23 Oct 2003
Before the revolution brought about by food technology and enhanced transport capabilities, globalized food distribution was restricted to high added-value products such as spices, alcohol, exotic fruit, preserved cheese, meat and fish—and also cereals, which crossed the Mediterranean as far back as Roman times. Nowadays, all over the West, even fresh meat and fish, vegetables, milk and eggs normally travel over a thousand kilometers, in a trend which sees production and consumption separated by ever-greater distances. You don’t have to be a supporter of autarchy or a nostalgic traditionalist to observe that all of these journeys have a negative impact – not only on product freshness and taste but also on costs and the environment. What’s the sense—as I have experienced—in eating freshly caught French fish in a Canadian restaurant?
The food we keep in our fridges has been profoundly affected by a range of factors: increased storability, the success of non-local patterns of distribution (whether for a cheap snack or an élite product), the urge to instantly satisfy every gastronomic whim (in some part of the world it will always be the right season to produce strawberries in winter or apples in the summer—Irish meat and Norwegian salmon, German milk, cherries from Eastern Europe, Tunisian olives, South African or Chilean wines. And then there is Canadian or Australian flour—is it GM free? Who knows? Probably not, considering that so-called ‘accidental’ contaminations are getting more common and appearing inside bread, pasta or biscuits; there are Dutch potatoes in mashed potato powder, Russian malt in Scotch whisky and Japanese canned tuna. The trouble is that this information is concealed by impenetrable secrets, hidden by the label’s code of silence and, frequently, there are real cases of fraud to extort a higher price out of the ignorant consumer. For example, we have the world-famous Truffle Festival recently opened in Alba, following an exceptionally dry period which certainly hasn’t helped the precious tuber to grow. Well, is anyone willing to bet that we won’t be short of truffles for a whole month?
When it comes to it, it is always a question of names and prices: you just need to add the words “from Alba” and a truffle grown in Eastern Europe will increase its value tenfold in passing from a Serbian truffle seller to an Alba shopkeeper. So food travels—just to satisfy every consumer demand, “directed” by ads and fads, by “taste” advice run during news broadcasts and recommendations proliferating all over the media and not just food magazines. There is a “grab and run” mentality which completely ignores place of origin, season or respect for traditional methods of production. Food travels—just to indulge a chef’s latest craze, his “imagination” suggesting he should serve redcurrants to enhance a dish in autumn or, in the warmth of an Alpine chalet, deciding he needs an orange from the South of Italy for dessert. But a Slow philosophy urges us to rely as much as possible on local production and consumption; to make use of the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets, which in English-speaking countries have had a significant role in promoting small artisanal producers using environmentally sustainable approaches, and in establishing a direct relationship between farmers and consumers.
It is certainly not a coincidence that a recent study carried out in Britain amongst supermarket shoppers showed that the third most important priority (after lower prices and more special offers) was to have food produced locally, i.e. not more than thirty miles away. Evidently people are beginning to realize just how much more fragrance, flavor and aroma a tomato picked a few hours earlier a short distance away can have, compared to another one picked unripe at the other side of the world, stored for days if not weeks in a freezer and subjected to the stress of being shipped across the oceans. If wanting to reclaim the pleasure of eating a product grown close by is an indication of nostalgia for the good old days, well then, by all means call me nostalgic!
First printed in La Stampa on 25/08/2003
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