Kendall Hill finds the soul of the Slow Food movement in the farmhouses and truffle markets of Piedmont.
Carlo Petrini cuts a tall, designer-stubbled figure in the glare of the television lights at Turin's Lingotto convention centre. He's shaking hands with a Mapuche Indian in traditional dress, creating an irresistible photo opportunity for the networks - and for the crowds of spectators thronging the security rope, digital cameras aloft. A grim bouncer stands guard against overexcitement in the presence of the founder and president of the global Slow Food movement.
And Petrini does arouse a lot of excitement. Each time I see him during the Salone del Gusto, Italy's biennial celebration of Slow Food, he is tailed by an entourage of assistants, media and admirers. It seems odd that someone who urged the world to rediscover life's simple pleasures should become the subject of such celebrity. But the man - like the Slow Food movement itself - has long outgrown his humble origins.
Petrini first made headlines in 1989 when he campaigned successfully against McDonald's opening in Rome beside the Spanish Steps. The dispute sowed the seeds of Slow Food, the movement that promotes the pleasures of eating well. He has since morphed into a global guru and politician who can claim Prince Charles and Al Gore as friends. In 2004, Time magazine anointed him a European hero for creating what it called "the ethical consumer".
Slow Food now has more than 80,000 members in 122 countries but its ultimate expression occurs once every two years in Turin, the capital of the northern Italian region of Piedmont, at the five-day Salone del Gusto, or Taste Fair. The salone debuted in 1996 in a small corner of the old Fiat factory; today it is a gastronomic juggernaut that spans four vast convention halls and combines produce tastings and street food stalls with treatises against globalisation. It promotes social justice and sustainability, lobbies against disappearing traditions, hosts lectures and tastings and symposiums and brings together a staggering array of producers from around the planet - more than 5000 farmers, fishermen, breeders and cooks attended last month's event.
Inside the Lingotto you can find foods as diverse as Amparafaravola pink rice from Madagascar and blue eggs from free-range Araucana chickens in Chile's Temuco region, and sample disappearing taste sensations such as Herzegovina's cheese in a sack and the once-common white artichokes of Campania. To promote and protect these fragile food traditions there are debates, workshops, seminars, a market of world foods, the international ideas exchange of the Terra Madre and specialty programs to publicise indigenous culture. This year the salone invited musicians from 32 countries to perform, to illustrate that musical diversity, like agricultural diversity, is under threat.
Attending the festival is a fascinating experience but it bears little resemblance to the principles of pleasure and enjoyment that underline the Slow Food philosophy. This year 180,000 people poured through the entrance gates and clambered for free samples, wine tastings and - the scarcest commodity of all - somewhere to sit. ("I have never seen it so busy," said Australia's fine-food seller Simon Johnson, who meets his producers at the show. "Most of the activities we did were outside the trading hours of the Slow Food salone because it's such chaos now.")
To experience the soul of the Slow Food movement, you need to follow Johnson's lead and head off site. It's easy to see why the Slow Food philosophy had its genesis in Piedmont (besides the fact Petrini lives here in the city of Bra, just south of Turin). This region is the rice bowl of Italy and has more DOP (trademarked origin) products than any other region except Sicily. Its basket of unique produce includes Tallegio and Castelmagno cheeses, hazelnuts, frogs, low-fat Biella lamb and dozens of wines. Turin, the capital, is itself the birthplace of grissini, vermouth, the aperitivo and Gianduiotto chocolate.
The first steps on my journey to discover the true roots of slow food take me across the Po River and up Superga hill to L'Osteria del Paluch, an old farmhouse that has served simple meals to travellers since 1902. These days it's a more sophisticated affair - its beautiful gardens are a drawcard for the city's elite - but Marina Ramasso's food remains true to its Piedmontese origins.
On a chilly, foggy October night I dine on her fondue-like bagna cauda, literally a "warm bath" of garlic slow-cooked in milk flavoured with anchovies, oil and a little cream. It is served with vegetables - potato, beetroot, onion, capsicum and the essential winter ingredient of cardoons - and is the ultimate cold-comfort dish. Ramasso's banquet continues with mal fatto ("badly made") gnocchi of pumpkin, walnuts and Castelmagno cheese, a fabulous slow-cooked veal stew, and fagottini di pesca, pastry-wrapped peaches with amaretto biscuits and chocolate.
Ramasso tries to use only local produce sourced from nearby farms and to cook only authentic recipes. To this end she has been scouring homes and bookshops for cookbooks containing Piedmont's culinary heritage. She shows me four 19th-century manuscripts she unearthed containing hand-written recipes and a book, Gastronomia, that was written by Vailardi, cook to Charles Albert, king of Piedmont-Sardinia, in the mid-1800s.
Passionate cooks are typical in Piedmont and it's hard not to credit their passion to the diversity and quality of the local produce. At the top of their ingredients list is the tuber magnatum pico, the famed white truffle of Alba. When I visit the city, about an hour north of Turin, it's paying tribute to its prized fungus at its annual truffle festival, held here since the 1930s. Inside the Pala Tartufo (a much more compact and altogether better-smelling conference hall than the Lingotto) visitors admire displays of tiny, pale, honeycomb-coloured nuggets and marvel at their price tags - the market rate this year was EUR400 ($794) per 100 grams.
