressive.

“In our Buddhist practice, we learn how to cultivate and cook our food,” says Dae Ahn, who also runs the Balwoo temple food restaurant in Seoul. “It’s a central part of our daily lives and is connected to our philosophy of harmony and patience. After all, nothing could be slower than the fermented foods — some of them aged for up to 20 years — that we use to complement our fresh, seasonal ingredients.” The monks also make use of hundreds of wild foods, including pine needles, lotus root, burdock, mushrooms, ginko nuts and acorn jelly. “Our lives, livelihoods and the entire universe change according to what we eat,” she says.

Fermented foods still integral to Korean cuisine

Fermented food is a staple of Korean cuisine and was at the festival in all its guises. Fermented ingredients range from soy sauces to bean and chili pastes (doenjang and gochujang) and kimchi. Best-known as a fermented cabbage dish enlivened with ginger, chili and garlic, kimchi can be made from dozens of vegetables and plants. Traditionally, each farm or household stored its fermenting foods outdoors in large, dark brown ceramic jars. Many still do. Kimchi is served at every Korean meal as a side dish and digestive aid. Fermentation was an important way to preserve perishable ingredients in pre-refrigeration times. These foods are still key elements of the country’s rich food culture.

As with all Slow Food events, the message goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of food to learning about its myriad cultures and sources, and to defending our right to food that is good, clean and fair, as Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, maintains. For a first-time visitor to South Korea, AsiO Gusto offered a stimulating chance to experience Korea’s complex, delicious foods and to feel closer to the many heroic artisan food producers from Asia and Oceania who attended it. For anyone interested in attending, the next AsiO Gusto is already being planned for 2015.

Top photo: A young girl studies the Buddhist temple food display at AsiO Gusto. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Tbilisi Shines Light On Magic Of Georgian Wine’s Tradition Image

Throughout the winemaking areas of the republic of Georgia, the qvevri — large clay vessels like giant amphors — are being readied for the new grape harvest. This fascinating country, nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains, has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition: Wine has been made there for 8,000 years. And it’s always been made in clay pots buried in the ground. (Versions of it were adopted in ancient Rome and Greece.)

What’s exciting, too, is that the Georgian method is now being used in several countries in Europe and beyond by a few passionate organic and biodynamic winemakers wanting to make what are being called “natural” wines. Indeed, I was first introduced to these huge clay pots in northeastern Italy, in the cellars of Josko Gravner. Gravner was the first non-Georgian winemaker to bring both the method and the Georgian qvevris to Italy. (He calls them anfore, or amphors, though strictly speaking amphors were used in the ancient world to transport wine, whereas the large immobile qvevri are used to make it in.)

Recently, I attended the International Qvevri Symposium in the handsome Georgian capital city, Tbilisi. The symposium showcases Georgia’s top wineries, including those that make wine in European-style barrels using international varieties. I was keen to learn more about the qvevri and their wines. A few are available in Europe, but this was a rare opportunity to find almost 20 professional qvevri producers — including two monasteries — gathered under one roof.

One of them was John Wurdeman, an American who has long been based in Georgia. As well as being an enthusiastic expert about all things Georgian — he sings in a marvelous polyphonic choir there — Wurdeman has set up one of the country’s most dynamic wineries, Pheasant’s Tears. I spoke to him on his stand at the symposium, and again a few days later as we toured his vineyards near his home in Sighnaghi, in the Khaketi region of eastern Georgia.

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Handmade clay qvevri at the pottery before firing. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“Qvevri are like large coil pots with conical bottoms that are made by hand and fired in walk-in kilns by one of only five master potters who now remain,” he explains. “They are then buried in the ground — usually inside a cellar, but sometimes outside, too — and can range in size from 100 to 4,000 litres (26 to 1,056 gallons) in capacity.”

Cellars containing qvevri are disconcerting at first for those of us used to visiting rooms filled with vats and barrels. They seem empty, with just the qvevris’ round “necks” protruding from below. Yet the volumes of liquid being stored in the vessels underground give these cellars a very special atmosphere. They may seem empty, but one senses the presence of the wine below.

“Packing the qvevri in sand gives the wines stability, but the winemaking method differs, too,” he continues as we stand in his cellar overlooking the vineyards. “Clay is porous, so before the qvevri can receive the grapes, they need to be treated inside with hot beeswax. This goes deeply into the pores but does not completely seal the inside surface: a tiny bit of air needs to be able to breathe as the wines are being made.

“We crush our grapes lightly and put them into the qvevri, stems and all,” Wurdeman says. “This applies to both red and white grapes. The alcoholic fermentation gets underway within a few days, spontaneously, without the need for added yeasts.” Indeed, the qvevri cellars host wild yeasts in the same way that some caves help to ripen cheeses.

