SLOW FOOD WORLD – The Geography of Taste

10 Oct 2003

On Friday 26 September, Carlo Petrini gave a lecture entitled ‘The Geography of Taste’ at the Ferrero Foundation in Alba (Cuneo). Introduced by the scientist and journalist Piero Bianucci, the evening—one of a series of conferences organized by the Ferrero Foundation, an offshoot of the prestigious multinational producer of Nutella from Alba—was an occasion for wide-ranging discussions (introduced by the Slow Food founder’s long, well-presented talk and followed by equally interesting questions from the audience) on the strategies and ideas that have kept the Slow Food snail moving in recent years.

Petrini spoke to a mixed audience of business people, wine producers, journalists, Slow Food members and others. His presentation reflected this diversity in the insights and range of topics he covered.

“We are here to talk about the Geography of Taste, but good Geography always involves good History. And it is with the history of taste that I would like to begin”.

He began by exploring the “very origins of the concept of taste”, which, he surmised, can be dated back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the first “treatises of the table” began to circulate among the courts and patrician residences of Europe.

“It’s almost laughable when you think of the negative connotations that surrounded taste for so long,” Petrini argued. It used to be considered as an instinct, the closest to that of animals and much inferior to the senses of sight, hearing, smell or touch. This negative sentiment was to a large extent due to the dominating effect of Catholic attitudes, unwilling to confer any dignity to pleasure or material culture in general. Petrini’s historical excursus, designed to redress the negative connotations of the concept of taste, went on to refer to increasingly philosophical and anthropological issues, and ended up with a novel definition of a “person of good taste”.

“We can thank some enlightened authors of the late Middle Ages to early Renaissance, such as Pantaleone da Confienza, for the first reappraisal of the concept of taste. They saw taste as a source of knowledge and, like all sources of knowledge, if practiced in moderation—that is, without letting it spill over into vice—it is a pleasure in its own right and something positive. When taste is seen from this perspective, it can become a model and virtuous example. So a person will be a person of good taste when they are able to combine a painstaking quest for knowledge with the pleasures of life, in a sophisticated union which enhances both body and spirit.”

The lecture rapidly passed through other historical examples, gradually extending to other cultures. The history of taste became a history of crossovers, travel, and trade between peoples. And without intending to, it became Geography. “There can be no doubt that globalization—that word so abused, rejected, worshipped and misunderstood—was pioneered in the field of food and wine! So, at least in this field, we can bless globalization! We can thank it for some veritable miracles of supposedly local cuisine: but do we know how local it really is? It is obviously a paradox when we think of the archetypal Piedmontese bagna caoda (half of the vegetables used are certainly of non-Italian provenance), or the universally famous Neapolitan pizza (neither the dough nor the tomatoes originally come from Naples) and a host of other products, dishes and features of local cuisines which only exist thanks to cultural ‘exchanges’ with other traditions!

“So we come to the present day: taste, food and gastronomy are concepts everyone is talking about, maybe too much! But we are still left with the problem of identifying a proper diet or gastronomy, which can reconcile the demands for pleasurable taste, food safety, a decent return for producers and low environmental impact of production: in other words we are talking about sustainability.”

The question of adequately rewarding producers is nothing new, Petrini has been stressing its importance for some time.

“It is time to stop presenting a choice between just two alternatives: is it better to have a millions of poor small farmers producing for a few rich consumers or a few rich producers producing for millions of poor consumers?

“The answer should be neither! The solution is to create a virtuous circle, where small farmers in the developing world are encouraged to develop quality produce which is eco-sustainable and gives a decent return, but which doesn’t run up against barriers erected by rich countries. To do this we have to redesign trade policies, revive small-scale local economies and transform so-called ‘niche’ products into large-volume products of high quality capable of standing up to competition. I know it is an ambitious project which will not be implemented without the assistance of institutions and governments.”

At this point Petrini digressed for a moment to the Cancun summit, declared a ‘failure’ by everyone, but which Petrini feels could be “the greatest successful failure in the history of international summits … Yes, the tensions due to the campesino protests were necessary, the tragic death of the Korean peasant farmer was necessary, the unprecedented courage shown by the delegations from poor countries was necessary, but in the end, amidst the shambles of the official breakdown, something was achieved: from now on, from Cancun on, no one will ever again be able to ignore the petitioners from the Third World, who were once so badly treated and are now more resolute and united than ever (also by virtue of their impressive numbers). ”

Petrini concluded by describing ‘his’ dream, which is to see all the food producers in the world brought together to the same place at the same time for a face-to-face meeting, looking to the future in a constructive and calm discussion. “My movement is working towards a big event which we hope will mark the beginning of a new debate, a new synergy between everyone working on the land and their natural habitat. But it must be an event seen from the perspective of small farmers, herders and those who still today represent the overwhelming majority of the world’s working population, and who are tired of having to submit to ideas they often don’t even understand. It seems the future, just like the past, will run through their hands.”

Tiziano Gaia is a member of the Slow Food ezditore staff and a contributor to the Italian Wines 2003 guide, published by Slow Food Editore-Gambero Rosso

Photo: the Fondazione Ferrero

Translation by Ronnie Richards

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