Slow Food Award Bologna 2000

Bologna, Italy 24 October, 2000 “This truly is a United Nations of Gastronomy,” said Carlo Petrini, the dynamic and charismatic founder and president of the Slow Food Movement, proudly and emotionally looking around the vast and crowded hall. Within the echoing splendour of Bologna’s 17th-century Aula Magna di Santa Lucia, an immense and intriguing collection of individuals was gathered for the 1st Slow Food Award. There were fishermen, shepherds, fruit and vegetable growers, beekeepers, dairy workers and cheesemakers, breeders, as well as researchers, agronomists, biologists and academics. We members of the jury numbered over 550: writers, journalists, celebrities, opinion makers from 82 countries representing five continents.
The Guild of Food Writers was well represented, including Rosemary Moon, Clarissa Hyman, Deh-Ta Hsiung, Juliet Harbutt, Henrietta Green, Clare Connery, Darina Allen, Catherine Brown, Sarah Freeman, Stephen Brook, Carla Capalbo, Lesley Chamberlain, myself and possibly others (the event was so huge that it was impossible to keep track of everyone).
When a delegation from the People’s Republic of China came to the front of the hall to unroll a banner, there was spontaneous applause from the floor as we heard through our simultaneous translation headphones that the characters signified ‘Slow Food’ in Chinese (Deh-Ta, sitting next to me, peered at the banner closely then chuckled: “Actually, it reads ‘Slow Meal’,” he explained sotto voce.)
“This shows how far Slow Food has come,” continued Petrini. “But I would say to you all that in the year 2000 it is not possible to be gastronomists without also being environmentally aware.”
Social awareness lies at the heart of the Slow Food movement. From its humble grassroots origins, a movement that began as an individual and collective protest born when McDonald’s opened its first restaurant on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome in the 80s, Slow Food has now grown into an important international organisation whose aim, above all, is to celebrate, champion and safeguard local and regional food traditions, products, and indeed, in the broadest sense, cultures and ways of life.
Thus, this 1st Slow Food Award was created specifically ‘to spotlight and support people anywhere in the world who defend, promote or enhance our heritage of animal and vegetable species, produce, knowledge or flavour. Every year it will be awarded to people who distinguish themselves for the work they do and whom Slow Food recognises as guardians and leaders of taste and promulgators of its own values. More specifically, the Slow Food Award will seek to discover and give visibility to projects designed to conserve the food culture of the past for the future.’ 1.
“We could have brought together the best chefs in the world here today,” said Petrini. (Indeed the singular lack of ‘foodie’ celebrities, chefs and personalities working visibly in the world of consumer food and wine on the shortlist had surprised many of us.) “But chefs,” he continued, “must first begin with the finest ingredients and products. I am proud that we have here instead people who are actually producing those ingredients and products, those who are working to safeguard biodiversity, as well as protect human values, culture and traditions.”
The shortlist of 13 finalists thus represented a truly remarkable and inspirational, if somewhat unexpected, collection of individuals.
Nancy Jones, an Englishwoman, was honoured for starting a dairy in Mauritania to process and sell fresh milk from the nomadic herds of camels, cows and goats, this in a country where the selling of milk has traditionally been considered taboo. She explained how just finding the wandering, nomadic herdsmen can often be a considerable challenge in itself; later we had the opportunity to taste an intriguing cheese made from camel’s milk.
Nancy Turner, by contrast, is an ethnobotanist and writer who works with native Canadians in British Columbia — the People of the First Nations — to understand their culture, and painstakingly record and catalogue their indigenous food plants and medicines. By befriending and sometimes living with tribal groups, she has worked to safeguard a rich store of previously unwritten knowledge and lore that had traditionally been passed down from generation to generation amongst the many tribes populating Vancouver Island.
Arturo Chacón Torres and Catalina Rosas Monge are biologists seeking to preserve stocks of the rare and apparently delicious pez blanco (or silverside), a highly prized fish that only survives in Mexico’s highland Lake Pátzcuaro. Raúl Antonio Manuel, another Mexican honoured on the shortlist, is charismatic leader of the Rancho Grande, an indigenous community in the mountains of Oaxaca. Here Manuel has revived the cultivation of high-quality vanilla as a means of safeguarding a remote rural community and way of life.
