Mother Earth comes to Italy

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What do banana-peel vinegar, goat cheese ice-cream and Georgian wine have in common?! Simple: they were all on offer at a most unusual gathering of foodies and food producers from around the world, recently held in Turin, Italy.

This was the 10th edition of the bi-annual international festival “Terra Madre” of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity – or Slow Food for short. With amazing stories from around the world, Slow Food is definitely the antidote to Fast Food. The movement is all about enjoying sustainable foods while respecting the environment and preserving our respective countries’ food heritage.

The founder of Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, Carlo Petrini (photo: fratelli.com)

The Slow Food movement was founded by journalist Carlo Petrini in response to the first McDonald’s opening in Rome in 1986. Petrini’s fiery speeches stirred the passions and were well attended. “Slow Food is neither a party nor an association,” he said, “but it is a large representative of ungoverned power, worldwide;” adding that the movement gives sovereignty and power to citizens, and that today’s youth are the perfect example of those who are carving this alternative system. “I am optimistic, simply because today’s youth understand this different paradigm and are fighting for it.” Here in Egypt, the local chapter of the Slow Food movement is called “Slow Food Cairo”.

Part of the 15-volunteer Egyptian delegation

In the presence of over 1,000 exhibitors from 130 countries, Egypt was well represented with 15 volunteers in all: chefs, farmers, growers, writers, one filmmaker and one beekeeper from Sinai. At the Egypt booth, people from all over the world tasted our products. Om Abdallah made three types of bread and Fetir Meshaltet with and without 3agwa!

Om Abdallah with the freshly made Merahrah bread

‘Am Gamil explained the medicinal value of the herbs from Sinai. Visitors tasted flavorful Sinai honey and infusions of herbs, veggies by Minnie’s Cut and Dry, and Kishk Saidi. They compared the taste of buffalo cheese made with Egyptian or Italian rennet.

The exhibition hall hosting the Terra Madre event in Torino, Italy (photo: afuegolento.com)

What, you may well ask, would 1,000 delegates coming from 130 countries have to say to one other about food? And more importantly, in what language?! Forums of people from around the world discussed diverse topics from sustainable fishing and farming to decreasing food waste and saving resources, with instant interpretation in several languages: Italian, English, French, Spanish (main ones) and Russian, Arabic, German, etc.. One exciting and extremely popular program, the Ark of Taste project, involves cataloging local, traditional food products and varieties to protect them from extinction.

“Ark of Taste” small-scale producers told their stories on BBC radio (photo: Sara Pozzi and Brendon Johnson)

This year saw the nomination of hundreds of new products, with BBC Radio dedicating 100 interviews to various Ark of Taste products coming from around 50 countries. The small-scale producers gladly told the extraordinary stories related to each of their product.

‘Am Gamil at a Training Session in Sinai (photo: Diego Giuffrè)

From Egypt, The Bigawi chicken variety had the dubious honor of being included in the Ark-of-Taste list of varieties in danger of disappearing. This means that the chicken is recognized as part of the Egyptian culinary heritage for its wonderful down-home or ‘baladi’ taste and strong constitution. The Bigawi variety was presumably introduced from Asia into Egypt by the Hyksos thousands of years ago. It is rather disconcerting that, even though it has been farmed and eaten in Egypt for centuries, or rather millennia, it is now in our lifetime threatened with extinction and only found in very few farms in Fayoum and Giza.

A young Bigawi chicken, aka, Fayoumi chicken (photo: pinterest.com)

Producers came from near and far to showcase their products. Giuseppe Alto, a producer of buffalo milk mozzarella and ricotta cheese, came from the region of Campagnia in Italy. He noted that truly authentic, fresh, artisanal processes for producing buffalo mozzarella are slowly becoming extinct: “We feed our cows in the utmost, cleanest standards and ensure that the mozzarella is up to the utmost quality.”

School children get a taste of goat-milk cheese from Slovenia (photo: Samira Mahmoud)

Evelyne Kalusoa, from a vanilla-producing farm in Madagascar, claimed that being part of the Slow Food network helped to commercialise her Manarara Vanilla on the market, while also giving value to the labour put into it. “This vanilla is not only special in taste and smell, it comes from a ‘biosphere protectorate’ which is free of chemicals,” she said proudly.

Producers from around the world adhere to the ‘clean, good and fair’ principles of Slow Food (photo: Sara Pozzi and Brendon Johnson)

A meeting on beans – yes, beans! – helped champion this cheap, nutritious source of protein and then developed into the “Slow Beans” movement. A community-building initiative, Slow Beans bring together people who produce and/or consume beans, creating new networks and showing off their products. School events and public tastings allow people to explore up close the various bean varieties and tastes.

A tiny Italian bean called “Dente di Morte”, or the Tooth of the Dead, has won awards for its great taste, ease of cooking and thin skin. Growing the beans on the mountainside in pristine conditions, the producer bemoans its low yields: “The volumes are small; we produce 100 kilos of beans per acre of land. But the great taste is unbeatable.”

Nutritious bean varieties from around the globe (photo: happyherbivore.com)

While different beans are grown all over the globe, participants agreed on the need for more research into varieties, best practices and conservation methods. “We also need innovative new ways of bringing beans to market all over the world. Beans have the potential to feed the entire planet; a poor people’s food, they are in fact rich in nutrition,” said Giacomo Buffone, one of the participants. This is one area where Egypt can excel, as we have so many delicious bean varieties that are already part of our food culture. From yellow lentil soup to fuul and falafel, made from Egyptian broad beans also called Fava beans, as well as tasty tagines of stewed black-eyed peas (lobia), the choices of beans are endless.

Delicious Egyptian ‘fuul medammes’ (photo: Heba Saleh)

Put together, small-scale farmers worldwide form the backbone of the world food production. If we recognise their contribution, and fairly trade their produce, we can go a long way towards supporting global social equity and solidarity. In Petrini’s own words, ‘By recognising such local [farming] communities, empowering them, we not only strengthen these local communities, but also give them global recognition and dignity. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Tomato farmers on the processing line (photo: salonedelgusto.com)

Back to Terra Madre, a trillion food stories later, all went home with a better understanding of each others’ food culture, taste buds still reeling with exotic tastes, minds and hearts ablaze with new ideas on how to better preserve our food heritage and our planet. Now, THAT’s a celebration of Mother Earth!!

See you all in Turino, in 2016!

At a training session in Sinai (photo: Diego Giuffrè)

Samira Mahmoud, previously working as chief editor for the Chefs Association, has recently joined the Al-Tahrir News Network Team (tnnegypt). Some quotes were contributed by Leyla Doss. Thanks for the photos: Sara Pozzi, Brendon Johnson and Diego Giuffrè!