In 1996, a small food fair was staged in a corner of Turin’s Lingotto exhibition center. Organized by Carlo Petrini of Slow Food, the “eco-gastronomic” movement he had founded 10 years earlier as a positive counterpoint to fast food, it was a modest little market. But instead of the usual tired food fair formula (“half small retail, half folklore,” in Petrini’s words), its aim was ambitious and radically different. The fair would focus on the land, its products and its artisans, bringing them face to face with consumers.
Over the years, the exhibition’s surface area has increased exponentially and the number of visitors has soared from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. Welcome to Slow Food’s Salone Internazionale del Gusto, a five-day extravaganza for chattering stomachs that is staged biennially in Turin, this year from Oct. 25 to 29. It’s an extraordinary event, a great gastronomic Tower of Babel that requires an open mind, a curious palate, boundless stamina and a belief that what Slow Food calls “good, clean, fair food” is a basic human right.
In the vast marketplace, the beating heart of the Salone, pavilions the size of train stations are devoted to every conceivable kind of deliciousness, edible and potable, drawn from five continents. The air is perfumed with aromas of wild salmon oak-smoked in Ireland, Jabugo ham from Andalucia, American raw milk cheeses and olives and oils from Greece, all punctuated by invitations to taste. (“Un assaggio?” “Vous voulez goûter?” “Quiere probar un pedacito?” “Would you like a taste?”)
Salone del Gusto ‘a journey to the roots of food’
The producers — more than 1,000 this year from 100 different countries — staff the stands themselves, engaging in lively discussion about their products, their animals, their farms, their joys and their sorrows. (The latter generally related to red tape and the burdens of Brussels). “This is one of the things that sets the Salone apart,” observes Paolo di Croce, general secretary of Slow Food International. “At most food fairs, people are just selling. Here, the retailers are the producers — it’s a journey to the roots of food.”
On a lower floor, Salonistas will line up to have their taste buds tickled at a series of Taste Workshops. At the front of each classroom will be a panel of producers and experts who team up to present winning combinations of their products. The audience is seated at desks, each of them armed with a tasting sheet, a biodegradable cardboard plate stamped with the Slow Food snail logo, a wineglass and headphones for simultaneous translation into English and Italian.
Among this year’s countless events, cheese affineur Bernard Antony will select cheeses to go with wines from Alsace; Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses will be paired with the best British beers; and wood-aged Swiss cheeses will be matched with regional wines from the Valais, Lavaux and Graubünden areas of Switzerland. Star chef Massimo Bottura will wax lyrical about traditional balsamic vinegar. Kiwi wine expert Jeffrey Chilcott will take tasters on a tour of the best New Zealand Pinot Noirs. Chef-sommelier Toni Bru of the Celler de l’Aspic in Priorat, Spain, will uncork top cavas from Catalonia, Spain.
In the Theater of Taste, stellar chefs like Fulvio Pierangelini and Davide Scabin from Italy, Magnus Nilsson from Fäviken in northern Sweden, Virgilio Martinez from Lima, Peru, and Enrique Olvera from Mexico City will dazzle Salonistas with their cutting-edge creations.
Finally, up on the famous ramp of this former Fiat building, which spirals snail-like to the rooftop racetrack, Slow Wine, one of the Salone’s most spectacular taste events, will take place. Here, the cream of Italian wines — which have been awarded top scores in the Slow Wine Guide — will be proudly presented by their makers. Tasters will make their way slowly and ever less steadily from table to table, nosing, tasting — but seldom spitting — Italy’s finest: Sassicaias and Ornellaias; Brunellos and super-Tuscans; superb whites from the northern Friuli-Venezia; rich, raisiny Amarones from the Veneto; Primitivos from Puglia; Aglianicos from Basilicata; and Barolos and Barbarescos from Piemonte.
The Salone has come a long way since its humble bake-sale beginnings. It’s both a showcase and a mouthpiece for Slow Food, which has developed into an international eco-gastronomic movement with credibility and measurable political clout. But what is it for? Is the whole crazy, inspiring, exhausting event just a glorified food-and-wine fair and a talking shop for chattering foodies? Or is there some serious purpose?
The idea that savoring raw milk cheeses and sipping Sassicaia will somehow make the world a better place is certainly seductive. But does a small-scale, local system of food production offer a genuine alternative to the large-scale, global model, as the Slow Food mantra seems to suggest? Or is this just a pastoral conceit designed to appeal to a wealthy, well-fed, urban elite while condemning these heroic producers to a medieval model of agriculture and meager returns? Could such a system feed our world?
Di Croce is a pragmatist. “We live in the real world, we can’t be too radical, and we’re not going to convert everyone to small-scale or organics. This is not the aim — and besides, we couldn’t feed everyone that way.” What we can do, he insists, is produce in a more sustainable way, focus on the local and the seasonal, reduce food miles, cut down on chemicals that destroy the soil — and stop wasting so much food.
“The idea behind the Salone is to create consciousness of the need for change,” continues di Croce, “and it’s working — people can see that something is possible. We’re no longer seen as a band of funny Italians wandering about speaking bad English and talking about changing the world. When we can relate our concept of good, clean, fair food to the maximum number of people, then we’ll really be achieving something!”
Photo: A vendor at Salone del Gusto displays his products and samples at the food fair. Credit: Slow Food International