FOOD CULTURE – What does the future hold for the traditional country landscape?

18 Oct 2001

Early morning, Saturday October 6: classic, typical early autumn in Piedmont, with fog obliging drivers to slow down and take care. To reach Moncucco Torinese, a village on the border between Asti and Turin, one must risk driving off the road at every bend or, worse still, driving straight over an intersection without noticing it. I had never been here before, although it is only about 70 km from my native Bra. There are no road signs, so I decide to randomly follow the country lanes between Arignano and Castelnuovo Don Bosco.By a miracle I end up parking under the sheer walls of the huge castle: two seconds ago there was no sign of it and then suddenly it appeared out of nowhere.
On sunny days, though, the castle rises austerely over a mostly-intact hamlet, visible from far off in an area that seems unlikely in the devastated area surrounding Turin: usually sooty with the smoke of factories, sadly full of warehouses and soiled with pseudo-Palladian villas, where the plain begins to slope upwards to the hills. On a clear day you can see Moncucco’s corolla of woods and vineyards framing the late-Medieval castle, expertly held up by eighteenth- and ,nineteenth-century restoration work. This is the homeland of Freisa d’Asti and Bonarda, Malvasia and Barbera, the gate to the Monferrato region – an agricultural domain. I would only realize all of this in the late afternoon when the mantle of fog lifted. For the moment, I must concentrate on arriving on time at the conference, due to start at nine, on traditional country landscapes.
I am greeted by Antonio Pierro, Chairman of APART (the traditional country landscape association), and organizer of the debate along with Ruralia (a producers’ association of the Basso Monferrato area), which is especially active in defending the landscape and promoting small farming activities in the area. I realize that I was not the only one to be slowed down by the fog: the guests and speakers are arriving in dribs and drabs, and are nearly all late. I use the time to take a look at the plaster museum inside the castle and let Mr. Pierro tell me about his association. We soon discover that we are on the same wavelength regarding the protection of biodiversity, and there can be no doubt that an association involved in reviving traditional farming techniques in order to protect the balance of ecosystems and the integrity of the landscape is bound to be able to find a “snail” willing to support its cause in the vast Slow Food organization.

Around ten o’clock the conference-fleuve finally begins, and lasts until eight o’clock in the evening. Various experts on environmental and landscape matters take their turn at the microphone: lecturers, architects, chairmen of environmental associations and yours truly, talking about the Presidia and the Slow Food Award. Leaving aside this last speech (anyone who follows our website will be more than familiar with our policy regarding the protection of typical products), it is worth dwelling on the complex and exhaustive paper presented by Paolo de Bernardi, who drew up a modern Traditional Agricultural Landscape Charter in 1995 with Pompeo Fabbri of the Architecture Faculty at Turin Polytechnic. The proposed list of agricultural/ecosystems to be saved and requiring an inventory as soon as possible is long and detailed: native vines attached to living supports (olive or fruit trees), and those growing on pergolas or poles; Mediterranean gardens and embankments or slopes cut into terraces or steps; alpine or pre-alpine mountain pastures and those used for outside buffalo breeding; cork oak, almond and carob woods and Apennine grazing areas. An equally impassioned speech, justifiably caustic towards those who have facilitated degradation, was given by Franco Correggia, chairman of the Association “Terra, Boschi, Gente e Memorie”, with his list of rare animal and plant species discovered in the woods of the Asti area. Tuscan psychologist Porzia Tallauri spoke with poetic and passionate eloquence of the parallel between man’s mood and the landscape in which we choose to live, starting with our home. The enthusiasm of these speakers, from Gianfranco Miroglio of the Parchi Artigiani to Pierro himself, is astounding and reassuring. There is still hope, then, for those who obstinately refuse to give in to speculators, or the monocultures of the food industries, or the arrogance of architects who fail to respect history and traditions; the awareness that there is not a moment to lose in order to save professions, people, alpine pastures, woods and farms from oblivion is widely shared.

The real threat – as well as the lack of gastronomic and environmental culture shown by those who place more importance on making a profit than protecting ecosystems that are thousands of years old – is the fear of seeming idealistic, of giving instructions that are impossible to fulfill, or worst of all, resignation. Because some speeches – only a few, luckily – wink at a certain laissez-faire: for example, the words used by Dott. Pompeo Fabbri of Turin Polytechnic to explain his interesting paper: going so far as to quote Churchill, he basically admitted the unavoidability of the voracious western productive system, the only one among the many possibilities that really works. He added that it is not possible to economize with niche products. Going beyond the facile objection that the system itself caused the devastation of the rural landscape, the destruction of urban suburbs and food-related scandals such as mad cow disease and dioxin chicken (and that 150,000 people art Cheese or at the Hall of Taste do not exactly represent a niche consumer public), it is surprising that a certainly well-informed expert is calling for surrender. This decision is not shared by the thousands of organizations (with a greater or lesser involvement with Slow Food) who continue to maintain that in concrete terms another productive system is possible: to the benefit of consumers and farmers, cities and rural areas, reconciling traditions with intelligent innovation that maintains its link with the past. If you have any doubts, try asking the producers of Sardinian casizolu, or of the cardoon of Nice, alpine-grazing Asiago cheese, Valchiavenna goat meat ‘violino’ ham and anyone who agrees with the idea of the Presidia and enjoys professional or financial benefit from this kind of traditional production. Or, if you speak Serb or Moroccan, Argentinian or Chilean, Peruvian or Indian languages, ask Predrag Peca Petrovic or the women of the Amal Cooperative, Carlos Lewis or Pablo Jara, Adriana Varcarcel or Bija Devi. These are some of the heroes of biodiversity we thanked on Saturday October 13 at the Slow Food Award in Portugal with a handshake, a diploma and money. All these people believe that another system is possible, and they do not go and shout about it in the squares. They work in their own country, saving crops, animals, skills and professions. Theirs is the dignity of people who do not want to give up their cultural and food-related traditions.

Alessandro Monchiero,a journalist, works for Slow Food Editore

Foto: the castle of Moncucco Torinese

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