New supplies of the precious fungus arrive each day to be authenticated by on-site judges and then offered for sale in glass-topped cases. The cheapest white truffle specimens are mere dots for about EUR15 but there's an endless range of pastas and polentas, honeys, creams and cheeses for sale, all of them infused with that irresistible aroma.
There is no mistaking truffle season in Alba. The six-week festival runs from October to mid-November but white truffles are available for slightly longer - the last three months of the year, generally. Their presence is marked by a carnival atmosphere; pedestrians wander along the main thoroughfare of Vittorio Emmanuele inhaling the heady scent from street stalls and restaurants doing a roaring trade in fungus-accented fare.
In the surrounding countryside of the Langhe, food lovers embark on weekend pilgrimages to savour leisurely lunches at classic trattorias dotted among the Nebbiolo vines. I follow their lead and spend a lazy Sunday at Osteria dell'Unione in the hamlet of Treiso.
The "union" in the restaurant's name refers to the alliance of Slow Food producers whose products are served here. I eat carne cruda all'albese, a plate of carpaccioed Alba beef doused in aromatic olive oil, then ribbon-like tajarin pasta with a moreish veal and pork ragu, then a maize flour cake flavoured with cinnamon and hazelnuts and dripping with honey. The food is simple and irresistible and I'm not the only one who thinks so; the place is packed with grateful gourmands.
A few minutes' drive away, in the village of Barbaresco, local winemakers have gathered in a hall and church to host tastings of distinctive wines made from the famed Nebbiolo grapes.
Pier, a winemaker from the village of Nieve, insists I try his 2004 vintage because it's "more typical" than the 2005. It tastes of liquorice and blackberry and when I tell Pier I like it, he looks as if this is the best news he's heard all day.
"In Piedmont, you may have noticed, for us food and wine is a mission," he beams.
If I have any doubts about this they're banished by a memorable stay at an agriturismo a few kilometres outside Alba. Casa Scaparone is a rambling stone farmhouse with five guest-rooms, a barn-full of animals, a vineyard, vegie crops and persimmon trees laden with fat ripe fruit. The original building dates back 500 years to when a small band of Alba residents (the Scaparoni) fled to this hill to escape the plague. It has been renovated in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and most recently in 2000. That's when owners Battista and Alessandra Cornaglia returned home after 10 years working in Cote d'Ivoire and set about creating their own Piedmontese paradise.
"The idea was to have a self-sufficient farm," explains Battista over a glass of San Pagn, his wittily named sparkling rose. "We wanted to get away from globalisation."
Eight years later the couple produce almost everything they need on their nine-hectare property. Battista is something of a Renaissance man. After quitting the corporate world he taught himself the arts of butchery, winemaking, biodynamic farming and animal husbandry. He is also a talented musician and leader of a six-piece band that revives Piedmontese songs. Alessandra raises their three children and runs the busy kitchen that feeds hundreds of visitors at weekends. She is also a charming host.
As we sit at a table under a vaulted brick ceiling for Friday dinner, nibbling on mushrooms, polenta and crepes containing the farm's goat's cheese, Alessandra says she finds it difficult to explain the philosophy that guides their lives.
"I don't think philosophy is words," she says. "I would prefer that you understand it through my work. You are here and everything you touch, everything you feel, is real."
Both their grandparents ran simple osterias but their parents "cancelled their roots" by leaving the land and getting jobs in the city. Battista and Alessandra say they are trying to re-establish those roots because "if you forget the past then the future is unknown".
By 10pm the farmhouse is filled with diners and a procession of plates - a flan of white cardoons with fondue, a superb oven-baked pasta, gnocchi with fresh cream and hazelnuts and a tripe dish typical of the season - appears on our table. Battista is at the piano singing. Alessandra joins him in the chorus. Guests gather under the arched entrance and sing along, swaying to the rhythms of their ancestral songs.
This, rather than the madhouse of the Salone del Gusto, is the essence of the Slow Food movement - preserving traditions, renouncing the rat race, pursuing pleasure.
Kendall Hill travelled courtesy of the Italian Government Tourist Board.
Etihad flies from Sydney to Milan for $1400 with an aircraft change in Abu Dhabi (non-stop flights from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi start in March). The cheapest fare is with Air China for $1155, with an aircraft change in Beijing or Shanghai (overnight accommodation at airline's expense if flights don't connect). Japan Airlines has a fare for $1430 with a compulsory overnight stop in Tokyo (at airline's expense). Thai Airways has a fare for $1551, with an aircraft change in Bangkok. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) Turin is a two-hour drive from Milan Malpensa airport. Alba is a further one-hour drive from Turin.
Eating and staying there
* L'Osteria del Paluch, Via Superga 44, Baldissero Torinese. Phone +39 0119 408750 or see ristorantepaluch.it.
* Osteria dell'Unione, Via Alba 1, 12050 Treiso. Phone +39 0173 638303.
* Casa Scaparone, Scaparone 8, 12051 Alba. Doubles from EUR85 ($172). Phone +39 0173 33946 or see casascaparone.it.
* The next Salone del Gusto will be held in 2010; see slowfood.com.
* The Alba White Truffle Festival is held every year in October-November; see fieradeltartufo.org.