Donald Bixby and his wife Pat, meanwhile, founded the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, located in North Carolina, to protect genetic diversity in livestock and poultry by helping to conserve and promote rare and endangered breeds of farm animals. This has been achieved through the establishment of semen banks in order to safeguard these rare animals threatened with extinctionon.
Turning to Europe, Italian Roberto Rubino has gone to one of the country’s poorest and most remote regions, Basilicata, and there established a dairy for the transformation of milk from transhumant flocks that graze ‘sotto il cielo’ — in freedom under the skies. Moreover, the cheeses so made are being matured once more in formerly abandoned but historic maturing rooms, often hewn out of natural caves, in ancient villages throughout the region. The results — and I had a chance to sample them at the Salone del Gusto — are quite simply cheeses with immense flavour, individuality, character and complexity, produced in a manner that allows for the maintenance of traditional ways of life and production.
Transhumance — the annual transport of animals between summer mountain pasturelands and winter lowland valleys, once an important and enduring feature of rural life throughout Europe — is also the work of Jesus Garzón, from Madrid, who has revived this traditional activity in Spain and found ways and means for young people to live the life of transhumant shepherds, moving several thousands of sheep to the mountains of Cantabria for the summer, and hundreds of miles back south to Estremadura for the winter.
The theme of biodiversity and protecting rare species is evident in the work of Roger Corbaz, a phytopathologist from Switzerland, who has worked tirelessly to protect traditional species of fruit and nut trees at the Arboretum d’Aubonne. From Russia, meanwhile, Maria Mikhailovna Girenko, is celebrated for her work as director of the Vavilov Institute of Research. Even through the difficult years under Stalin and the terrible trauma of the siege of St Petersburg, this Institute somehow managed to safeguard a rare and important collection of Russian plants, vegetables and seeds. In the years and decades after the war, Maria Mikhailovna helped the Institute grow into the third largest germoplasm bank in the world.
Veli Gülas is another fascinating shortlist finalist, a carpenter-turned-beekeeper from Turkey’s remote region of Anatolia, east of the Black Sea. Here Veli works to raise the native Hemsin bee, which can only survive in the handmade wooden hives that he constructs out of cylindrical beech trunks (the Hemsin bees, apparently, cannot live in angular manmade hives, so elsewhere throughout the country Cypriot bees have replaced them; but their honey is inferior and less individual). Another activity in Turkey that was given recognition is the Dal-ko Fishermen’s Cooperative, which specialises in the preservation and commercialisation of the salted roe of grey mullet, known as haviar, a traditional product, carefully gathered, salted and sealed in bee’s wax.
Finally, there were two shortlist finalists from Oceania. Alan and Susan Carle are the creators of The Botanical Ark, a 12-hectare garden on the northeast coast of Australia where they have planted hundreds of rare and endangered species of fruit, herbs and medicinal plants that they have painstakingly gathered from all over the world. In New Zealand, by contrast, Graham Harris has researched Maori potato cultivation, not only as a means of studying plants but in the social context of its overall relation to Maori tradition and culture.
What a remarkable and fascinating shortlist of finalists, made up of ordinary people working extraordinarily hard in their own particular corners of the world to defend foods, economies, traditions and cultures. The nomination for each finalist was read out by a jury member from a different country, and the power of the human voice — in languages including Moroccan, Swedish, French, Greek, Chinese, German, Cuban Spanish, Chilean Spanish, Italian, Japanese, English, and the Malawian language of Chichewa — added a profound and concrete tonal resonance to this exceptional and truly global gathering.
It was our role, then, as a collective body of 550 jury members, to vote for five special jury prize winners, an almost impossible task. But in truth, there were no losers in this ceremony. All 13 shortlisted finalists were winners in every sense, and received both cash prizes as well as the promise of support from Slow Food in promoting their activities. The special jury prize winners received a further cash prize as well as the not inconsiderable international kudos of having been so recognised. They were: Nancy Jones, Veli Gülas, Raúl Antonio Manuel, Maria Mikhailovna Girenko, and Jesus Garzón.
Yet as international jury members, our most important raison d'être, it turned out, was not really as arbiters there to distinguish between winners and losers, but rather, more importantly, to give collective international recognition and validity both to this amazing event, as well as to all the shortlist finalists themselves and their remarkable and varied activities.
