This is my fourth visit to Turin for Terra Madre/Salone De Gusto, the biggest food gathering on the planet.
I remember my first experience in 2012 very clearly. It was very nearly my last.
For a few hours on that first day, I’d wished I was somewhere else – anywhere else, in fact.
I was leading a group of eight or so Scottish food producers to an event in Turin I knew almost nothing about. Impulsively, I had stuck my hand up in May when someone had asked for a volunteer to organise the whole shooting match. Travel, logistics, funding, everything. The most I had organised thus far was a kids’ birthday party, and even that wasn’t completely solo.
Over the next few months, I learned a lot, spent hours on the phone, emailed and emailed, and eventually thought I had it all sorted.
Then, on a lovely late-September we arrived and all seemed to be going swimmingly. All our party had arrived, two vans of fresh food (including 350 pork pies) had turned-up, what could possibly go wrong? Just one fairly major thing; the refrigerated storage for five days’ worth of perishables wasn’t booked as I thought it was. Ooops (or language a bit more colourful).
But an event as crazy as Terra Madre, drawing up to 750 000 people and organised in the main by a skeleton crew of sleep-deprived volunteers, is full of people eager to help, even if they don’t speak a word of English.
So, after two hours sitting outside in the sun feeling miserable, wishing I was somewhere else entirely, and many meetings, phone calls and special pleadings, I found myself walking wordlessly through the vast exhibitor’s hall with an Italian woman who had a big fridge for hire. The deal was done, and the food was saved.
After that, it was all, as they say, gravy. Like serving samples of organic beef, breads, fish, cheese and whisky to discerning Italians, and others from across the world, and seeing the delight on their faces. The pork pies, however, were a bit of a puzzle for most. “You eat them cold? You don’t put them in the oven?” But, in four days, they were gone, along with everything else.
I loved playing foodie matchmaker, introducing one of the UK’s most acclaimed bakers, proud of his glossy, multi-page cookbook, to an Ethiopian baker who had brought her now-wilting circle of spongy injera on a 25-hour journey from high in the mountains, along with her black and white, photocopied cookbook. Through the language of bread, they bonded in a way no other words could express.
The Scottish dairy farmer who I introduced to his South African counterpart summed up the profound connections that happen when you throw together hundreds of food producers, activists, academics, food nerds, indigenous communities, chefs, eaters and others into a great whirling, five-day melting pot. After the two farmers spent an hour and a few beers together, my Scottish friend put it perfectly: “Different places, same shit.”
It’s that common understanding that spans the globe that reminds people that they are not some single individual ploughing their lonely furrow, often against the odds, driven by conviction, sometimes on the edge of survival, always burning with a desire to find a better way.
There is natural solidarity released when stories are shared, food is tasted, memories are created, and we go home to field, forest, kitchen, village, ocean, city or wherever we call home, with lives changed forever.
In a world that seems increasingly fragmented, events like Terra Madre have an importance that goes beyond the numbers who attend, or the tons of food tasted. It reminds us that we always have much more in common than anything that might temporarily drive us apart.
John Cooke, Board Director for Slow Food International
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