The mountains of Europe are in crisis, as young people flee to the cities and farms struggle to stay in business. Tourism is becoming increasingly focused on a few short winter months, and a marginal environment is becoming more and more marginalized. Could Slow Food’s Presidia projects, focused on protecting and promoting a specific food product and the communities and places connected to it, offer a solution and an opportunity?
A Milk Workshop held yesterday at Cheese 2013, entitled “The Mountain Lives, If Great Cheeses Do,” presented the results of an on-going research project conducted by Slow Food in collaboration with the Dislivelli association, with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo. The study has so far analyzed the economic, sociocultural and environmental sustainability of 41 Presidia in the mountains of Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Alps to the Caucasus, including 22 cheeses, as well as fruit and vegetable varieties, cured meats, livestock breeds and honeys.
Serena Milano of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity presented the preliminary results of the study. “Presidia are tied to a product,” she said, “but their primary purpose is to safeguard communities and territories. And the mountains are one of the areas in most need of being safeguarded. They’re the ultimate marginal area.” She described the research methods, which had been developed for a previous study of European Presidia whose results were presented at the end of last year. Producers of Presidia in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, Romania, Bulgaria and Armenia were interviewed about all aspects of their production, and the answers were weighted in order to come up with a numerical score for each project, reflecting its sustainability.
“We like to tell stories,” she said, “but sometimes people want numbers. They want proof that the projects have an impact.” And the results, which calculate the sustainability of the Presidia now as opposed to when the projects were established, leave no doubt about the powerful impact they can have, especially on the sociocultural sustainability. Excellent results were seen for all the Presidia, with improved organization between producers, self-esteem, communication and visibility of the product and relationships between producers and institutions, universities and other producers. One factor, however, still needs work: “More young people were involved in only 27 out of the 41 Presidia,” said Milano. “We need to pay more attention to how we can help young people choose to stay in the mountains.”
The environmental results were less dramatic, said Milano, because the producers were already working in a sustainable, virtuous way before the Presidia were established. “We just wanted to preserve what they were already doing,” she said. “There’s no mountain herder who is not also concerned about caring for their environment, ensuring that the pastures are not overused and the undergrowth is kept clear to prevent forest fires.”
Economically, the improvements are more marked. Producers are earning more, though the aim of the Presidia is to increase the number of producers rather than the amount that each one produces. “These products are made in small quantities,” said Milano. “Slow Food is criticized for the fact that when a Presidia is started the price goes up. But if you’re making a cheese at 2,000 meters, spending the whole summer in the mountains, working 16 hours a day, milking the animals, making the cheese, aging it for years… should we really be paying the same as for an industrial cheese made with milk from who-knows-where in a factory that creates pollution?” She said that prices should be fair and transparent, so that consumers know why they are paying more.
A number of Presidia cheesemakers were also present to share their experiences. Dessislava Dimitrova, the coordinator of the Tcherni Vit Green Cheese Presidium in Bulgaria, said that in the Balkans, the Presidia played one important role. “They are the shelter for artisanal food knowledge,” she said. “Without Presidia, many of these artisanal foods will disappear, simply because there is no future for them.” Marian Popiu, who coordinates the Bucegi Mountains Branza de Burduf Presidium in Romania, described how the cheese used to be only consumed locally. “Now we have a product, a name, a label, which we didn’t have before becoming a Presidium.”
Photo: Bucegi Mountains Branza de Burduf Presidium © Alberto Peroli