Health with Taste: Slow Food’s Ongoing Journey in AlUla

In the heart of Saudi Arabia, Slow Food is cultivating a rich gastronomic transformation, sowing seeds for a movement that reaches beyond traditional culinary boundaries. Thanks to the collaboration between the Italian Embassy in Riyadh and the Royal Commission for AlUla, as part of the celebrations for the Week of Italian Cuisine in the World, for the second year in a row, two events were recently organized and held in AlUla, a city in northwest Saudi Arabia with a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra. 

The impact of last year’s culinary venture set the stage for a new collaboration and the favorable feedback and the palpable energy among participants underscored the eagerness to have this kind of experience. This positive framework has given rise to the realization of a second event in 2023, building upon the enriching groundwork laid in the previous year.  

In the spotlight of this year’s event was Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance member Chef Giovanna De Vincentis. Thoughtfully chosen by Slow Food for her commitment to promote Slow Food values within her innovative culinary approach, Chef Giovanna curated a truly unique gastronomic experience during a dinner that took place on November 23rd at the Heart of the Oasis restaurant in AlUla, and hosted over eighty guests, including the Italian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Roberto Cantone and his wife, Tania Mehanna.  

Also in attendance were Silvia Barbone, from the Royal Commission of AlUla’s Partnerships department; Dr. Megbel Aleidan, Chief Oasis Agriculture Campus Officer of the Royal Commission of AlUla; and Saudi Chef Mona Mosly, host and judge of Top Chef Middle East.  

“AlUla’s long-term goal of establishing, cultivating, and celebrating a food scene that promotes great local produce and encourages our community to support local farms, suppliers, and restaurants shares a lot in common with the goals of Italy’s Slow Food Movement,” Silvia Barbone, Executive Director of Partnerships at the Royal Commission for AlUla shared. “Together, we emphasize the importance of ‘good, clean, and fair’ food, which is ethically sourced, environmentally sustainable, and tastes great. Hosting this exciting Slow Food event for the second year allows us to champion the richness of Saudi Arabia and Italy’s diverse and delicious food traditions once more. It is an honor to welcome the Italian Ambassador and Chef De Vincentis to AlUla, to share some wonderful dishes alongside our local farmers and students, and to strengthen our commitments to preserving biodiversity, supporting local communities, and expanding people’s appreciation for local food and the important cultural and social benefits it can deliver.”

This year’s theme of Italian Gastronomy Week was “At the Table with Italian Cuisine: Health with Taste”. In accordance with the theme, Chef Giovanna designed a menu for the dinner that emphasized healthy eating and featured a throughline ingredient that embodies the ideas of health and Italian gastronomy: extra virgin olive oil.  

Chef De Vincentis brought her unique spin on regional recipes of her native Abruzzo to AlUla, notably palotta cacio e ova. She also utilized ingredients such as Castel del Monte Canestrato cheese, a Slow Food Ark of Taste product, and olive oil from the Toccolana cultivar, part of the Ancient Olives Groves Slow Food Presidia. As part of the innovation of the menu, many ingredients from AlUla were used throughout the courses, such as locally grown citrus fruits and other produce from AlUla farms, as well as products that are part of Saudi Arabia’s Ark of Taste, notably Hassawi mint to complement the baccalà and Taifi rosewater to accent the dessert course.  

“The experience in AlUla – Chef De Vincentis confirmed – was filled with engagement, and representing the chefs of the Slow Food alliance from my region was a significant responsibility. Every time I faced a new challenge, I approached it with the eyes of a child exploring; like on a treasure hunt, I studied and tested products from another culture and land, merging them with those that are a part of me, creating a unique harmony. I discovered many treasures, including the GOOD, CLEAN, and FAIR hearts of the people who welcomed and accompanied me on this adventure. They lightened my burdens and anxieties and celebrated with me in a collective embrace at the end of the event. In my view, creating connections is the purpose of any activity; they are the true protagonists, the ones that remain in memory and in the heart. And here, in this distant land, connections were forged – among products, producers, organizers, among men and women who collectively believed that all of this was possible, striving towards a common goal.” 

One day prior to the dinner event, Chef Giovanna led a culinary workshop for ten young industry professionals in AlUla, where she demonstrated two of the dishes she prepared for the dinner. The workshop was held not only to convey culinary knowledge, but also to share Slow Food values and methodologies to the workshop participants. During the workshop, Chef Giovanna led an olive oil tasting session with the participants, where they compared olive oils from Italy and Saudi Arabia. This comparison exemplified how different methods of production of different cultivars make for varied expressions of flavor in extra virgin olive oil.  

This event managed by Slow Food and the Royal Commission for AlUla is part of an ongoing collaboration to develop Slow Food’s presence and activity in AlUla, in order to promote Slow Food’s mission to provide food that is good, clean, and fair for all.  

“We are extremely proud of this initiative, strongly aligned with the Italian government’s commitment to promote Italian Cuisine abroad,” declared the Italian Ambassador Roberto Cantone in his opening speech. “The menu crafted by Chef Giovanna De Vincentis has proven to be a perfect culinary translation of this year’s theme. Recently, the Italian government has proposed to inscribe Italian Cuisine as an Intangible Heritage of UNESCO, and I want to express my gratitude to the Royal Commission for AlUla and Slow Food for their extraordinary commitment in making such meaningful initiatives possible.”

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