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Where's the beef?

The Slow Food movement has an almost millenarian belief in the virtue of amalgamating gastronomy wit

The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure

Geoff Andrews Pluto Press, 224pp, £14.99

At the bottom of the Spanish Steps is a McDonald's that the Roman authorities forbade from displaying the company's logo. But don't worry, you'll find it - just follow your nose. It was the proposed opening of this branch in 1986 that prompted the foundation of the inchoate network of organisations that go under the banner of Slow Food. The people involved were the children of Marx and Barolo, hedonistic countercultural guerrillas from the small Piedmontese town of Bra, where they had run a pirate radio station, a bookshop and the Store of Popular Unity, a grocery that sold local produce.

The prime mover was, and still is, Carlo Petrini. The manifesto was written by the poet and literary journalist Folco Portinari, whose sweeping assertions are perhaps more disputable than Geoff Andrews realises. "Fast Life . . . forces us to eat fast food." Does it? There is, of course, a thriving academic and journalistic cottage industry that warns against the effects of speed pollution and the dire consequences of the "knowledge economy". Now that the society craved by the futurists of almost a century ago has come to exist, the price paid seems exorbitant to sociologists such as Manuel Castells, who portentously predicts "the annihilation of time", which is about as useful a soundbite as Francis Fukuyama's "the end of history".

And although it is evidently cited as a sort of justification of Slow Food's raison d'être, Victoria de Grazia's assertion of "the triumph of American consumer society over Europe's bourgeois civilisation" is dystopian wishfulness - commonplace anti-Atlanticism, even though it comes from New York, a city far more marked by Europe than any European city is by America.

What, surely, is remarkable is the extent to which so much of Europe is barely touched by "market-driven imperialism" despite the potency of America's economic muscle. Britain is the depressing exception, a special case: it needs Slow Food, or a movement like it, in a way that Italy does not. The Open University, where Andrews teaches politics, has struck a deal with Tesco that allows students to get a reduction in fees according to how much they spend at that ubiquitous supermarket. He notes this resignedly, realising that his readers won't be at all surprised - his British readers, that is. This sort of "partnership", like large-scale PFIs and PPPs, though common in Britain, is not habitual practice in other European countries, whose citizens would be mystified by such an arrangement.

Slow Food and its offshoots such as slow town, slow living, slow thought may enjoy a following in different countries, but that is the extent of their internationalism or "virtuous globalisation" (the movement is thick with such neologisms and slogans - for example, the Ark of Taste, Terra Madre, Presidia). The emphases are doggedly local and small-scale. The restaurateur Otto Geisel reckons that whereas Italy had a "food culture" to defend, Germany had to rediscover its own. That is a puzzling remark, until one observes that Herr Geisel has a Michelin star and so is unlikely to consider that the hefty vernacular cooking everywhere available in his country really constitutes a "food culture".

The unforced pan-European heterogeneity, combined with Andrews's avoidance of generalisation, makes his survey of this broadest of churches piecemeal. Though it is moot whether "survey" is the appropriate word for so partial a work: much of it is chummy propaganda. Andrews is an uncritically enthusiastic convert and true believer in a gastronomically correct litany of practices and products which are, needless to say, organic, ethical, fair-trade, green, sustainable, biodiverse and so on. All of which is unexceptionable, all of which conforms to the soft-left orthodoxy of open-necked plutocracy with a caring smile. Petrini, in whom Andrews detects "genius" and whom the Prince of Wales regards "as one of my heroes", believes that amalgamating gastronomy and ecology will reconcile the pursuit of pleasure with the daily struggles of peasant farmers and that the consumer will feel so much part of the production process that he or she will become a co-producer.

How this is to be achieved is, unastonishingly, not vouchsafed. But when it is achieved, consumer and producer will unite in "a community of destiny". There is a fair amount of such hard-headed thinking. The Californian chef Alice Waters announces that she wants "a peace garden in the Gaza Strip".

Andrews astutely compares Slow Food to the Arts and Crafts movement and Petrini to William Morris. Perhaps too astutely: Morris hoped to change the world by making wallpaper for rich clients. He hated "luxury" and strove for simple pleasures. This is akin to despising the opulence of haute cuisine while favouring equally expensive neo-peasant cooking - it's choosing the River Café over the Ritz. The Arts and Crafts movement was Luddite, aesthetically retrospective and exclusive. Given its contempt for the machine, it could do little more than build exquisitely bespoke houses for late-Victorian and Edwardian swells. It was a cul-de-sac. Slow Food may not be that, but it has more to contend with in Britain than elsewhere in the developed world.

The demand for cheap food and drink, the stranglehold of supermarkets over both supply and taste, the scarcity of artisan producers and independent butchers and bakers, a topography friendly to industrial agriculture - the factors that militate against Britain attaining the culinary standard of Italy is long. France measures freshness in hours, Britain in days. What is gastronomically exceptional in Britain is merely commonplace in its southern neighbours.

Nineteenth-century travellers from such countries were overwhelmed by the restlessness of London and other British cities. We haven't stopped hurrying and it will take more than a few farmers' markets, fetes with regional costumes, yoghurt-weaving gaudies, awards ceremonies for "food heroes", perry tastings, allotment hobbyists and communal big breakfasts to change that. It was a Frenchman, the often preposterous José Bové, who dumped manure in a McDonald's. No one in Britain can really be bothered. Good food is not a central preoccupation, no matter how much telly may try to convince us otherwise.

And anti-corporatism has seldom flourished - witness the failure of C H Douglas's social credit, to which Slow Food owes an unremarked debt, not least in its conflation of producer with consumer and its concentration on localism, which in the case of social credit culminated in the cultish nuttiness of the Green Shirts (previously trading as the Kibbo Kift). One should probably not make too much of Slow Food's aims being broadly akin to those of Pierre Poujade's Union for the Defence of Traders and Craft Workers.

A three-DVD box set of 11 Jonathan Meades documentaries from the past 20 years is available from BBC DVD

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror