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Terra Madre: Where Local Meets Global

November 8, 2010

YSFP Program Coordinator Zan Romanoff reports on her first trip to the four-day conference:

Terra Madre, a meeting of farmers and food activists from around the globe that takes place biennially in Turin, Italy, is Slow Food’s answer to that mundane grind that is the modern conference. Instead of days packed with Powerpoints and buzzwords and long lines for bad food, Terra Madre is a four day feast of conversations, presentations, and artisanal edibles that aims to engage the senses as well as the intellect. Combined with its sister event, a market cum fairground called the Salone del Gutso, it does Slow Food’s emphasis on ethical pleasure proud, providing a forum in which one daily gets to learn by tasting.

Panels and speeches take place in the Oval, an enormous domed structure divided into makeshift rooms for the occasion. Because the conference is so resolutely global, small portable radios and headphones are handed out as you enter each talk, allowing attendees to tune into simultaneous translation of the proceedings in their native languages. This year, Vandana Shiva spoke on scarcity and hunger in a wealthy, productive world; Raj Patel called on American delegates to consider the population that grows and harvests most of the food consumed in our country, joking that the national meeting in 2012 might well be held in Spanish. I heard stories from small farmers scattered across South America in the Q&A that followed a session on Indigenous Peoples in Agriculture and listened in on a reindeer herder being interviewed by the local press.

It is, however, difficult to cultivate conversation with headphones on, waving around a tiny radio and searching for reception, and so perhaps the most vibrant part of the Terra Madre experience happens just outside these rooms, in waiting lines and workshops. The redheaded young man sitting next to me in a Salone-run tasting of port and Parmigiano Reggiano turned out to be a Canadian chef celebrating his birthday; the German brewer drawing us drafts when we went out afterwards insisted that they be gratis. I met a friend of a friend, a girl whose name I knew but who I’d never met, who was there with a project that brings gardens to AIDs patients in Rwanda. The sense of community is raucous, vibrant, deeply joyful. Despite language barriers, everyone is eager to talk.

And also, of course, to eat. The Oval is the schoolroom to the Salone del Gusto’s insane cafeteria, a series of enormous warehouse-style spaces fitted out with rows upon rows upon rows of booths offering samples of traditional, native products. Most present are Italian producers, organized by region, but there is also an international section replete with French pastries, Guatemalan coffee and Mexican vanilla, as well as lesser known fare. Many are products championed by Slow Food’s Presidia program, which helps those who make “unique, traditional or rare” foods market their product and preserve their cultural heritage.

The Salone, though modeled after a market, calls itself a fair, which is perhaps a better name—“market” doesn’t quite capture the bustling conviviality of the place, the sense that everyone has come on holiday and doesn’t mind a bit if it is occasionally too crowded to walk. You can just stand still and spear another sample of prosciutto, lardo, shepherd’s cheese and dense, delicious traditional breads.

It’s easy to imagine Terra Madre as a festival of self-indulgence, foodies from around the world gathering to gobble up rare bites from exotic lands. What makes the consumption aspect interesting is Slow Food’s insistence on the cultural value of food; stories, both historical and personal accompany the tastes. To wander through the Salone silently is to miss its essential convivial purpose; the marketplace has long been a nexus for cross-cultural human connection, and this aims to reestablish that vibrancy. Going to the supermarket is a basically mute task, an opportunity to make and then burn through a to-do list efficiently, certain of what you need and what will be available. It is a chore to perform, rote. You cannot shop the Salone in the same way; you never know what will be offered at the next table or around the corner, or what connection you will make with the person offering it.

“Responsibility without pleasure is drudgery; pleasure without responsibility is gluttony,” Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel noted in a speech to the assembled US delegates. Terra Madre and the Salone del Gusto support and inform one another, the one providing a tangible reminder of the results of the conversations taking place in the other. After a long day of simultrans, nothing is more welcome than a chat with vendors, a couple of samples, and the universal language of mmhmms that accompany good food. Inevitably, you walk home at night stunned and dizzy, far too full. In this, Terra Madre perhaps does resemble its corporate counterparts: no matter how early the next morning is coming, you always end up stretching out the day, waking exhausted and somehow still enthusiastic; yesterday has passed, and now you are hungry for more.

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