The culinary crusader

By Jasper Gerard

Not since Jesus rustled up a feast from some fishes and a few loaves of bread have we invested food with such spiritual qualities; and if food has become the faith of a decadent West, its high priest is Carlo Petrini. When the founder of the Slow Food Movement met the Prince of Wales last month it was hard to say who was having the audience.

When in America Petrini might pop in on Barack Obama or Al Gore. Time has included him in a series of "European heroes", who created the "ethical consumer".

Petrini came to prominence two decades ago when he stopped McDonald's opening by Rome's Spanish Steps. His non-lethal weapon of choice at the time? Plates of penne.

But does he have a bigger point, or is he merely a kind of modish Dalai Lama figure for those who think nothing of paying a small fortune for purple broccoli dusted with powdered linseed or potatoes sold "with added earth" from the new and uber-fashionable food emporiums?

Prince Charles certainly seems to find more in him. Petrini has become the Prince's new guru.

As Charles led him around his Highgrove estate, the interpreter grew embarrassed, so matey did the two seem, with the normally formal heir to the British throne greeting the campaigner as "My dear Carlo".

Several peers were kept waiting as Petrini's audience over-ran. The two are now in constant correspondence and are planning another meeting later this summer.

Petrini reveals he has moved on from agitating against McDonald's and instead urges us to rise up against Monsanto for patenting seeds which he condemns as "violence "against the developing world. He also has harsh words for the celebrity chef culture, obsessed with "recipes, recipes, recipes".

Indeed, for one so idolised by the privileged, his views are radical. He is more likely to tell you about the ingredients of a just agrarian society than the perfect artichoke risotto.

The Slow Food Movement now boasts more than 80,000 members worldwide.

He has organised countless small-scale agricultural projects to bolster regional gastronomic traditions, and is leading the growing debate about the ethics of food, spreading his message that it should be delicious, environmentally friendly and socially fair. Which is a big task for a quarter pounder.

For one who believes in slowness, he is always on the go. He has founded a school of gastronomy in Italy and is taking to Britain his increasingly successful American campaign to ensure every school has a garden - all of which is pretty impressive for an erstwhile radio journalist.

He must make an unlikely friend of Charles.

"I consider him the patron of the Slow Food Movement, our spiritual guide," Petrini replies passionately.

"He has been a visionary, with his passion for organic production and a harmonious relationship with nature.

"People thought he was just romantic, a poet, and that his approach wouldn't have any economic impact; but his way is the only salvation for the planet.

"Those who said he was not a practical soul should now apologise."

So while he enthuses about some politicians who talk the talk, he criticises plans to ease restrictions on supermarket building on the edge of towns.

"You cannot separate food production from the environment" he says."We need to re-localise food and avoid food miles."

He does not look like anyone's caricature of a gastronome: thin, serious and faintly abstemious, eschewing breakfast at his boutique London hotel in favour of filter coffee.

"I am a gastronome," he smiles. "Not a glutton."

Being a gastronome can actually mean eating less, but better."

The only hint of his passion lies in his gold lapel badge of a snail, reflecting his belief in the languid rhythms of Mediterranean life.

Still, as he grows more expansive, you can easily picture him on a terrace scented with bougainvillea, sipping barolo. He says you must, every day, eat dinner with the one you love. He contrasts his ideal, in classic Italian style, with the reality: "A woman cooks some food, and no one smiles at her or says 'thank you'.

"Neither is there any fascination with food. In Mediterranean Europe, there is still that conviviality, that ritual. The most important thing about eating is to enjoy the moment of affection. A civilisation that loses this becomes very poor."

This is a hard sell for a nation feeding itself with supermarket ready-made meals. Yet Petrini does not merely argue about supermarkets; he works to save traditional foods by setting up local networks, be it for Cornish pilchards, Malaysian rice or Greek cheese. Nor does he re-hash the usual condemnations of globalisation, instead arguing that learning about and helping other cultures fosters "a virtuous globalisation".

Even in the land of the slow lunch, as captured by Manet, isn't his movement a nostalgic distraction for wealthy, leisured foodies rather than a manifesto for our grittier, busier age?

"We need to educate people. Food is not too expensive, it is too cheap.

"In Italy people spend 12 per cent of their budget on food, and 10 per cent on cellphones.

"It used to be accepted that food would be our biggest expense. So in the scale of our values we have to restore food."

It does not help prices, he says, that gaining organic registration is expensive and cumbersome for farmers, so "absurdly" the system favours farmers who make less effort. Prices are also pushed up by an insistence on buying produce flown to shops out of season.

He is pleased McDonald's has not had a major breakthrough in Italy, but his attention has shifted.

"I'm much more concerned about firms patenting seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation. For me, to rob the people is a criminal act. That's a lot worse than McDonald's."

He plans to set up a giant database of seeds to undermine patenting, which started when America's patent office gave permission for the practice, endorsed by the World Trade Organisation.

"So in Mexico, birthplace of corn seeds, farmers have to pay patents to multi-nationals for new hybrids."

So in half a century will the world have slowed to the melodious, civilised saunter of the Slow Food Movement, or will it have sped up into a fast food, disposable hell?

He laughs: "I think it will be a huge achievement if in 50 years humanity even exists.

"The environmental destruction of our ecosystems is that dramatic. But man has a choice and I hope he will make the right one I hope he will choose virtue."

- Observer

Auckland's Slow Food chapter was started by Milan-born Rafaella Delmonte in 2000. For more information email slowfood@ihug.co.nz or go to www.slowfood.com

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