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Fast times for 'slow food'
In northern Italy, a movement comes of age.
October 27, 2004: 3:33 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

TURIN, Italy (CNN/Money) - It's autumn in Italy, when even soccer fans become preoccupied with something more important: food.

This time of year, virtually every town and city hosts a culinary celebration. That means a chocolate fair in Perugia, wine events throughout Tuscany, and a month-long homage to truffles in Alba, home to those fancy fungi.

But no place can match Turin, the northern city that hosts the Salone del Gusto, a five-day festival that ends Monday. With an estimated 150,000 people attending, it's an edible extravaganza so big, they only hold it biannually.

The show is sponsored by Slow Food International, the food publishing and activist group. Its purpose is to draw attention to sustainable agriculture, traditional preparations, and the health and happiness that come from eating food from the farm instead of the factory.

It's also great fun.

Food lovers wander about eating fine meats, cheese, bread and wine. There are smiles all around, punctuated by expressions of delight -- as in, "Oh, that's goooood!"

As you'd expect, Italian foods abound. But small-scale producers from other countries have flocked here, too. Thousands of farms and companies are represented, either as individual presenters or through the many trade associations handing out nibbles.

There's reindeer meat from Sweden. Sea salt harvested on Welsh beaches. Ham made from Austrian wild boars. There's even a group from Tibet. Yak milk cheese, anyone?

From Fiat to food

The Salone is held in a former Fiat factory in south Turin, dramatically converted to an exhibition center.

The cavernous space is divided into "streets," according to the type of food. So there is a Via dei Formaggi (cheese), a Via dei Grani (grains and pastas), and so forth.

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The biggest single category is wine, with more than 2,500 individual varieties available by the glass.

In one interesting demonstration, Japanese chefs paired sushi with wines from Friuli, the northern Italian province known for its crisp whites. It was as if they were made for each other, despite coming from opposite sides of the world.

Beer is also well represented, reflecting its rising popularity among locals. Three times, Italians stopped me to ask where the beer hall was. I suppose I looked friendly, or perhaps drunk.

A contingent of U.S. microbrewers is here, thanks to a grant from the Department of Agriculture to promote their wares internationally. I watched them teach a German from Nuremberg about an ale from Delaware, Dogfish Head.

"Other small producers were happy to meet us, because we've been successful in marketing our products based on taste," said Ray Daniels of the Boulder, Colo.-based Association of Brewers. "Americans used to think beer was beer. Then, small brewers exposed consumers to a variety of styles, and they started to differentiate between flavors."

That's what other companies at the show hope to do: teach people to eat really good food just because it tastes really good.

Cured meats lane

On the Via dei Salumi -- "Cured Meats Lane," in the organizers' translation -- I sampled prosciutto di Carpegna. It's made in the Marches region, on the eastern side of Italy.

To most Americans, "prosciutto" is that great ham from Parma, in Emilia-Romagna. Actually, they make prosciutti all over Italy, but not much of it gets exported.

The Carpegna is more lushly textured than the Parma variety, with a richer, more intense pork flavor. Alas, to try it you may have to visit the Adriatic coast. (Or at least a really good specialty food store.)

Just down the road at the fair, I came upon the pinnacle of pig: the Lardo di Colonnata, a beloved delicacy that looks like bacon without the meat. In a way, it epitomizes the Slow Food movement.

Lardo di Colonnata is dense and creamy, and tastes like bacon-flavored butter. Taste it once and your tongue will wag happily for hours. But it's not exactly the kind of product Oscar Mayer will ever market.

Some time back, regulators in Brussels attacked Lardo's thousand-year-old production process -- which involves salt, pig fat, and slow-aging in marble vats -- as being insufficiently modern. So they tried to ban the stuff.

Slow Food organized Lardo fans to protest loudly across Europe. The EU eventually retreated, and today you can eat Lardo di Colonnata in all its porcine glory.

Or at least I can. In fact, it's time for seconds.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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