October. A straight shot south over the alps.
We came a day early for a conference at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra. Michael and Ben presented on the lab.
It was warm as summer. Sunlight more overhead than oblique. This is some kind of school.
The next day, the late hours in Turin before the opening ceremony.
Many spoke, but the most overwhelming part was the procession of all the delegates. It really was, as Ben said, “the United Nations of indigenous food populations”. I really couldn’t believe it. I knew the next few days would be the same.
Terra Madre is a global community of food producers committed to preserving their unique food traditions and protecting biodiversity through sustainable practices in agriculture and human ecology. It was founded by Slow Food, an international movement that works to generate and enhance food systems based on the principles ‘good, clean, and fair’. Terra Madre is also the name of a biennial conference which, since 2004, brings together all these producers from around the world, in addition to chefs, scholars, researchers, and other types of co-producers in many related fields, to discuss current issues on the global food agenda, share innovations across disciplines, and experience unique and exceptional foods and processes. This is the first year that Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto, an enormous regional food and wine fair also organised by Slow Food, have been held together as one unified event.
Nordic Food Lab was invited to Terra Madre this year to give a tasting workshop. We shared some of our work with wild plants, insects, and fermentations in a session we called ‘Back to the Future’, where we focussed on how we use modern scientific knowledge and techniques to reach a greater understanding of traditional processes.
This is a theme I’ve noticed throughout this year, at MAD and other conferences and symposia we attend – the idea that the best way to ‘preserve’ traditions is not to try to freeze them in place, or to stick one’s head in the sand and ignore a changing world, but to innovate with them and carry them into new fields of relevance and significance.
I find this web of ideas enthralling and bewildering and even after writing a thesis about it something I don’t fully understand or have a clear opinion on. After studying European PDO/PGI legislation, its implications and flaws, I felt I had both dug deeply and not even scratched the surface. So needless to say, being in the middle of it all, immersed for four days in discourse around ‘tradition’, ‘quality’, ‘identity’, ‘diversity’, etc. thrilled, surprised, and overwhelmed me over and over again.
Thursday, before and after our workshop, I wandered with no method, letting it flood me. Friday, I spent the day systematically, exploring each row and aisle, every corner of the immense grid. Saturday, our last day, I revisited the foods that drew me in, the stories and producers recommended me by others, and took a second look for interesting things I missed. These are a small few of the ones I managed to document.
These are aged small-format goat’s cheeses from France. They are strange. I have not seen anything like them before, not even while at Murray’s two summers ago. The producer/affineur ages them much longer than the ‘normal’ small format goat’s cheeses from the Loire valley. The results are intensely pungent with aromas and textures I’ve seen in no other cheese, or any food for that matter – every time we walked by, the heavy flush of lilies, din of crushed black pepper, a barnyard pressed into the size of a wooden box. These are beasts that both defy the rules and celebrate that we care enough to make them.
Their rinds are thick, mottled, brained like a morel, fuzzed like a lichen, smooth as stone. They come in all shapes – cones, discs, cubes, pyramids, amorphs that want you to guess. They are firm.
Wife and husband.
Trikalinos bottarga from Greece. Bottarga is salted-cured roe, traditionally from grey mullet and wrapped in beeswax. This is some of the finest. I kept asking the lady questions, and she kept making me try different types and pairings – vinegar, honey, herbs.
I was struck again and again at how readily the producers engage if you show real interest. Multiple economies overlay each other – there is the one of currency, certainly, and then one of direct goods and services; but then there is one of ideas, knowledge, practice. They blend. Ben, a graduate of UNISG and seasoned Terra Madre veteran, kept showing me how the most valuable currency is, in fact, time. When I spent even ten or fifteen minutes with one producer, that time was recognised and almost always rewarded. Under these circumstances of intense over-stimulation and the potential but inability to see and do it all, the decisions of where to go, whom to meet, and what to learn are those that matter. Circumstances change constantly – one minute with one friend, the next with a group, the next alone, the next with friends old and new. Of course this is an idea that governs life more generally, but under such compressed, saturate conditions, the complexity of these shifting conditions and the importance of making time the favoured variable becomes even more apparent.
Here is an incredible woman. Her family’s farm in Portugal was small and could not compete on the global commodity market with crops like almonds and figs from Turkey. So instead of giving up and selling the farm, she overhauled their business model, diversifying their crops and creating a line of value-added products with their almonds, figs, and other plants. She began planting carob to use in her products, and also to regenerate the soil. She created an eco-hotel from old farm buildings on the property, giving visitors the chance to stay in exchange for helping on the farm and in the production kitchen. I did not get her name but the name of her farm and company is quinta da fornalha. I want to go there someday.
Pit cabbage. From the Fischbacher Alps and Styria in Eastern Austria. This one’s a mystery. It was an old technique (the oldest record from the fifteenth century) for preserving the smaller cabbages that weren’t mature enough for sauerkraut, and they would last after the sauerkraut was finished. The cabbages were blanched then arranged in special wooden pits a few metres deep. They ferment, without salt.
