Slow food for thought
The only speedy thing about the Slow Food Movement, dedicated to the proper appreciation of food, which launches at the Lough Neagh Food Festival tomorrow, is its rate of growth. About time, says Jane Hardy .
We live in a high speed world, with the clock permanently ticking from beginning to end, and tend to assume there is no way off the merry-go-round.
Just occasionally a bit of science comes out that questions the pace at which Western society demands its worker bees work, rest and play.
Recently, an American academic tested out the notion that we needed a bit more sleep, copying our distant ancestors whose body clocks were regulated by sunrise and sunset.
He found that 10 and even 11 hours' sleep, instead of sapping his guinea pigs' creativity and efficiency, actually increased it. The other key activity where slower is better is, naturally, eating.
Eighteen years ago, in Italy, the Slow Food Association was founded. It now boasts 83,000 members in 107 countries, has founded a University of Gastronomic Science and holds regular, relaxed meetings to get the message across.
Its manifesto is a grandiloquent piece of prose with a high-minded objective, nothing less than cultivating a better way of life via slower meals and the sensuous pleasures of the table.
Folco Portinari wrote in 1989: "Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilisation, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model." He went on to say that we are enslaved by speed and have succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which "disrupts our habits and forces us to eat fast foods".
In a flurry of exaggeration, Mr Portinari then said we should reduce speed in our lives and our meals before we become at risk of extinction. He may not have been totally wrong, in that the effects of fast food and its producers not only have an ecological impact, they bequeath indigestion and more serious ill health to addicts (all that fat, salt and sugar) and lead to a thoroughly jittery society. Slow Food is an idea that ties in with the much-missed ritual of Sunday lunch, which provides a chance for the whole family or family and friends to gather in a group, pull together the threads of the week.
Breaking bread together is vital to keeping relationships strong, and you can't do that seated at a breakfast bar for 10 minutes. It's interesting that there is at least a partial revival of the Sunday ritual in the rise of the weekend pub roast, enthusiastically embraced by 20 and 30-somethings, the generation that would probably scorn the idea of going home to mum's yet are getting the same experience for £12 a head at the gastropub.
And they take their time over these dinners, talking at length, enjoying each other's company and appreciating the food as it should be appreciated. Slowly.
For the best meals are often slow, when conversation makes the dinner, lunch or even tea (and while we're on the subject, whatever happened to afternoon tea?) extend for an hour or two.
The slower tempo is enriching, and makes the point about being a human rather than merely a soft machine. When you see ads on TV for olive oil, claiming that a Mediterranean diet will transform you, in due course, into a sprightly 90-year-old, what they omit to point out is that it isn't just the polyunsaturated fats that achieve this, it is the calmer pace of life in the South. Where siestas break up the day and meals regularly take two to three or more pleasurable hours.
It's the antithesis of the Ready, Steady Cook mentality, with all that cooking against the clock (and combining odd foods) as if it's a race. Remember the old tortoise and the hare fable, and who won? Anyone for turtle soup?
To join Slow Food UK, visit www.slowfood.com or tel: 01584 879599
'Thinking about food in a different way'
Nick Price (54) is proprietor of Nick's Warehouse restaurant, Belfast, and chair of the new Belfast branch of Slow Food UK. He says:
We've just started up in Northern Ireland - and are launching at the Lough Neagh Food Festival tomorrow in Castledawson. We'll be organising food and wine tastings, trips to producers and events which support our philosophy.
The Slow Food UK movement is all about getting back to thinking about food in a different way.
We tend to undervalue the quality of what we have. We want to re-establish real food, real flavours and real, enjoyable meals.
For example, we've lost the art of cheesemaking in Northern Ireland, while in Cork they have about 30 cheesemakers within 30 miles.
Yet our milk is just as good as theirs, and I am working on a cheese product, a kind of blueprint, at the moment. Of course, the economics of making a living can get in the way.
When they produce meals in Italy for £15 a head, you wonder how they do it; the answer is in family-run businesses not aiming to make a great profit.
In terms of slow meals, I do believe in them and last night at home, we actually spent two to three hours on dinner, catching up. It's a matter of turning off the dreaded TV and learning how to talk again."
'Melted chocolate magnificent'
Orlagh Thompson (13) is a pupil at Lagan Integrated College, Belfast, and reported for BBC Northern Ireland on the Slow Food's Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre conference in Italy in 2006. She says:
There were over 200 stands - it seemed more like 2,000 - of food and drink: cherry wine, cheese in a sack, chocolate from Ecuador rainforests, rose petal syrup, yak cheese from Tibet and vanilla pods from Madagascar, products I've never seen before.
We went to a food education lecture where they talked about school canteens and how their projects could help by getting children to grow their own food and make it into something healthy and tasty.
I think that we should bring this to my school - it would be fantastic. There were some boys from Norway who had made nets and caught herring and then sold them in barrels they'd carved themselves.
There were many chocolate stands but my most favourite was the Jeantet stand. There was a man called Luigi who made a new chocolate called La Rue which is slightly spicy. At the stand there were loads of chocolates wrapped up in shiny paper, but on the right there was a machine with oozing melted chocolate. It was magnificent."