How did the desire to create the Ark of Taste come about?
“To understand the creation of the Ark, we need to turn the clock back to 1980s’ Italy. Generally-speaking, people were proclaiming modernity, economic development and relatively little attention was paid to food. It was a period that was going through a combination of factors: the highly non-environmentally-friendly methods implemented by agribusiness began to show their contradictions (see insert), which led to a sudden impoverishment of the biodiversity; fraud was rife with, for example, the scandal of Barolo wine contaminated with methanol which led to around twenty deaths and resulted in a crisis for the whole wine sector; then in 1986, the Italians experienced the opening of the first McDonald’s in Rome: perceived as a symbol of standardisation of taste, of faceless farmers.”
So, there was increased awareness?
“Yes. Carlo Petrini realised that delicious products, rooted in the culinary traditions of his region, like Asti peppers and Morozzo capons, were likely to disappear. The determination to do something about the situation reinforced this increased awareness! By creating the Ark of Taste, Slow Food took on the task of identifying and preserving these rare products and the expertise related to them.”
What are the particularities of the products included in the Ark of Taste?
“The Ark contains old varieties of fruit and vegetables, animal species and traditional products. They have a strong identity, come from a particular region that has its own geography, history, expertise. Basically, the product must be related to the reality of a region and must be in danger of becoming extinct. An example in Switzerland is the Chantzet, half sausage with cabbage, half black pudding.”
What are the different steps a product has to go through to be included in the Ark of Taste?
“An online form needs to be filled in first. It’s a totally open concept and everyone can propose something! Contributing, taking part and being active are what matters most. Once the form’s been filled in, Slow Food International sends it on to the country concerned. The proposal is reviewed by the country commission (made up of producers, agronomists and even enthusiasts – just let me stress that you don’t need a degree!) that meets four times a year for this purpose. Additional information may then be requested, if necessary. Then we decide if the product can be included in the Ark or not. We already have 3000 products listed internationally and we aim to reach 10 000 by the end of 2016.”
What are the benefits?
“Once the product is listed then history begins to develop! It’s really important. A lot of work is carried out with local populations, for example in Africa, India, and in the Australian outback. It’s also a source of pride for many farmers and artisans to see their product included on an international list! And, it’s an opportunity for producers to discuss – “oh look, someone on the other side of the world makes a product just like mine.” The Ark of Taste has enabled us to reference thousands of products, varieties and breeds online, which can be searched by type. We have a worldwide Slow Food network and that’s precisely one of our aims: to network. The products listed in the Ark can also be the starting point for fields of study.”
Eat it to save it is the Ark of Taste’s slogan. How can we save a product by eating it?
“There are human beings behind the products. We must remember that there is a cost to production – as regards time, resources, etc. Products are no longer cultivated as people cannot earn their living from that. If we eat them, we enhance their value. So, if we have the choice between two products, an anonymous one, which we know nothing about (whose origin, producer, production conditions are unknown, AN) and another whose history we know, then we’ll choose the second one! Thus, the artisan’s work is acknowledged.”
“Slow Food products meet three criteria: good – products should taste good ‑, clean – ecosystem-friendly ‑, fair – ensuring that producers make a fair wage4. By choosing these products we promote a specific type of agriculture, a specific type of production that respects raw materials and we refocus on the dignity of those who produce them. Though, we’re not going to become a good food and restaurant guide! And, our message does not say “you should only eat this”, but rather that the products in the Ark should be taken as examples, suggestions. Then, everyone should ask themselves: can I find a product like this near my home?”
The Ark of Taste brings the biblical story of Noah’s ark to mind... Are you determined to save the last specimens before the flood? Does taste really need to be saved?
“The business and the standardisation that ensues are seen as a threat. The idea is to save and to build value for these people (the small producers, AN) before they are sidestepped by other logics. Reflection also concerns consumers; they must be given the choice, for example for cheese, where they can choose between raw milk cheese and thermised milk cheese. But it also means preserving both wild and agricultural biodiversity as much as possible. Today, we are much more aware that certain things are important and that they must be preserved. I am thinking, in particular, of the incredible work undertaken by our ancestors when they selected species and varieties that are perfectly adapted to the regions where they are cultivated.”
How can we preserve the past yet keep the ball rolling towards the future?
“Gustav Mahler said something that I like a lot, which goes: ‘Tradition is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the flame’. We don’t celebrate dead things! We have to preserve what is important, what is alive and be in tune with the times. An example: the ‘viande des Grisons’, the ham, was relatively big before, as families were large. Today, this has changed, the ham is smaller because not as many people live under the same roof. The same holds true for the Tête de Moine cheese.”
“And, we’re not against mechanisation! We don’t expect walnut oil producers to manually smash open the husks with a stone. For champagne makers for example, a bottle rotating machine is perfectly acceptable, because we prefer to give value to what really makes the difference, i.e. the producer’s expertise, ability to select the bunches of grapes, knowledge about yeasts, etc. Purists are going to object and demand that the work be one hundred percent manual... But that’s not what’s going to save the product!”
If you had to use only three words to describe the Ark of Taste...
“Participative, delicious and instilling hope for the future.”
What is your favourite product among all those listed?
“(Dreaming of it) raw milk Vacherin. Those are personal things... I was born in the Canton of Fribourg and it reminds me of my childhood...”
The Terra Madre Salone del Gusto will take place in September 2016 in Turin: it will be an opportunity for...
“... Tasting! This event is an invitation to discover products that are unique in the world, like almonds from Uzbekistan – an aroma unlike any other – and the pera cocomerina, a pear that’s red inside and that resembles a watermelon. We are inviting Swiss producers along with us, still focusing on making themselves known, as the show is an excellent occasion for producers to meet together and also for producers to meet consumers.”
Peppers and tulips
“In 1996, I was travelling, as I frequently do, on the National 231 road that links Cuneo to Asti, and that crosses through Bra, the provincial town where I live and where the Slow Food international movement is headquartered. […] On the way back home, I stopped off at a restaurant belonging to a friend who I hadn’t seen for quite a few years, and who cooked fabulous peperonata5. I wanted to taste it again to boost me up after this exhausting trip which was almost over. But, to my dismay, I ate a horrible peperonata that had no taste whatsoever. The chef’s skills could not be called into question but I still asked for explanations as to why the taste had become so bland. My friend told me that he no longer used the same raw material to make this famous peperonata, whose taste and smell had remained engraved in my mind: Quadrato Asti peppers, a deliciously-tasty, flavoursome, fleshy variety, were now rarely grown in this region and he had replaced them with cheaper peppers imported from Holland which were grown intensively from hybrid varieties. A such, the result was visually optimal, an array of bright colours, basically peppers that were perfect for export – you can fit thirty-two into a crate, not one less, not one more, and they’re all ever-so appealing, all identical -he told me, but appallingly tasteless.”
“I took note of the disappearance of this fabulous peperonata and continued my journey to Bra. I drove past one of those places where greenhouses still exist and decided to stop: Quadrato Asti peppers were grown here before! Who knows what was now growing under this nylon sheeting... I met a farmer who confirmed that these magnificent vegetables had still been grown there until recently. But it was no longer the case, he told me in local dialect: “It’s not worth it, the Dutch ones cost less and no-one buys ours anymore! It takes work and it’s a lot of work for nothing!.” ‘But’, I asked him, ‘so, what do you cultivate now?.’ He answered with a smile: ‘We cultivate tulip bulbs! Then we send them to Holland where they blossom! ’”.
In : PETRINI, Carlo, 2006. Bon, propre et juste. Ethique de la gastronomie et souveraineté alimentaire. Editions Yves Michel, pp. 20-22.