I’ve always adored Italian food but it wasn’t until we started living in the beautiful town of Mondovi which lies in the foothills of the Italian Alps that I came to understand the vast regional differences between the food produced and eaten in the South of the country – often dominated by tomatoes, soft cheeses and extravagant deserts – and the food more typical of the North. Piedmont has a cuisine unlike any other Italian region. This is the land of truffles and hazelnuts, irony green vegetables (think cavalo nero), polenta eaten with locally produced gorgonzola but also transformed into cakes and biscuits, and some of the world’s best red wine, grown in the spectacular rolling vineyards around Barolo. Anchovies dominate two local specialities – bagna cauda and salsa verde – for reasons that remain unclear but may be related to the avoidance of taxes, an ongoing preoccupation of many Italians. For those who eat meat there is venison, beef and every imaginable kind of salami.
But it’s not just the cuisine that makes the area distinctive, it is the attitude towards food more generally. Piedmont is the home of the Slow Food movement, founded in 1989 “to prevent the disappearance of local food and traditions counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” Despite the seemingly interminable rise of supermarkets and fast-food outlets, there is a real interest and drive to produce high quality food which is consumed locally, re-connecting people with what they eat, reducing the huge and growing transportation costs and environmental consequences of large-scale industrial food production and providing opportunities for communities to connect with one another in the places that they live. Zero Kilometer Food is trying to do for farms what the Slow Food Movement has done for restaurants.
Mercati contadino (‘farmer’s markets’) have spread across Italy in just a few years and they offer a great economic and social opportunity, precisely because they allow direct contact between producers and consumers. The farmer’s market in Mondovi was established in 2011 to provide an opportunity for local producers in the region to sell their products directly to people living in and around the city. After a week sitting at my desk communicating almost exclusively with other human beings via email, Skype and WhatsApp, my visit on a cold, crisp January morning, reminded me how the opportunity for face-to-face conversation can render the weekly food shop more meaningful – and enjoyable – than a visit to an impersonal supermarket.
One of the first stalls I stopped at was piled high with a selection of cheeses produced by La Poiana, a cooperative established in 1982 with the specific aim of maintaining and promoting the production of Castelmagno cheese, one of Piemonte’s most unique cheeses and one that is often served with potato gnocchi. Castelmagno is a dense cheese with no open holes tending towards a grainier, crumbly texture and covered with a thin reddish-yellow rind which turns wrinkly and brownish-ochre as the cheese matures. The chunk I purchased will be making it’s way into a risotto with Castelmagno and pumpkin over the weekend!
For me, one of the nicest things about going to a farmer’s market is the seasonality of what’s available, a reminder that once upon a time we didn’t rely upon the transportation of fruit and vegetable from half way across the world – literally. This means that you can go shopping not quite knowing what you might come home with! This week’s big thing was apples, piled high in boxes and squeezed into delicious juice. I bought some of these ones, grown by Paolo Ghiglia and family on the slopes of the ancient Monte di Vico, now Mondovi Piazza. By the late afternoon they had been transformed into a delicious, moist Italian apple cake or torte de mela.
Finally, I stopped off at the beautifully presented stall of Azienda Agricola Il Vecchio Gelso, one a small number of producers selling organic produce grown locally on their farm near Bastia Mondovi. We chatted about the benefits of being able to sell products such as juices and sauces in the farmer’s market as well as directly from the field. What became clear is that whilst it takes time to build relationships with the local community, these relationships go well beyond the exchange of goods. The farmer’s market provides an opportunity to engage on local isues, to socialise, to make new friends and, where necessary, mobilise to improve conditions for producers and consumers alike.
Less is more…less food miles, less plastic, less waste…more local knowledge, more income for local producers, more connection between different people in the community. I, for one, will be back next week!