The tradition died out completely in the 1970s. Then, two farmers decided to revive the technique and have been experimenting with different approaches and varieties of cabbage.
It can be shredded, chopped, or kept whole, served warm or cold. The producers were serving one shredded cold and another cooked with pig fat. The taste was surprisingly mild for a fermented product, full and round and very savoury, like giving a brassica a microphone and mute filter. It was soft and yielded to the teeth, like a young Tomme or St. Nectaire.
Gegenbauer vinegar, widely recognised as one of the world’s leading vinegar producers. We chatted with Erwin Gegenbauer for a while – a smart and particular man. We’ve been working with vinegars and Ben was keen to pick his brain. He let us try this drinking vinegar – resinous, herbal, and very long on the palate. It did not recede fully until multiple samples later. Talking with him gave me one more glimpse at how mastery is never-ending – every new level of expertise opens up a whole new world of complexity and decision, like plunging through the magnifying scales from telescope to electron scanning microscope.
We came upon some strüdel with crushed poppy seeds and cherries. They had half a dozen different varieties of poppy all yielding seeds of different colours and tastes. From Hungary I think, or maybe Serbia. Remarkable.
And there is a whole section five or six times as large, just devoted to the foods of Italy. Some of it is heavily commercial, but it is what pays to bring all of the truly interesting producers from all over the world to this one place. So I suppose it is a necessary price. At the very least, there are many gems to find there as well.
Like Bronte pistachio paste from Sicily – celebrated for the intense flavour unrivaled by any other. Forget about that sickly green ice cream – this is one experience where you know the artificial flavour really can’t keep up with the real deal.
But I still prefer Terra Madre proper – it is smaller, attracts a different crowd, a very different vibe. Plus, they have a garden.
In the centre of all the booths. A large square wooden box of soil, a garden demonstrating the diversity of African crops.
This man is from Libya. I began asking him questions about his millet, his spices, his dates. We spoke in broken English and basic French. Many interactions became such a mix of multiple tongues, a constant discovery of where one overlapped. He told me about Tekrah, and ancient Bedouin food made of soft dates, millet flour, coriander and cumin, pounded into a paste, formed into shapes, and dried. They store for long periods, carry well, are simple to eat, and nourish the traveler. And they are delicious.
He gave me his card and told me to visit whenever I was in Libya. This was a regular occurrence. The astounding thing was not only the mere existence of this community, but how everyone shares the reason to commune in the first place: passion for food of quality, health, justice, diversity, its importance and power. Something so simple as a pounded cake of dates and millet representing a political, economic, and cultural impulse to take a stance against global anonymity, deprivation of sovereignty, and the ever-widening desert of blandness and indifference.
What to do in the face of these mounting concerns? We shuck oysters in defiance.
From Holland, an experimental oyster farm on the long, shallow shoals. The flavour is nice but they still have some grit. We talk with them about tweaking their process. How would it be possible to cleanse them? Keep them in tanks for a certain period before eating?
The tastes keep on. Wild forest coffee and Tigray white honey from Ethiopia. Green Cheese from Bulgaria. Mangrove honey from Mozambique. Rare Mezcals from Mexico. Guaraná from Brazil. Dried reindeer from Sápmi in northern Sweden. In fact, the Sami people we met at Terra Madre became contacts for us at the lab for our ongoing experiments with wild game meats. They have since provided us with things like reindeer hearts, capercaillie, and ptarmigan. The community is no more than the connections made and maintained.
This last might be the most strange and exciting taste for me. It is the flower of Acmella oleracea, also known as the toothache plant or paracress. Koppert Cress, one of its largest producers, calls it a ‘Szechuan button’.
The young lady at the booth was handing out small portions of many different rare herbs to try. For these potent beauties, she was plucking out individual fibrils of the flower with tweezers. I asked if I could try a whole one. There were plenty in her dish. She thought I was joking and laughed it off. I took this foolishly as my answer. Ben admonished me; this was a lesson in how to do Terra Madre properly. “She doesn’t care,” he said, plucking a whole flower out of the small dish and dropping it in my hand. “You need to try it.”
The first and constant word is ‘electric’. It is a slow sensation that changes and evolves over minutes. It begins with fresh herbal notes, like one would expect of a flower, becoming faintly sweet. Rapidly it builds to a tingling sensation on the order of pop-rocks without the pop, a fizzling, shimmering poltergeist on the tongue and cheeks. This is the trigeminal nerve like I’ve never felt it before; it brings me to that extraordinary line of ecstasy between excitement and panic. The electricity subsides slowly into sourness, a bushplane coasting down below a summer storm into a jungle world. It still shimmers at dew point. And somehow, a lingering salt.
Most of this effect, it seems, comes from the analgesic agent spilanthol. It stimulates the physiology to the point of an uninhibited feeling between hysteria and euphoria. We encounter this again and again in our study of wild plants – what really is the boundary between foods and drugs? The answer is, there isn’t one.
There is a large arch above the bridge over the railway tracks. It is our route after a long day at the conference. I keep falling behind, getting lost behind the lens.