Indeed, for many of those who had been singled out, this was the first public recognition they’d ever received, after years, in some cases a lifetime, of anonymous dedicated toil, not for financial reward, not even with the lofty goal of making a better world, but simply to safeguard and protect their tiny corner of it. As Petrini had written in the preface to the Slow Food Award book, “This award is an acknowledgement of all the years, months and days they have spent lovingly tending to the animal and vegetal species of this planet of ours, taking care of each and every one of us, of the variety, quantity and quality of all that reaches our tables, of what will remain in our memories and in the memories of generations to come. These are men and women who have cultivated a dream with uncommon energy and dedication...These people are crazy, we thought. And what a good thing they are.” 2.
Veli Gülas, the Anatolian beekeeper who had never been outside his country before travelling to Bologna for the awards ceremony, summed the occasion up with a directly simple and uplifting statement. Speaking hesitantly through a translator, he said, “I produce my honey in the most natural way as a natural product. They told me I was doing mankind a service.” He shrugged, seemingly in genuine bewilderment, but then added forcefully and with real conviction. “I intend to keep producing my honey this way.”
We made our way from the Aula Magna di Santa Lucia, uplifted and galvanised by these remarkable individuals, by this remarkable event, and by Carlo Petrini’s clarion words that sounded as a call to arms, yet worded as a gentle plea, asking no more from each and every one of us save that we writers and journalists continue to seek out, celebrate, give recognition and voice to those artisan producers, researchers, defenders of the local, the unique, the individual throughout the world who are working on behalf of us all to maintain biodiversity in a world ever threatened by the homogeneity that globalisation inevitably brings.
That such fine produce and products both exist and can survive and thrive even in commercial international markets was further emphasised in the following days, when Slow Food, in conjunction with regional and provincial governments, took all the participants — members of the jury, Slow Food members and organisers, and award winners alike — on a series of intelligently planned visits throughout the provinces of Emilia-Romagna, witnessing, tasting, learning about such magnificent and world famous regional products as Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, as well as less well known, even offbeat yet exceptional and wholly individual rarities such as formaggio di fossa (sheep’s milk cheeses aged in hermetically sealed tufa pits), or the rare and magnificent culatello di Zibello (an exceptionally sweet, highly valued raw ham cured in the humid lowlands of the Po Valley).
I myself went out on a remarkable fishing trip in the Adriatic to witness trawlermen catching a rich haul of alici — fresh anchovies — and afterwards enjoyed the most exceptional shellfish and seafood meal cooked on board by the fishermen themselves. We then went into the hinterland above Rimini to visit medieval walled villages and discover some exceptional and genuine local foods, including outstanding extra virgin olive oils, fine cured meats, handmade pasta such as strangozzi and passatelli, and great local cheeses.
From Bologna, the whole great entourage moved on to Turin, to the Slow Food sponsored Salone del Gusto, an immense food and drink exhibition in that great northern city, that serves as an international showcase for artisan food producers mainly from Italy and also from throughout the world. Again, the event serves to celebrate the local, the artisan made, and to give exposure to products that are rarely made in sufficient quantity to be mass commercialised, but which are exceptional and wholly worthy of our attention, not simply because they are traditional and at risk, but, as the mass popularity and success of the Salone demonstrates, because such products are both individual and because they taste better: the huge numbers attending the Salone clearly indicates that intelligent consumers appreciate this.
The celebration and defence of biodiversity is a noble aim and Slow Food is a noble organisation. We applaud Petrini and his colleagues: for their vision, for their initiatives, for their audacity in conceiving the Slow Food Award, and for their skill in not only making it work so brilliantly but also so enjoyably for us all.
Ultimately, the Slow Food Award was not just a celebration of the biodiversity of produce, products and foodstuffs: it was a celebration of the biodiversity of the human race. It was indeed a privilege to be there.

1. From Slow Food Award Regulations, as published on Slow Food web site:

2. From the Preface to "Slow Food Award Bologna 2000 for the Defence of the Biodiversity", 2000, Slow Food Editore srl, p. 9

Copyright © Marc Millon 2000



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