Is food political?
You bet. Those who aren't convinced, and who don't take the scares about horsemeat in burgers and bute in corned beef too seriously should make a point of seeing a new film being shown this week in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
It's a biopic of Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the Slow Food Movement, and it's clear his motives were anti-establishment and based in organised protest. The political background to the international movement is worth remembering, because it's in danger of losing its sense of purpose – especially in Scotland.
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In the early 1980s, people gravitated to Petrini and his friends as they met to discuss how the industrialisation of food production was, according to Petrini, "threatening the extinction of the human race". Party politics weren't his thing; he preferred the potential power of getting like-minded people around the table to discuss how things might change at grassroots level, while enjoying locally produced food and wine. "Food is a creative solution to cultural, social and political confusions," he says.
Through these meetings in Bra, his hometown in Piedmont, north-west Italy, a reconnection of the people to the land began to be forged. He says they decided they must champion the farmer and small food producer, who must be paid properly, and that "if we respect food we must pay the right price for it". In other words, the movement aimed to give power back to the people. If that's not political, what is?
Petrini's cause was given greater urgency by the discovery in 1986 of methyl alcohol in Italian wine, a devastating scandal that killed 18 of his countrymen and hospitalised many more, and all but destroyed small wine producers in the process. Seven bulk wholesalers had been adding highly toxic quantities of the methyl alcohol, or methanol (normally used as paint thinner), to nearly worthless low-alcohol wine in order to boost its alcohol content and make it marketable as cheap table wine.
Petrini and his friends formed Arcigola Slow Wine after the scandal, a co-operative of artisan winemakers. Its strong economic impact continues to this day.
The Slow Food Movement itself came about as a reaction to the opening of a McDonald's restaurant at the Spanish Steps in Rome. "It was the uniformity of the food that annoyed me," says Petrini. "People in different countries across the world all eating the same thing. It was destroying our culinary diversity."
At the time, farmers in Piedmont were growing tulip bulbs in fields that red peppers used to be grown in; the tulips were being exported to the Netherlands, from where red peppers were being imported.
Slow Food was launched in 1989 and groups from several countries signed up immediately, though the UK joined much later.
The philosophy of championing the artisan producer and celebrating local food doesn't seem that revolutionary now. Petrini's legacy is palpable in the current British food revival, which is gaining momentum every day. In Scotland, there's a proliferation of small producers, a raft of forward-thinking chefs who have joined the Slow Food Chef Alliance – and increased pride in our country's culinary assets.
It has been proven that change can happen at grassroots level but whether Slow Food has enough clout to stop the wholesale corporate grab of global food production is questionable, because the system is still being exposed as dishonest.
Can it really slow the rush to source ever cheaper food? I wonder if the aims of Slow Food have become so colonised by middle-class foodies that its political bite has been blunted. It seems to me that in Scotland its core activity has been centred on organising monthly gastronomic supper clubs, always attended by the same people.
There are four Scottish Slow Food groups including Edinburgh, Perth and west of Scotland (from last month's merger of Glasgow and Ayrshire groups). Member numbers are tiny but I'm assured there's a renewed sense of purpose following the horsemeat revelations. Edinburgh is reviewing its programme of events under a new group leader; it's building oppportunities for new people to join informal networking events to discuss food issues, using social networking; it intends to become much more vocal than it has been and to employ "positive messaging".
West of Scotland also has a new leader, equally energised and equally frank about the work to be done in Petrini's name. "Only 7% of farmers are under the age of 35, and we want to make farming more attractive to young people," says Brenda Anderson. "We will champion small producers because they are an irreplaceable resource in the fight against mass production. There's still a need for people to reconnect with local food because they need to know that if you buy cheap food it's still possible you'll not get what you think you're getting."
Vive la revolution.
Slow Food Story is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre at 6.30pm on Monday and at the Edinburgh Filmhouse at 6.15pm on April 21. Visit italianfilmfestival.org.uk.