Xenia Lam shares insights about her gastronomic travel experiences, from the Slow Food Movement orginating in Italia to her trying bear meat in Japan and why she feels cultural coordination tools can become actors of change, that can truly shape the future of food for the generations to come
For me it was a choice – to be or not to be? But then I made the best decision of my life – I went on a yearlong sabbatical to pursue my Masters in Gastronomy: Food in the World and in a cause, I strongly believe in, in one of the most beautiful and bountiful countries of the world – Italia! I went to study at the temple of slow food – The University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Bra, Italy; housed in a splendid neo-gothic building called Tenuta Reale.
For those that do not know; the Slow food movement was initiated by Carlo Petrini and a group of activists in the 1980s with the primary objective to defend gastronomic pleasures, regional traditions, good healthy food at a slow pace of life. It endorsed many initiatives at developing intelligence and culture of food. With over twenty years of history, the movement has progressed to embrace a comprehensive approach to food. One that recognises the strong connections between planet, plate, people, politics and culture. Today, Slow Food represents a global movement connecting thousands of projects and millions of people in over one hundred and sixty countries.
The unfortunate truth is that we live in an increasingly disjointed society, where at one point of time the strength of the great narratives that for decades brought people together and inspired their commitment have now lost their power of desirability.
The trend of the Slow Food Movement has been present since decades but has recently been propelled into the forefront of the prominent world issues as the cause and remedy of local economic circumstances, environmental challenges and complications with social norms. The Slow Food Movement could be considered a counter-trend to fast food. It was created in response to the amplification of a fast food culture, the diminishment of people caring where their food came from and the degeneration of local food traditions.
The birth and the last few years of Terra Madre* (Terra Madre is a project conceived by Slow Food, wherein a network of food communities assemble with the intent to provide small-scale producers whose approach to food production protects the environment and communities. The network brings them together with consumers, academics, chefs, and youth so that they can collaborate to improve the food system) has made Turin a pivotal hub for the development of thinking. A platform where cultures of the world convene to discuss various issues and the need to overcome various bureaucratic obstacles that ancient models bring. In the words of Carlo Petrini, “Inclusion, fluidity, freedom of action and openness must be the watchwords for a new participation. This is the path that Slow Food must follow in the years to come.”
Based on a concept of food that is defined by a trinity of interconnected principles – Good, Clean and Fair. Slow food in a nutshell is none other than quality, flavoursome healthy food by production that causes no harm to the environment and is accessible at good prices for consumers and at fair conditions and pay for producers.
It all started at a magical little tavern “Boccondivino”, the now famous Michelin restaurant in the historical centre of Bra. The name itself is a paronomasia in Italian – translating to either – A divine mouthful or A mouthful of wine! Both extremely agreeable and well suited for this beautiful Osteria; today an icon and expression of the slow food ethos.
The award winning panacotta and tajarin (pasta made of 40 egg yolks) and the vitello tomato (thinly sliced veal served cold with tuna) are only a few mentions of the true Piemontese magic served up on a plate – fresh on the palate and electrically vibrant in the mouth. Good, Clean and Fair only got better! Slow foods long standing recognition of gastronomy as a human science helped the University create a network thus impacting gastronomes like me to receive a wholesome experience. Studying subjects like food history, food philosophy, food and sustainability by renowned academics only helped build and strengthen beliefs and my passion surrounding food.
My adventure continued through various countries in Europe – eating, foraging, learning and meeting food people everywhere. Learning to pick wild plants and herbs and to cook with them was a great education – after all we all started off as hunter gatherers. Visiting consortiums like Acetaia San Giacomo (Balsamic Vinegar), Consorzio Vacche Rosse (Parmaggiano Reggiano) and Culatello di Zibello D.O.P gave me a chance to experience world-class quality and small-scale production first hand.
Copenhagen revealed beautiful secrets through Bybi; a honey producer. One of the most exquisite sights I saw was a honey map – true genius – the honeycombs were planted at various locations within Copenhagen by Bybi, then harvested and bottled when the time was right. Each bottle of honey had its own unique colour and flavour and was assembled in the showroom to form a map of Copenhagen! Now isn’t that incredible! The Team at The Nordic Food Lab were more than hospitable and I was lucky to have been standing on hallowed ground; discussions about future trends in F&B allowed me to get my hands on a bottle of “Anty Gin” – A gin distilled from ants – citrusy on the nose as well as the palate. And last but not the least the trend of urban roof top gardens – green spaces atop buildings promoting a better lifestyle and healthy eating.
The remarkable thing about the three principles are; put them to work in any part of the world and the result will remain the same – Beautiful, excellent quality and fair! My travels further took me to Japan – to experience gastronomy at its finest. From foraging mountain vegetables in Tsuroaka, to making miso and soba noodles, tasting local flavoured ice creams (matcha, hojicha, black sesame), the sublime experience of a tea ceremony and the surrealism of temple food. But it didn’t end there – for the first time in my life I ate bear meat – Yes you read right and it was delish!
Local is important. It is the culture, the earth the people and the sky that tell the story for us to experience. Cooking and eating together not only opens the mind but the heart as well. The exchange of thoughts and cultures is so robust it instantly helps you evolve.
The demands for good, clean and fair food for all continue to spread rapidly. Attention towards what ends up on our plates is progressively interdisciplinary, with interest growing even among those who don’t know of the existence of an association that has made these concepts its raison d’être.
It is only imperative that we be open and inclusive. We must ensure that our movements and ideologies can walk on the legs of others. This is why the challenge will be to encourage local action, to give everyone the strength and the cultural coordination tools to become actors of change, only in this way can we truly shape the future of food for the generations to come.
But we must be able to practise them daily, because only with the capacity to understand our weaknesses and areas for improvement can we form a fraternity with other human beings and make it a reality and only then can we call ourselves truly free and inclusive.
Roald Dahl said those who do not believe in magic will never find it – how true his words were – for I believed and found mine!
(The author is F&B Manager at Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa, Goa)