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Skip the fast food and go slow

By Dean Irvine
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In 1986 Italian journalist Carlo Petrini was so disgusted by the sight of a McDonald's at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome that he took it upon himself to lead the fight against fast food.

First he led a demonstration against the offending hamburger chain and then set up the Slow Food organization - a longer lasting legacy than throwing rocks at Ronald McDonald and co - dedicated to preserving the pleasure and passion that surrounds food.

It wasn't just the imposition of a fast food restaurant in the heart of a gastronomes' paradise that made Petrini found the Slow Food Movement. Rather it was the fear that the sociable and relaxed way of life that was sustained by good food was under threat too.

Complete with a doctrine that gives a cheeky wink to the Futurist manifesto - "We are enslaved to the Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades our privacy and forces us to ear Fast Foods" -- the organization today has spread to 80 countries, from Austria to Venezuela, with over 85,000 members.

Despite what it may seem Slow Food is not just about a bunch of gourmands working out how to match a sweet Asti Spumante with anchovies, trotting across the globe to indulge in some gastronomic hedonism.

That is part of it, but Petrini has been the driving force behind nurturing a love of diversity and sharing of knowledge about good food.

As well as the national groups, called "convivia," the Salon del Gusto is an intoxicating showcase of food and wine held bi-annually, and another global networking event for foodies, Terra Madre, which took place last year, attracted 8,000 food producers, cooks and even academics.

Petrini has even founded a place for the latter too, with the University of Gastronomic Science that opened in Bra, Italy.

"Gastronomy has never been taken seriously as a subject for study. It deserves academic respect. The university will carry out the research needed to change our view of agriculture here and in the developing world," said Petrini before the institution opened in 2004.

However, adding a new sense of responsibility to the pursuit of pleasure is reason for the organization's expansion and increasing relevance to both consumers and producers.

If anyone was in doubt that local producers and foods needed to be protected from disappearing, Slow Food offers some statistics: The diversity of European food products has declined by 75 percent since 1900; the figure is 93 percent for the same period for the USA.

"We're really dedicated to promoting bio-diversity and sustainable means of producing agriculture," said Fiona Richmond the Slow Food UK coordinator. "Slow Food is about good, clean and fair food."

As consumers we're increasingly aware of the effects on the environment of food production methods. We're also encouraged to keep our food miles down - the distance our meals have traveled and their means of transportation add to the carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change. The growth of Whole Foods, the US chain that promotes itself as an ethical supermarket, is testament to our changing tastes and attitudes towards food.

Angie Dodd of Slow Food UK is a firm believer that it's a change in attitude that is having an effect on supermarkets and food producers.

"Supermarkets are acutely aware of the marketing benefits of promoting food's provenance and of course they want to capitalize on that increase in demand.

"In the 1920's households spent approximately a third of their income on food, now it's only about tenth. The supermarkets have been instrumental in delivering cheap food, most of it processed, but it comes at a price: obesity," said Dodd.

Slow Food champions the benefit of food education. At the very least it might make consumers less susceptible to supermarket's marketing drives.

"The supermarket chains have been the benefactors of customer confusion, able to market low-fat yogurts that suggest a healthy image, yet they often contain more sugar than a bar of chocolate," said Dodd.

You may think that having to read more in a supermarket than you would in a library or find out the genesis of the apples in your basket takes the joy out of food shopping, but for slow foodies it's a journey of discovery.

"The pleasure is only spoiled if the story behind the food is rotten," said Dodd.


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Passion, pleasure, cheese: Appreciating the simple joys of good food is part of Slow Food's manifesto.

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