“That fermentation lasts for between two to four weeks. We punch the cap down twice a day during this period until it falls. Then, if the grapes are white, we leave the wine on its skins and stems. The red wines are handled differently: they’re taken off the skins and stems and transferred to another qvevri. Both types of wine are then loosely covered with a stone — again, to allow a tiny bit of air to enter. The malolactic, or secondary, fermentation begins spontaneously within a few weeks. When the malolactic is finished, the qvevri are sealed more tightly using a wooden lid and more beeswax, and a heavy stone is placed on top.

“That’s it until spring, when the earth’s temperature begins to warm. At that point the wines are racked: pumped out into bottles or into a clean qvevri, leaving behind the lees and any other sediment that has fallen into the vessels’ narrow, pointed bottoms.”

Georgian wine’s natural development

The qvevri’s stable temperature allows for a very slow, steady fermentation. Once the wine has been sealed into its home, the winemakers can’t — and don’t want to — interfere with its natural development.

“Everything depends on the quality of the grapes,” he adds. “We don’t use any of the chemical ‘correctors’ that many wineries resort to if problems occur during winemaking. This is how it’s always been done in Georgia, and the results are proof of how successful the method is. The white wines are particularly impressive: Deep amber in colour, they acquire as many tannins and polyphenols as red wines.

“The whites do acquire fragrance and an earthy body that makes them a perfect match for the diversity of Georgian food,” Wurdeman says as we sample a glass of his remarkable Rkatsiteli, an amber wine that hints at spice and honey in the nose, yet leaves the palate refreshed and dry.
This red-stemmed white grape is just one of dozens of native grape varieties the Georgians are working with that offer an exciting future for those wanting to discover winemaking’s ancient past.

Top photo: John Wurdeman at Pheasant’s Tears winery with a large qvevri. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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At MAD Food Symposium, Speakers Show Blood And Guts Image

It takes guts to pitch a blood-red circus tent on the fringe of Copenhagen for the MAD Symposium and fill it with 600 food professionals — including cutting-edge chefs, food activists, farmers, foragers and butchers. But then, pioneering chef René Redzepi could never be accused of lacking guts. His radical restaurant, Noma, topped global charts for daring to break with French colonisation, and for establishing in its stead a self-reliance on Nordic ingredients and fresh cooking methods that triggered the so-called Nordic food revolution.

In Danish, “mad” means food. For the third MAD Symposium, Redzepi was host to a colorful cast of culinary characters with guest curators David Chang of Momofuku and Chris Ying — editor of Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine — and with the help of Ali Kurshat Altinsoy and Peter Kreiner. Speakers came from as far away as Australia, Brazil and California to inspire, inform, provoke and entertain the mostly young, international audience.

“We want to create a forum for the kinds of actions and ideas in food that no one else dares to tell or do,” Redzepi says. “The theme of the symposium this year was guts, in all its forms, and our speakers approached the subject from every angle: the natural, the social, the environmental, the emotional, the culinary and the slightly insane.”

“Having guts is a moral currency encompassing courage, ambition, fearlessness and, sometimes, stupidity,” Chang said in his emotional introduction to the event. “In my case, it meant taking a leap of faith to start a restaurant — without leaving anything for the swim back home.” Chang is now one of the most successful chefs in the U.S.

Dario Cecchini onstage. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Dario Cecchini onstage. Credit: Carla Capalbo

The tone was set by the first speaker, Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, who stepped into the ring beside a just-slaughtered pig that had been strung up at centerstage, its head still dripping ruby blood. With the precision of a surgeon, Cecchini delicately sliced open the animal’s belly and pulled out its still-warm, glistening guts. “I’m proud to be from a family of village butchers,” he said as he worked. “We’re the ones who resolve the terrible dilemma of killing animals to feed our communities. In ancient times, it was priests who practised this art. We must be conscientious, responsible carnivores by giving our animals good, long lives and butchering them with respect. Mine is a hard trade, but it’s necessary.” He finished his presentation by giving a passionate recitation of Paola and Francesco’s song of love from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” He got a standing ovation.

The ever-inspiring Indian food activist Vandana Shiva gave many of the audience’s younger members their first taste of what it means to fight for sustainable agriculture. “In 1987, I had a gut sense I should start saving indigenous seeds in reaction to the spread of sterile, genetically modified seeds produced by the chemical giants who had given us war chemicals,” Dr. Shiva began. “They boasted that by the year 2000 they would control all our seeds and foods. I analyzed that something had to be done.”

Since then her organization, Navdanya, has set up more than 100 community seed banks across India to preserve native varieties and has fought seed patenting and what she calls “the mono-culture of the mind.” “The good, natural bacteria in our guts are being killed off by the saturation of pesticides, weed-killers and antibiotics in our food chain,” she continued. “Only indigenous agriculture can restore the biodiversity and balance we need to survive.”

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Activist Vandana Shiva spoke about the importance of indigenous agriculture. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef from Los Angeles, touched a raw nerve with his exciting account — part story, part rap — of fighting the city’s “staggering poverty and hunger crisis.” “L.A.’s rich areas have the country’s most diverse farmers markets, but in the poor areas there’s just nowhere to buy fresh produce and most of the food you can find is discarded, expired, inedible or junk,” he began as he showed photos of desolate convenience stores in South Los Angeles. When Choi started sending out his Kogi food trucks to sell fusion cuisine on random corners, he was surprised by the response. “We’d Twitter our location and within minutes, crowds of hungry people would be standing in line for our Korean-Mexican tacos. I really believe some value has to be placed back in the spiritual currency,” he said. “Do we have the guts to break this cycle of food poverty?”

Over two intense days, the MAD crowd heard from other inspirational chefs too. David Kinch, of Manresa in California, and his farmer, Cynthia Sandberg, showed how a creative chef can team up with a single-source vegetable provider to obtain grown-to-order produce. Pascal Barbot, of L’Astrance in Paris, gave a thrillingly high-energy talk about what it means to be a risk-taker in the kitchen by cooking “spontaneously,” adjusting and changing dishes in real time to suit his customers’ moods, needs and desires.

Christian Puglisi, of Relae in Copenhagen, graphically demonstrated how he established a successful all-organic restaurant with almost no funding, by moving into a cheap space in drug dealers’ territory and paring everything back to focus on the food. The street is now crime-free and thriving. Barbara Lynch, of Boston, told the picaresque story of how she became a chef, against all odds, trying to raise $2 million for a restaurant while living in a housing project, and learning to cook by reading cookbooks. “The only way is to be yourself, be honest and be fearless — you’ll need quenelles of steel!” she said, to delighted applause.

With more than 20 distinguished speakers on the rostrum, there isn’t enough space here to describe them all. But there is more information on the MAD site. And remember: To make a difference to your area’s food scene, all you need is guts.

Top photo: Exterior of the MAD Symposium site in Copenhagen. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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5-Minute Pasta Sauce Made With Fresh Tomatoes Image

The fastest, easiest and (in my opinion) most delicious summer pasta sauce is raw, takes 5 minutes to prepare, and only calls for three main ingredients: ripe, juicy tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and lots of fresh herbs. Oh, and — ideally — imported Italian spaghetti.

Onto that base you can add whatever other flavors and ingredients you love and have at hand: garlic, scallions, chilies, capers, olives … even edible flowers, if you have any in the garden. Think of it as a diced tomato salad. Then toss it with hot spaghetti.

This is not a carefully measured type of sauce. Feel free to make and mix it as you wish. Just plan to have at least one medium tomato (about the size of an orange) for each person. I like to gather different kinds of tomato, from tiny cherry tomatoes to dark and colorful heritage varieties. The star should be the kind of tomatoes that are plentiful in the summer at farmers markets and in the garden: bright red and full of juice. And flavor. That’s the key to making this dish memorable.

Prepare the sauce about half an hour before you want to cook the pasta. It benefits from sitting for a short time so the flavors can marry well, but will lose some of its zing if it waits too long.

Here are my ingredients for pasta sauce for 4 people:

A good assortment of tomatoes.
A generous handful of fresh basil leaves.
A few sprigs each of other fresh herbs (I love to use tarragon, cilantro and chives plus a few leaves of fresh lovage and thyme).
A couple of minced garlic cloves.
Salt and freshly ground peppers.
Extra virgin olive oil, as good as you can get it.
Capers, preferably stored in salt.
Sliced olives of your choice.
A piece of fresh chili pepper.
A handful of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Here’s how to make it:

Rinse all of your ingredients well, especially if they’ve just been picked. Use a large mixing or serving bowl so you can add the hot spaghetti to the sauce and then serve it immediately.

Dice the tomatoes and slide them into the bowl with all of their juices. Chop the herbs roughly and stir them into the tomatoes. Add the minced garlic, if you are using it. Season with salt and pepper, and toss with a few tablespoons of oil, just as you would a salad. Add whatever other ingredients you fancy: rinsed salted capers, sliced olives and minced fresh chilies (this sauce can be hot or not).

A few minutes before you want to cook the pasta, bring a large pan of salted water to a rolling boil. (Never cook pasta in small pans with too little water or it will get gummy.) The spaghetti cooks fast, so get everyone to the table in time. As the Italians say: Pasta waits for no one!

Tip the steaming hot, drained al dente pasta into the sauce and start mixing. Stir in the cheese and serve. Wait for the applause!

Top photo: Garden-fresh tomatoes and herbs make the perfect summer pasta sauce.  Credit: Carla Capalbo 

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