The Slow Food Movement, which seeks to preserve the gastronomic heritage of a country by encouraging the farming of plants, seeds and livestock peculiar to local ecosystems, has become a fashionable trend with gourmands the world over looking out for high-quality, organic and healthy food.
The movement, rapidly catching on even in India where organic food is a way of life, originated nearly 25 years ago in Italy and the person most closely identified with it is Carlo Petrini who lives in the town of Bra in Piermont region. The flashpoint for the beginning of the movement was the opening of an oulet of McDonalds at the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome. The prospect of this fast food behemoth setting base in the heart of Rome, practically next to the English Tea Room, was too horrifying for traditionalists.
It must be clear that the Slow Food Movement is not something radical or left wing but is in the classical sense reactionary. It is entwined with the growth not just of fast food, which is widely considered the most unacceptable aspect of modern eating, but with the genetically modified (GM) movement in agriculture and the growth of supermarkets that seek to commercialise the purchase of foods involving the widespread import of meat and fruit.
This was demonstrated in Italy, for instance, where consumption of meat grew from around 22kg per person in 1960 to 62kg in 1975. This has had huge implications not just on matters such as health and diet but also on the nature of society and relationships. As Petrini himself stated, “The umbilical cord that had once connected the world of farmers and consumers was cut.” So instead of buying meat at the local butcher, who would have a connect with local farms, you would be buying frozen meat from a supermarket —which as the horsemeat scandal in Europe earlier this year demonstrated could mean that you are buying horsemeat being packaged as beef.
The Slow Food Movement has now taken on a pan-European character and has even spread to that home of fast food, the US, which has the second largest slow food association with 225 chapters. But what is its relevance to India? Fast food is growing in major metros like Mumbai and New Delhi with the opening of McDonalds, KFC and Dominos Pizza, but the take-off has not been as successful in India as expected. The burgers cannot be beef and mutton is a poor substitute so instead on offer are chicken burgers, vegetable patties and fried chicken with cheesy pizzas. However, it would be untrue to say that this development has displaced traditional eating habits, other than perhaps in areas such as Gurgaon, the bustling town adjoining New Delhi, where you have a large outsourcing sector and young people with reasonable spending power who work irregular hours. Of course, these outlets are certainly popular in malls where families congregate at weekends and want to eat hygienic and economical food.
As I have said, slow food should not just be contrasted to fast food: it seeks to address the whole chain of the production of food from organic farming to retail and that is an area where India has witnessed minimal change as distinct from the West. Whilst certain industrial groups like Reliance and Godrej have set up supermarkets, this is still a very urban upper middle class phenomenon not yet seen in small town India. In fact, a number of these supermarkets cater to upper class tastes by introducing foreign cheeses and, ironically, organic food which may not be available with the local baniya. A shining example of this kind of retailing is Fab India, which has been introducing organic millets like ragi and nachni flour and encouraging farms using organic methods.
In fact, India features as the home of the organic movement — the founder in England, Sir Albert Howard, was in the Imperial Civil Service in the 1920s and did a stint in Bihar where he took a liking to the virtues of organic farming. Organic farming is basically a form of agriculture that relies on crop rotation, green manure, biological pest control and mechanical cultivation to ensure soil productivity. It is true that certain farmers are using synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides, but GM is still a no-no in certain vegetables.
Much of Indian farming remains organic, but the green revolution and its impact cannot be ignored. In poultry, for example, Venkys has made some inroads but the desi, corn-fed chicken predominates. In the west, there are specific references to corn-fed chicken in posh restaurants — the price is higher too. In India, most chickens are corn-fed.
How have organic restaurants fared in India? One of the first I recall going to was in Ahmedabad in the early ‘80s. It boasts of a strong relationship with local produce and grows what it serves.
The restaurant carries the metaphor further by recreating a Gujarati village, an Arcadian paradise for city dwellers of Ahmedabad to experience what life would be like in the sticks. “To criss-cross the country now is to be amazed at the explosion of farmer markets and restaurants whose menus trumpet this grower’s organic carrots and the family’s rainbow chard …,” says an article in Gourmet magazine, published in the US. It goes on to say that this green tide “helps to keep arable land in agriculture, supports small farmers and boosts local economies”.