Slow down, you eat too fast

A European culinary revolt against the grazing culture is simmering. <strong>John O'Connell </strong

"A good boycott, a refusal to buy, can speak much louder than words." That was the conclusion of the US writer Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation - his persuasive, not to say stomach-churning, critique of burger culture published this year.

It is advice that might go down well in genteel Hampstead or the suburbs of California, but it does not go far enough for many Italians, whose hatred of fast food has acquired a religious fervour over the past few years. In October 2000, riot police were mobilised to protect the country's McDonald's outlets from demonstrators chanting: "Better a day of tortellini than a hundred days of hamburgers."

Guiseppe Dell'Osso, a spokesman for the Academy of Italian Cooking, agonised to La Repubblica that "globalisation is driving our country's traditional dishes to extinction", before sneaking off to its annual conference in Gubbio to plot the counter-revolution. Death by truffles, perhaps?

If no one is fighting culinary globalisation harder than the Italians, no group in Italy is fighting harder than the Slow Food movement. Slow Food was founded in Bra, Piedmont, in 1986, by Carlo Petrini - philosopher, gourmet and sometime political activist - as a direct response to the opening of a McDonald's in Rome's Piazza di Spagna. It is a non-profit organisation dedicated to everything that the "happy meal" is not: it champions eating in a careful, decelerated fashion so that forgotten, or rarely tasted flavours can be savoured, and traditional "artisanal" methods of preparation and cooking employed.

Petrini believes that dining has become oversimplified to the point where most of us have forgotten how to enjoy food. We do not luxuriate in it, we consume it. By expanding the concept of "hospitality", however, a meal becomes a kind of communion; hosting a meal becomes "art rather than philanthropy". As Petrini insists in the Slow Food manifesto: "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus - 'fast life' - which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat fast food."

The movement's symbol is the snail; what Petrini calls "a sort of amulet against exasperation."

So far, so niche. Except that it is not really, not any more. Slow Food has more than 60,000 members across five continents. The Piedmont office - the hub of a global network of local offices or "convivia" - employs more than 100 people.

The first US Slow Food Congress was held in Bolinas, California, in July. Before that, in May, there was the Brooklyn Pig-Fest, a huge barbecue held in front of the loading docks at Brooklyn Brewery, New York. Slow Food has also acquired substantial political clout. It recently opened an office in Brussels to lobby the EU on issues such as its "hyperhygienist" approach to food production (Slow Food favours the unscraped carrot and the gritty potato) and the planting of transgenic tomato vines.

Improbably, the movement has a presence in Britain, too. Wendy Fogarty, a marketing consultant in London, co-ordinates the activities of the movement's 1,000-odd UK members. She encourages "hypercalorific" dining sessions (in which the staple foods are foie gras, creme brulee, full-fat unpasteurised cheeses) and she rejects the charge that the British, lacking a meaningful national cuisine, do not care enough about what they eat to get behind a movement such as this.

"It is difficult in Britain," she concedes, "because independent retailers are increasingly closing and people are shopping solely at supermarkets. But with all the recent food scares, there's a growing sense that maybe our trust has been misplaced, and that we need to go on to the next stage that people in wine-producing countries have reached, where they have a proper appreciation of food's sensory qualities."

The UK membership of Slow Food has doubled in the past 18 months. There are now 12 convivia, compared with two this time last year. And two more are due to open in Scotland next month. Fogarty attributes this surge in interest to the publicity that attended the movement's annual festival in Turin, as well as the Slow Food Awards (to be held in Porto, Portugal, in October), where 500 journalists and academics nominate people whom they feel are working hard to preserve some aspect of biodiversity in their culture.

The Slow Food philosophy extends to what we eat, as well as how we eat it. The organisation beats an anti-GM drum, though not too forcefully. Its "manifesto on biotechnologies" ducks the issue slightly, calling only for increased public investment in research and an "aware, critical and unprejudiced approach". Slow Food's greatest concern is the way our palates are becoming jaded as food becomes more homogenised. Some foods, Petrini has observed, are dying out like endangered species. To this end, Slow Food has constructed what it calls the "Ark of Taste" - a list of endangered foods and methods including such delights as the boudin (a sausage made from pig's blood), purple asparagus and Britain's Blenheim Orange apple.

If you are cynical, you might argue that Slow Food smacks of decadent utopianism, an elitist hankering after traditional culinary certainties. Time is money, and it is arguable that only those who can afford to live at a leisurely pace have time to eat slowly and with such obsessive discrimination. But Fogarty argues that Slow Food is not about resurrecting old-fashioned ways of doing things for their own sake, but about ensuring that valuable traditions are not lost. She says that part of the problem in Britain is how we favour either hyper-traditionalism or hyper-modernism. Slow Food would argue that you can have both, as long as you use the best-quality produce. "In Britain, we've been very successful in persuading people to buy organic, but they do so at all costs, without thinking about where the food comes from. What Slow Food would prefer is for people to buy it more locally, more seasonally, from within their own culture."

On a global level, Slow Food is going from strength to strength. Its publishing arm produces the highly successful Gambero Rosso guide to Italian wines, and its slick website, www.slowfood.com, is a mine of tips, recipes, news and philosophical musings. "A lot of ground still has to be covered and much of it will be uphill," Petrini admits. "But there are many of us, and we all have strong legs!"

He favours a trickle-down theory, whereby food consumers benefit eventually from his championing of small-scale producers. High start-up costs are inevitable, but he believes they are a price worth paying: "A lot of work goes into making a great wine or cheese, or any other fine product."

Families have grown accustomed to paying less and less for food, but they do not mind shelling out for luxury goods such as DVD players and designer trainers. Slow Food's devotees believe this mindset must change - and boycotting McDonald's is as good a place to start as any.

John O'Connell writes for Time Out and the Face