Racconigi, a small town in the flat countryside around Cuneo near Turin, is one like many others and is mainly famous for its royal castle and for the fact that the storks rest there during their migration towards Sicily and warmer climes.
Racconigi has never been geographically significant but, as the Terra Madre conference drew near and as the news arrived of participant farmers being put up hundreds of kilometres away from Turin in Liguria, the Aosta Valley and on the borders of Lombardy, it suddenly took on strategic importance.
Since there are only 38 kilometres between Racconigi and Turin’s Palazzo del Lavoro where the Terra Madre conference was to be held, this became a more than valid reason for concentrating as many delegates as possible there and, in so doing, eliminating both the ‘Arctic’ effects of the Alps and the possible three or four hours of travel back and forth from other locations.
Such reasoning, but also in order to satisfy those who were anxious to help – the young people of the Mandacarù association who have been supporting Fair Trade commerce by importing coffee, chocolate and indigenous craft products to Racconigi – generated the idea of hosting a small group of people, possibly from South America.
The whole town comprising its entire social network, individual families, associations, religious bodies and normal citizens, enthusiastically supported this enterprise. In order to make sure no one was excluded in the short time available, it was necessary both to contact associations other than just Mandacarù, such as Tavola della Pace, the local Slow Food chapter, small farmers’ associations and to publicise the occasion in the press. Natural curiosity and the fascinating world – that has managed to survive the effects of globalisation – embodied by any stranger from far away lands, made it even easier to find people willing to put up the Terra Madre delegates.
Twenty-five were placed with families, two in the rooms of the Church of San Giovanni, eight in an old Capuchin convent and ten in Council buildings. Overall, 45 Brazilians would be arriving in Racconigi from 11 different food communities – from producers of pine-nuts to the indigenous Krahô, producers of sweet potatoes.
The problems faced by the inhabitants of Racconigi in preparing for the influx of visitors were many and varied. Possibly the most difficult aspect was that of organizing the daily demands of work, family, children and all the rest with finding a little ‘spare’ time for organizing Terra Madre. Once this was achieved, there were only relatively simple problems to be resolved like how to transport the Brazilians to Turin each and every day, where to hold a welcoming party for 150 people, where to find a good chef, what to cook without spending anything, where to find the absolutely vital missing eight camp beds as well as blankets, towels and interpreters….
Some of these problems seemed to be almost insurmountable and the first action taken was to set up a ‘Crisis Unit’, just like the Foreign Office does when dealing with the worst international incidents, kidnappings, natural disasters, wars and other catastrophes. Theoretically we needed al least two Crisis Units and a team of psychologists… but we only had five people to hand; Giancarlo, Bruno, Anna, Silvana and Bruna – just enough to make up one!
As soon as it took over, the Crisis Unit had to deal with the most serious of the problems: finding a cook. Once they had identified the cook everything would be easier since a good cook knows all sorts of things that normal people are unaware of. They know what to cook and where to find honest and trustworthy suppliers. Consequently, a small delegation of organizers went to Renza Cavaglià for help. Renza is the most experienced cook in the town, the only one who, having fed generation on generation of inhabitants in the church summer camps, could find all the answers. And so it was! As soon as Renza, who within the space of a few days was destined to be known by everyone as ‘la cozinheira’, agreed to offer her assistance, all our problems were solved.
On the evening of the arrival it seemed that we waited an eternity. And, after several days of traveling, even a Brazilian is tired and doesn’t leap off a coach dancing the samba as a thousand well-worn clichés would have had us expect.
Moreover, our Brazilians arrived two hours late on a number of coaches and were mixed up with other Brazilians who would be staying in nearby villages.
It is well known that the people from Brazil often have long and complex surnames that are intended to sidestep the complication of people being called the same thing. That is the theory – but, in practice, they all seem to have practically the same name and this generated the first of our problems. A lot of people descended from coach number one. Amongst these was a Brazilian lady in her forties, blonde with nut-brown eyes and called Maria de Araujo Neta. She met up with the family of Valerio Audisio who was hosting her and hurried off to bed in what would be her home in Racconigi. Half an hour went past. The second coach turned up and off this came, amongst others, Maria de Araujo Neta, with a plump face and dark hair from the cashew nut community.
Legend has it that, having found no-one to put her up, she slept in the open on a bench in the Castle square but, in fact, a temporary solution was found and the next day she went to sleep at the house of Rosilda, one of the interpreters. As it happened, Maria de Araujo Neta (the forty year old), who was then discovered should have gone to Bra, was absolutely adamant that she was so happy in her Racconigi home that there was no way she was moving.
Another mystery was that we were expecting 45 Brazilians and only 43 arrived… At 11.30, when everyone had eaten and was heading off to bed, Homero Vianna and Carlos Drummond were officially declared missing. They had landed up in a hotel in Cuneo due to an erroneous indication on the accreditation label. One can only speculate on the disappointment of Marco Sannazzaro; he had left the house to bring his wife two Brazilians from Minas and came back empty handed.
On the inauguration day of Terra Madre the atmosphere was solemn but the expectation of the party to be celebrated at Racconigi that same evening was immense. During the journey to Turin in the morning, the Brazilians and the inhabitants of Racconigi began to find out something about each other. When you meet so many people all at once, it is often difficult to comprehend who you are talking to and, in the beginning, communication is not easy. Unexpectedly, there is a moment when all the barriers dissolve and if feels as if you can actually speak Portuguese and that the 45 Brazilians around you are really friends you have known all your life.
This moment arrived going back from the inauguration ceremony on the coach traveling to Racconigi for the great welcome party, when a group of fruit producers from Cerrado brought out a bottle of manioc liqueur, 45° proof, with an atrociously bitter smell of preserved olives. With this bottle, Antonio Maciel Botelho Machado, although a pine-nut producer rather than a man of the cloth, ‘baptised’ all the Italians on the coach.
With this kind of premise, the party could not be anything other than a huge success – exactly like all the rest of the week of the Brazilians’ stay in Racconigi.
However, exactly in what way did the Brazilians from the 11 food communities in Italy for the Terra Madre conference shake Racconigi? With the aid of a handful of stereotyped clichés, it would be easy to say that the 45 Brazilians, descending from their brightly colored coaches with the typical joie de vivre of tropical nations and their countries’ warmth in their veins, brought a kind of joy to our grey provincial town. It would be easy and banal – but, above all, untrue. Racconigi is, first and foremost, an overgrown provincial village with all the defects of a small-town mentality but it is far from being grey – it is a place full of interest and more than a few qualities.
What was so exceptional about Terra Madre in Racconigi was the impact this experience had on its inhabitants and their way of life. Terra Madre and its guests offered the town the opportunity to rediscover the community framework of life.
It cost absolutely nothing to prepare 300 meals and 120 breakfasts because all the small farms, bakers, cheese makers, cooperatives and associations that were asked for help, offered, free of charge, what they could: bread, milk, meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit and wine Others offered both their initiative and their physical support. The satisfaction of those who participated in this ‘encounter with Brazil’ was almost palpable.
Only one great welcome party was included in the official program. However, every evening, the supper held in the church hall for the 20 Brazilians not residing with families was transformed into a convivial encounter with the inhabitants of Racconigi who dropped in to say hello and, inevitably, sat down to share the meal. Every evening the families putting up our guests dined with other two or three other families and invited their friends round as well – rediscovering the joy of being with others and of conversations held over a hot meal and a glass of good wine.
Andrea Alfieri works at the Slow Food Editore publishing company
Translation by Nicola Rudge Iannelli