Slow Food in Italy

A Reflection By Anne Morrison '13

Over spring break, I had the privilege of travelling to Italy to study the Slow Food movement with a group of students, alumni, and professors. The trip added wonderful depth to a topic that many of us have cared about and studied for a long time: food that is healthy, sustainable, socially responsible, and delicious. While we can hardly claim that devouring Italian food for ten days was a difficult academic exercise, we can honestly say that our minds were working. Every day, each of us was exposed to new ideas, foods, and friendships; it is possible that we learned as much as we ate.

Trento, the city where we spent the majority of our time, is a small university town in the province of Trentino, in the north of Italy. There were not a lot of visitors from outside Italy, and the locals (who were very friendly) could hardly understand why we would spend eight days in Trento, of all places. We got the same reaction we might give to an Italian who came all the way to the United States to spend a week in Caldwell. For us, though, Trento was perfect. It was rich in renaissance architecture, devoid of tourist traps, and right smack in the middle of a region devoted to the values of Slow Food.

The Slow Food movement is named as a reaction to the “fast food” culture which began in America and has spread to Europe. Slow Food is about growing, buying, and eating food that is good (delicious and healthy), clean (good for the planet), and fair (socially responsible). Not every place we visited was officially a member of the Slow Food movement, but all of them did embody these principles to varying extents. Each day of our trip was different, but many of our activities involved visiting a local market, restaurant or company and meeting the people behind it. We had the opportunity to learn from remarkable people like Sergio Valentini, who taught us to make a dish called canederli at his restaurant, Locanda Delle Tre Chiavi. Managers and spokespeople for Trentino Grana and the Melinda Apple Company showed us around, talked about their companies, and answered our questions. The owner of Distilleria Franscesca, a small vineyard, winery, and distillery, gave us a tour and allowed us to sample his wares.  These are only a few of our wonderful experiences with people and food.

The food producers we met were very practical about the technical hurdles of producing food that is good, clean, and fair. Most of them spoke to us about seeking a balance between these standards and the necessity of making a profit, and several of them mentioned deliberately capping the growth of their company to maintain a quality product. Although Italy is the birth place of the Slow Food movement, its food producers deal with many of the same struggles as producers in Idaho. For example, small farms still must compete with huge companies that offer many of the same products (though not necessarily of the same quality) at a lower price. In addition, small farms that are sustainable and socially responsible may not fit under a label such as “organic,” or “Slow Food,” because the time, money, and effort it takes to become certified as such is just a little too much for them. It is difficult for such producers to convey the quality of their product through a label. In some cases, small farms join together and form cooperatives in order to level the playing field with big companies. The Melinda apple company is a cooperative of this sort.  

For most of our meals in Italy, we truly experienced what it meant to eat locally and in season. As it was only the end of March, there was limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. Like in the United States, the supermarkets still provided plenty of imported produce that was not local or in season. However, the restaurants we visited tended to serve us meals that contained relatively few fruits and vegetables. Someday, I would love to return to Italy in summer to enjoy a meal with fresh, local tomatoes, but I think it was just as interesting and educational for us to see this side of Slow Food. In any case, we didn’t starve; cured olives, salted meats, cheeses, pasta, and a plethora of other delicious foods are available in Italy year-round.

Between our many meals, our group managed to see a few things that were amazing despite a complete lack of edibility. In Trento, we toured an old castle that was filled with sculptures, frescos, and other artwork. In Verona, we visited the house of Juliet and an old Roman arena. In Bolzano, we saw Otzi, the 5000-year-old man who was preserved in ice. In Venice, we dodged thousands of pigeons and marveled at architecture.

We are thankful for the help of Jim’s friends who live in Trento, Jane, Mit, Laura, Vicki, and Matia, and also for the help of their friends. They helped us get around and answered our questions, and Jane even had us over to her home to cook dinner. Though all of us tried, much of our group struggled with Italian, and our friends were indispensable translators who helped us learn all we could from our opportunities. We could not have had such a wonderful trip without them. Our group of students and alumni are also immensely grateful to the professors who organized and led this trip: Jim Angresano, Don Mansfield, and Rochelle Johnson. All three of them served as knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides who facilitated discussion and learning at every opportunity. By working together, they managed to stay organized and cool even through the confusing and panic-ridden moments that accompany any group trip. They were an awesome team, and a lot of fun. Last but not least, our group truly enjoyed the presence of Wren, Don and Rochelle’s daughter, on this trip. She is, without a doubt, the best travelling five-year-old we have ever seen.

Morrison is an environmental studies major at The College of Idaho.

