Noah’s Ark In Florence

27 Jan 2006

For me, the three days in Florence were like another world. I had never been to an International Ark meeting before and so didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be not only inspirational but also one of the most convivial and enjoyable experiences of my life. However, I missed the beginning. After spending the previous weekend at the UK Slow Food Founding Congress on the Isle of Skye, I was convinced that my flight was on the Friday rather than Thursday and only discovered my mistake at the time when I should have been checking in at the airport. Ilaria, who organized the delegates’ travel, was brilliant: initially, she didn’t hold out much hope of being able to transfer my ticket, but within half an hour had booked a seat on an early flight the next morning.

Although I arrived too late to attend the opening ceremony marking the inauguration of the Accademia dei Georgofili as the headquarters of the Foundation for Biodiversity, I was able to join the rest of the party on a trip into the hills to visit the Valdarno Chicken and Tarese cured meat Presidia, and thereafter to Montevarchi. We were also supposed to go to the Zolfino Bean Presidium, but this had to be omitted for lack of time.
Instead, we went straight to a wine-tasting conducted by Fausto Ferroni, the Mayor of Montevarchi, in the cloisters of a building which was originally a Fransiscan monastery.

We travelled by bus, which contributed enormously to our spirit of camaraderie. When I arrived, I knew only John Fleming, also from the UK, Silvia Monasterolo, and Anya Fernald, who had returned from California for the occasion. By the time I sat down to the wine-tasting, I had met Ilaria, Sara, Luca, Eugenio, Ugo, and Winnie from Slow Food as well as lots of other people from various parts of the world: if I didn’t remember all their names at the time, I was able to identify them at the meeting the following day. The expedition ended with a splendid banquet given by the Municipality of Montevarchi at which, among much else, the Zolfino beans were served.

Until the evening, Saturday was given over to business. The first item on the agenda was a welcoming address by Alice Perlini, Director of the Istituto Agromonico d’Oltremare (IAO) where we were staying. This was followed by a discussion of the new guidelines for Ark and Presidium nominations in the various categories; then came lunch at the IAO, which I particularly remember for the delicious peaches.

In the afternoon, delegates who had submitted new nominations were asked to present them. I had sent in six, including a kind of chutney called Black Butter from Jersey which has to be stirred for so long that making it became an annual festival, with singing and dancing to keep the stirrers awake. The others were Jersey cider and apples, Jersey Royal potatoes, Highland beremeal, an ancient form of barley, and Manx Loaghtan lamb, from a primitive breed of sheep with four horns unique to the Isle of Man.

In the evening, we piled into a bus once again (with the Slow Food contingent, there were about sixty of us) and were whisked away to a special Presidium market and dinner at Bibbiena, in the hills north of Arezzo. We were also able to view an exhibition of photographs from a book called Immagina del Gusto, published jointly by the Foundation for Biodiversity and the Italian Federation of Photographic Associations (FIAF). The dinner, provided by the town and the Casentino convivium, was held in the courtyard of a very old, although beautifully restored building which was once the local prison.

On Sunday we visited two of the most remarkable Presidia in Italy. We left early to start a four-hour drive to Orbetello on the coast, where a shallow lagoon serves as the perfect feeding-ground for grey mullet. In Britain, grey mullet have been pronounced unfit to eat because of pollution; however, as the lagoon has only three channels into the open sea, monitoring the cleanliness of the water is relatively easy. To give added value to their catch, the fishermen have formed a co-operative and now, besides fishing, smoke both mullet and eel and produce bottarga, the roe of the mullet salted and dried. They have also opened a restaurant on the quay where we had a memorable lunch of the bottarga, which has an intense, lemon-like taste, deep-fried baby fish like whitebait, a spicy dish of eel cooked in red wine, deliciously cool, fresh salad, and whole grey mullet.

Standing outside the restaurant in the midday sun brought home to me how ill-equipped for the Mediterranean climate I was. Whereas Scotland called for cashmere, hot coffee, and an umbrella, here I needed a sun-hat, sun-tan lotion, and a handbag big enough to carry a bottle of water. Aveen Henry, from Ireland, was also worried by the sun: Luca and the kindly delegate from Australia, Robert MacLennan, came to our aid with hats apparently conjured out of the air and a frilly umbrella designed to withstand the Antipodean gales to use as a sunshade.

Our final visit of the weekend was to the Maremma Cattle Presidium at the Regional Farm in Alberese. The cattle are tall and athletic, smoky white except for the males, who are partly grey, with enormous black eyes and magnificent horns (albeit only two each, as opposed to the Manx Loaghtans’ four). Like the cattle of the American Wild West, they are untamed and rounded up by cowboys: our first view of them was as a moving column of dust on the horizon, followed by the silhouette of a man on a horse, just as in the opening shots of a film. The horses used by he cowboys were as elegant as the cattle: I’m still wondering whether their high-pommelled saddles originated in Tuscany or Texas.

With the image of the wild white cattle in the front of my mind, I returned to the UK determined to nominate many more of our old breeds, including Red Poll cattle and Essex and other pigs; at the moment, we have nothing quite like bottarga, but the Tarese cured meat Presidium reminds me of haslet and other pork products which are equally deserving of Presidia or at least a place on the Ark. So far, we have only nine items on the Ark and four Presidia, as compared to 95 American and 409 Italian Ark products. We have much to do here in Britain!

Sarah Freeman is a London-based food journalist and writer

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