A Mother’s Birth – PART ONE

Maybe the Terra Madre idea was already blossoming in the minds of those who declared in Slow Food’s 1989 international statute that it operates ‘to protect our right to pleasure, to respect the rhythms of life and a harmonious relationship with nature […] to identify food products and methods of production linked to a geographical area, from a protection of biodiversity perspective, and promote them as part of our cultural heritage’.

Florence, May 8 2003
However, if I have to pinpoint when it started my mind only goes as far back as a warm and inviting evening in May 2003, in Florence. The city was quiet and welcoming to the three of us (Carlo Petrini, his assistant Laura Bonino and me), recovering from a number of quick-fire meetings, preparing to face more the following day. Laura and Carlo were arriving from the north, I from Grosseto with Luca Fabbri of Slow Food Tuscany.

Over dinner we talked about work, but only in passing, because no one had much energy. Luca dropped us off at the hotel and then went home. We walked towards the lobby. I was holding my luggage, the others had left theirs in the hotel before dinner. That’s when I stumbled into my first faux pas. ‘I’ll put my suitcase in my room. Do you feel like going for another stroll afterwards?’ I asked, with the scent of lime trees still wedged in my mind. Everyone agreed; it was not yet midnight.

The first symptoms appeared as we walked along the Arno, but I didn’t notice them. Carlo asked how the Slow Food Award was going and how many jurors would be at the ceremony in Naples. In a blink of an eye, we found ourselves talking about future plans. We had a project in Barcelona, but they seemed to be dragging their feet over there and I didn’t think anything would come of it. We had planned the meeting of the jury assizes 2004, I said.

‘We have to organize a big event, otherwise what is the point of investing so many resources?’ Surprisingly, Carlo meekly agreed but I wasn’t alarmed—another blunder. ‘When we first started with the Award,’ he said, ‘we didn’t have a clear idea of what we wanted to do. But its political significance is now apparent to everyone. Our jurors all work in the agro-industrial sector. They understand it would be pointless to spend an enormous amount of money to bring them here only to allow us all to tell each other how clever we are and how we intend to continue to be clever in future. Instead, let’s invest in a project that makes sense to the people this award is dedicated to, those who work to preserve biodiversity and stop this planet from falling into ruin.’

It was one o’clock. Should we head back? No, the president wanted an ice-cream.

Outside, after our walk along the Lungarno, Carlo fell into the silence of the gluttonous, while Laura and I updated each other on the lives of mutual friends and the last films seen. Then he was with us again, no longer focused on his ice-cream. ‘Brace yourselves,’ he said, ‘I’ve had another brainwave!’

Some moments are fixed in memory by the details of their context. When I learned Moro had been kidnapped I was looking in my schoolbag for my diary. That announcement is linked to those images. The inside of my schoolbag, the spines of my books, my pencil-case.

When I turned to face him, torn between curiosity and wariness, Carlo was leaning towards us, smiling. ‘Brace yourselves!’ Those words are bound to the recollection of my sticky hands and the stainless steel bowls that seem designed to let the ice-cream dribble. There was no way of staying clean.

Laura is better trained than and I and her reflexes are quicker. While I uttered a non-committal ‘Tell us’, she sighed. ‘Oh, God!’

But Carlo’s timing and behavior were worthy of the Actor’s Studio. He was already talking a-mile-a-minute. ‘It will be a huge event, an international meeting, in October, in Turin.’ ‘Carlo, the Salone del Gusto is on…’

‘Exactly! During the Salone. Producers from all over the world, all those who have already won an award and other like-minded people. Otherwise it makes no sense, didn’t we already say that? An assembly, sure, but there must be talk of agriculture. A social forum, denouncing the ruin of the planet, isn’t enough. The people who fight this degradation, who uphold quality food, must be given a voice…’

‘Hang on a minute. How many people are you talking about?’

‘Now I really couldn’t say. About 10,000, to give you a rough idea.’

In vain, I tried to exchange glances with Laura, while she attempted to keep things in check. ‘Carlo, have you any idea how much something like this would cost?’ Yes, he did. ‘We can’t do it on our own. We have to do it with whoever believes in the project, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Piedmont Regional Authority, the Turin city council, business associations and volunteers willing to help us.’

The bar staff were beginning to look restless; it was past two in the morning. We stood up to leave, interrupting the flow. We chatted about this and that on the way back to the hotel, the mediocre ice-cream, the bill (24 euros!), the dry river-bed. At one point we even began to sing, and not entirely out of tune, either: Firenze stanotte sei bella in un manto di stelle che in cielo risplendono tremule come fiammelle … (Florence, you look beautiful tonight in your cloak of stars that shine and shimmer in the sky like small flames …).

Once back in my room I sent Paolo di Croce of the Slow Food Presidia Office an SMS message: ‘Do you want to know what the president’s latest idea is?’ His answer left little room for maneuver: ‘Do you mean the President of the Republic or the president of Slow Food? Either way, I don’t. Good night!’

To be continued …

Cinzia Scaffidi is the director of the Slow Food Study Center

This is an edited excerpt from an article which was first published in Slow 46.

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