Carlo Petrini in Devon; launch of Real Bread Campaign; outstanding ales and hospitality at the Otter Brewery

report by Marc Millon

Dartington and Mathayes, Devon November 21, 2008 -- This week has been a great occasion for Slow Food Devon. Our convivium in conjunction with Schumacher College and Slow Food Plymouth hosted an evening with Carlo Petrini, the inspirational founder of the Slow Food movement, in the Great Hall of Dartington, near Totnes.

Andrew Whitley, of Bread Matters, shared the platform with Carlo and took the opportunity to launch the Sustain Real Bread Campaign. He first outlined the sorry history of bread in Great Britain since the Industrial Revolution - the search for faster, cheaper ways to make a fluffy, squidgy white loaf that would feed the masses, culiminating in the triumph of the Chorleywood process that could transform flour to bread in 90 minutes or less. It was a fascinating discourse, starting with how cheap hard wheat was sourced from Russia and landed by ship in Liverpool, and the invention of the roller mill to quickly process the wheat into white flour stripped of all its nutrients. He explained about added industrial enzymes (which don't need to be included on labels) and other additives and conjectured that this may be one reason why there are so many wheat intolerance allergies today.

Andrew's Real Bread Campaign will begin with walk from Land's End to John O'Groats, stopping along the way to share sourdough starter and bake in any number of venues, professional as well as private. This fascinating and timely initiative comes at the same time that Slow Food UK embarks on its own Slow Bread Campaign, launched recently at this year's Terra Madre. These are campaigns that could not come too soon for many of us. There is such a paucity of real bread throughout the country and a generation is growing up not even knowing what real bread is. Down here, though we are able to enjoy artisan breads from small artisan bakers like Emma's Bread and Bread of Devon who both come to our Slow Food Devon Topsham Market, the supply of regular real bread on a daily basis is still a struggle for us. Andrew's campaign is to encourage and support more artisan bakeries producing bread from traditional slow ferments. An equally important aim is to get more people baking at home, an "uprising" of breadmaking, as it were, a call for everyone to make bread at home and share it with others, with, as he said, 'companions' in the truest sense (from the Latin com panis - with bread). "Le pain se lève - the bread is rising. Pass it on," he concluded.


Carlo Petrini, as always, is an absolutely charismatic and inspiring speaker. He managed to electrify Dartington's Great Hall, even though addressing the packed audience of over 200 in Italian with the aid of a translator. This was possibly the fullest and clearest elucidation of Slow Food's ideals and strategy that I have yet heard. Beginning with an explanation of the origins of Slow Food with the launch of the Slow Food Manifesto in Paris in 1989 at the Opera Comique ('we must never be too serious,' he reminded), Carlo reaffirmed the enduring value of those original three manifesto principles: 1) the defense of gastronomic diversity in the face of the standardisation of food; 2) the value of slowness (if Marinetti and the Futurists at the turn of the last century were enamoured with speed for its own sake, Slow Food by contrast questions why life has to be made ever faster, and whether speed in fact makes our lives happier?); and, above all, 3) the fundamental basic human right to pleasure. It's an intellectual vision, for pleasure must be intelligent - knowledge gives pleasure and taste should be about enjoying knowledge. As always, there is the need for equilibrium in life - pure pleasure for its own sake is hedonistic; pure knowledge without pleasure is triste, sad: the two must work together.

Carlo's discourse continued, touching on many of the fundamental Slow Food priniciples that lie at the heart of this now global movement. He spoke of the need for social justice. He outlined his vision of consumers as co-producers. Carlo described gastronomy as a multi-disciplined science, explaining how the study of gastonomy is about the sciences (chemistry, biology, zoology), economics, history, social history, and political science. And he outlined once again what it means for food to be 'good, clean and fair'. Whereas a gastronome might enjoy food simply because it is delicious, this is no longer valid if the food has not been produced in a clean and fair manner. So there is the need for us all to become what he calls 'eco-gastronomes' - concerned about pleasure and taste at the same time as about the environment and the world we live in.

Carlo spoke too about the relevance of the Slow Food movement at this precise moment in time when the world's financial systems are collapsing all around us. On one hand there is fear for the future, on the other there is a sense of liberation and an opportunity to return not to the past, but to a revaluation and appreciation of the things that are important to us but which had been lost in the quest for speed, for money. The pleasures of the local, the home produced, the artisan produced not the industrial, and an appreciation and realization that food, real food is an essential element of human conviviality - the joy of cooking, the joy of sharing, the joy of living.

