Places To Save

11 Nov 2005

The Slow Food World Congress, held in Naples in 2003, ratified our movement’s commitment to defending and safeguarding places with particular significance for gastronomic culture. Places where history, buildings and the people living and working there are a living monument to sustainable, clean and fair food. Where the interconnections of production, commerce and consumption have created gastronomy.

Historic restaurants and cafés, shops and farms, abattoirs and markets — an increasing number of them are disappearing and being replaced by other businesses or other uses. Hence a permanent loss of savoir faire, products and related activities that are part and parcel of our cultural heritage. It is a slow generalized process of extinction, and as interesting, character-filled locations disappear, a part of the world’s gastronomic identity is lost and replaced by standardization.

I recall the resolution at the Naples Congress urging all the Slow Food Convivia round the world to defend and preserve such places. On a recent trip to Japan I was able to see for myself the risk of cultural impoverishment as a result of the local authorities’ decision to move the magnificent, historic Tsukiji fish market to another venue. The shift will have significant consequences.

My recent visit to Tsukiji made me realize the incredible appeal of the place: it breaks my heart to think that it will disappear with no respect whatsoever for its ‘sanctity’. It is truly a special place, not just for its sights ands smells but also for the way in which it teems with people and how it concentrates into one space so much skill and knowledge— not to mention a huge variety of fish from all over the world.

All this at the very heart of the Japanese capital on a site that has a unique gastronomic story to tell starring fish, always the focus of Japanese food habits (maybe too much so when it comes to sustainability or otherwise). I am happy that Slow Food Tokyo is fighting to save Tsukiji, even though it will probably prove impossible to make the city authorities change their minds.

Thinking about this market which will soon no longer exist also makes me nostalgic about Les Halles in Paris. Until the 1970s the main city market was held here, a throbbing heart that used to come to life early in the morning amidst a thousand scents and smells. Alas, it’s no longer there: the requirements of urban planning have swept away a temple of culture which now lives on only in the memories of those lucky enough to have experienced it.

It’s a mortal sin that Tsukiji is destined to the same fate. If it can’t be saved physically, then at least the memory of what it once was should be preserved far as possible. Apart from the place itself, it would be a pity to lose the knowledge and history that once used to animate it.

First published in Slow no. 50.

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