Slow food in Italy is an idea as well as an organisation. A journey through Umbria meeting farmers, cooks, cooking lessons and chocolate reveals why slow food matters.
And why it doesn’t.
Close your eyes at the top of Mount Subiaso and you can hear the call of the owls. Their birdsong drifts through the windows with the early summer breeze, lifting the logs that crackle on the hearth and making the floor-length curtains sigh.
Pilgrims used to stay here on their way towards Assisi, climbing uneven stone stairs and watching the same stars dazzle at night, vivid and free from city light suffocation.
Yet “here” isn’t camping in the rough and it isn’t the latest gimmicky trend. “Here” is Le Silve Hotel in Italy, where slow food defines the local experience.
Slow carries a capital “S” in pockets of Italy after Carlo Petrini founded The Slow Food Movement in 1989 as a protest against a serious and barbarous crime: the arrival of McDonalds in the very heart of Rome, with a flagship franchise on the iconic Spanish Steps.
Petrini saw it as a call to arms, battling Fast Food with his “Slow” manifesto. He fought to save the link between the pleasure of good food and the importance of preserving both local communities and the environments in which they thrive. Now “Slow” has spread worldwide, from Australia to America, from Austria to Angola and even as far as Kazakhstan.
Yet, Italy remains its true home and a visit to the region of Umbria makes it obvious why.
Lunchtime here can last for hours; so, too, can dinner. As the only land-locked region in Italy without an international border, Umbria has settled into its traditions and landscapes and learned to take its time.
Beyond the food, even the buildings have evolved over thousands of years. A stroll through Perugia’s steep and stone-lined streets reveals foundations from the Etruscan times, hewn stone planted deep into the earth, years before anyone had even heard of the Romans.
And Perugia isn’t alone. Decorative, fortress-like towns dot the rugged landscape from Assisi to Orvieto and from Narni to Spoleto. But despite the slow-grown architecture, what really stands out in Umbria is the food.
The Slow food.
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Daniele Marcelle is a Slow Food chef. He’s tall, wears his hair close-cropped with a slow-styled moustache precision-lined along his chin – and he’s absolutely passionate about food.
“Slow,” it’s important to note, isn’t about lack. It isn’t about puritanical sacrifice, tasteless tofu or waiting for every ounce of flavour to seep out of a meal.
Slow is about living well.
A point Marcelle is keen to emphasize.
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His dinner menu at Hotel Giò in Perugia begins with a pecorino cheese flan and a broad bean sauce. It moves on to a spiced lentil broth from nearby town Castelluccio and then serves strozzapreti as pasta, a delicacy from Umbria, of course, with each twist of the pasta added in by hand.
Strozzapreti arrives the Italian way – cooked al dente and brought alive by a meaty tomato ragu that’s already simmered for more than three hours.
It tastes sublime. And it matches the Slow Food manifesto:
“Against the universal madness of the Fast Life, we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure.”
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The material pleasure continues, although the tranquillity lessens a little as the wine flows freely among the (slow-cooked) meats, the rich chocolate semifreddo and finally the super-charged coffee.
“Slow” appreciates that the finer things in life take time – and skill.
“Slow Food is another way of preserving the noble art of local products,” explains Marcelle. “Products that would otherwise disappear.”
He cites fagiolina di lago as an example, the creamy oval-shaped beans that grow around the shores of the beautiful Lake Trasimeno. They may not carry the celebrity appeal of panda bears and roaming tigers but these beans – and the farmers who grow them – faced extinction not too long ago.
Harvesting fagiolina is both hard work and time consuming as each bean needs to be picked by hand. Yet nowhere else in the world can you find beans with this genetic make-up, nor with this close a cultural tie to the people of the land.
So, in the Year 2000, the Slow Food Movement began a campaign to save fagiolina. Together with Professor Negri from Perugia’s University of Agriculture, they furthered education, encouraged awareness and appealed to local chefs to serve up locally produced ingredients – such as the fagiolina bean.
On the slopes of Mount Subiaso, not far from Le Silve, a wealthy couple have taken this idea one step further.
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Noah and Simon left a career in Mechanical Engineering and a heady international lifestyle to move to Umbria with their two children just a few years ago. Their aim was simple in concept, if difficult in practice. They wanted the luxury of living off the land, the luxury of having time to spend with their children and the luxury of knowing that they weren’t always cutting corners in the race to stay ahead.
They’re not part of the Slow Movement – officially – and yet they live it with every inch of their lives.
Their home overlooks the valley of Assisi, a vast patchwork of fields spiked with Cedar trees. They grow strawberries and cherries, chop firewood to fuel their oven and have taught themselves how to make home-made jam. They even gather water from a fresh mountain spring near their home.
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Back at Le Silve, near the peak of Mount Subiaso, the kitchens prepare for dinner.
Outside, deer and horses roam throughout the park, the swine snuffle and settle down to sleep and guests return to the hearth from hikes through the hotel’s 230 hectares of land.
Inside, the fire flickers and flares, illuminating the tapestries that line the wall, the shadows dancing like ghosts from the last thousand years.
When the sun rises, it’s no exaggeration to say that the dew glitters across the fields on the short walk to breakfast. It’s an unhurried affair with fresh eggs, fresh coffee and a range of Umbrian cupcakes.
The chef, Enrico Garafalo, chops celery and onions to start the lunchtime ragu.
“We’re not part of the Slow Food movement,” he says, sprinkling parmesan cheese into a pan.
He shrugs. “We haven’t got around to it, yet.”
“And besides, in practice, everywhere in Umbria is Slow.”
Disclosure – I travelled to Umbria as a speaker hosted by the local tourist board. As ever, as always, all opinions remain my own.
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