If the steam engine lay at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and electricity heralded in another brave new era, Carlo now envisages a third revolution, brought upon us by peak oil and the crisis in the economy, that revalues the local economy and places farmers at its very heart.

Is this an idealistic vision? Of course it is - in Britain, now apparently only 3% of the population works the land (before WWII it was over 50%), and the situation is only slightly better in France, Italy and Germany. But in many parts of the world, more than half the population is involved in farming, food production and other related activities. Wherever on earth we live, we have to eat, and industrial foods flown half way across the globe are most certainly not the answer.

Carlo ended with a call to arms, urging everyone in the Great Hall of Dartington to join together to take part in what Alice Waters has called a "Delicious Revolution". A revolution with Slow Food as its heartbeat.


After this inspiring evening, the next day Freddie Dudbridge, the young, energetic leader of our Slow Food Devon convivium, arranged a visit to meet Patrick McCaig, one of our convivium members, whose family run the Otter Brewery. Kim and I were accompanied by Geoff Andrews, the author of "The Slow Food Story Politics and Pleasure" and Catherine Gazzoli, Slow Food UK's new CEO, charged with putting the national organisation on a sound financial footing.

The Otter Brewery is located in a remote and beautiful stretch of the rolling Blackdown Hills, in East Devon. It's a business that embodies Slow Food values at their best and we are proud that Patrick is a member of our local convivium. David and Mary Ann McCaig, Patrick's parents, came out to this beautiful corner of Devon nearly 20 years ago with the intention of setting up a small family brewery. They both came from brewing families and so beer has been in their blood 'for literally generations'. After working at the larger end of the industry, the intention was to create a sustainable family business brewing quality beers on a small scale.

I've been a big fan of Otter beers for years, so it was great to visit the brewery to see how they are produced. These are 'slow' beers in every sense. The production of cask conditioned ale is by nature a slow and laborious process in itself, when carried out traditionally and on a relatively small scale. The results are undoubtedly 'good, clean and fair'. The range of beers created here is outstanding, including the quenching, hoppy and light session ale Otter Bitter, the flagship stronger premium Otter Ale, Otter Bright, lighter in colour but still full in flavour and hoppy aroma, and Otter Head, a high gravity ale that is rich in body and flavour, yet not overly malty or too sweet.

All the brewing at Otter is carried out with a strong sense of environmental responsibility. The Blackdown Hills is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a designated area of Special Scientific Interest. It is essential that the natural environment around the brewery is respected and even enhanced. To this end, great measures are taken relating to effluent management, water conservation, recycling, and making good use of waste products such as the used mash and surplus yeast, which can serve as animal feed for the local farmers. A state-of-the-art new eco-cellar is currently under construction with a living 'sedum' roof and a natural cooling system that will enable energy-expensive chilling systems to be done away this.

Otter is very much a family business. Every day, Mary Ann still prepares a homecooked lunch for all the brewery employees and at the end of the day, they can reward their efforts with a pint in the farmhouse tavern.

We ourselves did the same, enjoying beer with an incredible freshness and vivacity, and enjoying the warm hospitality of the McCaigs. We were treated to a wonderful farmhouse brewery lunch prepared by Mary Ann and daughter-in-law Kate, who together with her husband Gus McCaig, runs The Holt pub in nearby Honiton. Freddie and Patrick animatedly discussed the possibility of a 'Slow Beer' festival combining artisan brewed beers and music. Catherine Gazzoli, meanwhile, outlined some of the pressing fiscal challenges facing Slow Food UK if it is to fund a national head office, raise its profile and become a more campaigning body at the heart of important national debates about the numerous food issues that are increasingly of concern to us all.

For me, such an occasion embodied what Slow Food at its grassroots level is really all about: the opportunity to learn, enjoy and share the pleasures of slow, artisan produced real ales around the table together with delicious homecooked foods, conversation, conviviality and, in Andrew Whitley's sense, 'companionship' in the truest sense, essential social elements that are, like bread itself - and indeed like beer itself - truly the staff of slow life.


Slow Food

Slow Food Devon

Schumacher College

Real Bread Campaign

Terra Madre

Terra Madre (my report)

Emma's Bread

Bread of Devon

Slow Food Devon Topsham Market

Otter Brewery

"The Slow Food Story Politics and Pleasure"

The Blackdown Hills

Mary Ann McCaig

The Holt pub

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