A Reflection By Katy Stewart '13

Over Spring Break, twelve students and two alumni, led by Professors Angresano, Mansfield and Johnson, studied Slow Food for ten days in Northern Italy. Besides eating a lot of food (accompanied by wine and grappa, of course), we learned a lot about the culture of food and eating in Northern Italy and the development of the now-international Slow Food movement. I learned an immense amount over the week and a half, but here are the five most interesting:

  1. Raw meat is not disgusting, it’s delicious. According to the president of a local Slow Food chapter in Trentino, carne salada (salted meat) is the most important food for Slow Food in Trento, Though salted raw beef is made in many places in Northern Italy, Trento is the only place that makes it in the very specific traditional way of soaking it in a brine and pressing it with a large rock. Carne salada is an appetizer that accompanied almost every one of our meals. Sometimes it was served by itself, sometimes on top of a bed of arugula with vinaigrette. It had a vivid red color and an incredible flavor—just enough salt to bring out the natural flavor of the meat.
  2. They have great beer. Even though Italy is known for its wine, Trentino is highly influenced by Austrian and German culture as it was only acquired by Italy from Austria after the First World War. Because of this, German and Austrian culture influences much of their local cuisine which, of course, includes beer. There were small breweries all over the city brewing delicious German-style beer—and it was totally acceptable to drink with traditional Italian cuisine like pasta.
  3. Leftovers can be used to make something delicious. Since many people were poor farming families in Northern Italy, much of their cuisine is based off of stretching the little food they could afford. One of the traditional dishes of Trento is canederli. We had a cooking lesson from a chef at a local restaurant, Locanada Della Tre Chiavi, and this is the dish she taught us to make. The most traditional form of canederli is made with stale bread and leftover cured meats. We cut up the stale bread into small cubes and breadcrumbs and soaked them in milk. Then we cut up mortadella (a kind of meat similar to bologna) and a local specialty sausage called lucanica. We added it to the bread mixture with an egg and some grated Trentingrana (a local cheese similar to parmesan). We finished it with a little parsley and nutmeg. We squished it all together with our hands and added some breadcrumbs until they were firm balls slightly larger than golf balls. She cooked them in meat broth for about ten minutes and served them with just a little butter infused with sage. They were at the same time dense yet fluffy and absolutely delicious. The chef explained to us that the meats we used were usually ones that had tough ends to slice so the meat would have been thrown away. Instead, people decided to use the little bit at the end to flavor canederli.
  4. You can find delicious things in your backyard. At another cooking lesson, the twenty-one-year-old executive chef taught us to make tortelloni. The filling? Dandelion leaves. Since the cuisine of the region is based on simple ingredients that don’t cost money, the chef has adapted some of these techniques to make high-class cuisine. Everything in the restaurant is bought locally in order to ensure freshness and quality. The dandelion leaves were selected because of their interesting taste and picked from the hills behind the restaurant, a natural environment devoid of chemicals, he said. After boiling the leaves in a little water to reduce them (like you would spinach) he drained it and mixed it with some ricotta cheese. Working with speed and precision, he showed us how to fill the tortelloni and seal them for cooking.  He did five in the time each of us did one (and we broke many of ours) but he ensured us that he prefers quality to speed in beginners. Our tortelloni were cooked in a butter sauce and served to us as part of a three-course meal paired with the house red and white wines.
  5. It’s not all small-scale operations with people doing the exact same thing as they had for thousands of years.  Though traditional small-scale agriculture is a piece of everything that we saw, there was a lot of innovation and a focus on making things modern. One of the most fascinating places we visited was Mondo Melinda, an apple distribution company. Located in Val di Non, a valley where apples have been traditionally grown for centuries, the farmers realized that they were going to have to do something innovative or risk losing their family farms. They joined together to create a cooperative and Melinda was born. Now, Melinda is in charge of all processing and marketing of the Melinda apple. The current director, Luca, explained that, though they are similar to large scale distribution companies from the U.S., they are different because not one person makes all the money. Rather, all the farmers as shareholders make more money than they would on their own. Rather than acting as individuals, the farmers are able to make a bigger impact joined together. The factory is huge with a lot of modern machinery. The farmers still use pesticides—although significantly less than even stringent laws allow, according to Luca. However, none of the farmers work more than six acres. They are located in a valley surrounded by forest which, according to Luca, is better than adding a different variety of tree, for biodiversity. Each farmer lives in the middle of his apple groves. They work to limit their impact on the environment as much as possible because this is where they live, they don’t want to poison it.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we all learned an incredible amount from many incredible people. It was definitely an experience unlike any other and when it comes to the food I eat, I will never look at it the same way.

Stewart is an anthropology and sociology and environmental studies major at The College of Idaho.