At Terra Madre
We’re nearing the end of Terra Madre, the six-day biannual Slow Food International gathering in Turin, Italy. I’m pouring samples of maple syrup at the Vermont Farmstand. Across from me at the Slow Food USA booth, a huge USA map is filled with the names of culturally important, rare foods scribbled in Sharpie next to the farm that grows each one. The map represents the Slow Food USA delegation’s collective work to save and celebrate our national food identities and multicultural heritage. Witnessing some 250 fellow ambassadors mark their initiatives is like watching the food movement lay roots in fast-forward.
As a USA delegate and representative of Vermont and Shelburne Farms, I’m excited by the range of food and agricultural traditions represented coast to coast, from the Chili Pepper Nation in the American Southwest to the Bison Nation in the Midwest to the Maple Syrup Nation in the Northeast. USA delegates are seed savers, women veteran farmers, youth urban gardeners, grass-based ranchers, salumerians, salt harvesters, ethnobotanists, restaurant chefs and farm-to-school policy analysts. We are Hawaiian, Navajo, Mohawk, Sami, African-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American and more.
Concerned with the issues threatening our food cultures—hunger, climate change, colony collapse disorder, among others—food communities are convening to raise awareness, take action and celebrate. To carry this out, USA delegates are hosting panel discussions (e.g., the impact of the African diaspora on African-American cuisine), mixology workshops (e.g., a Slow Food American Speakeasy that reflects Slow Food values and regional culture), lectures (e.g., on Pa’akai, or traditional Hawaiian salt farming), exhibition booths (e.g., on the struggles and successes of indigenous and migrant farmers and farmworkers in rural USA) and pop-up dinners (e.g., the Louisiana Pop-up Gumbofest).
I’m here to help advance Shelburne Farms’ mission, to educate for a sustainable future by talking about how farms may be used as classrooms and support positive change in the lives of young people; inviting people to our campus; and building our international network of teachers, farmers and school food service. I’m also helping represent our agrarian-centric state of Vermont and invite the Slow Food world community to visit for a taste of the land.
As Americans we are, of course, residents of a Fast Food Nation, where over one-third of U.S. adults are obese and over one-third of restaurants are fast-food establishments. But Terra Madre’s USA delegation reminds me that we have much to be proud of. Though diverse, we are united by our vision to create a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for us, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.
The same might be said for all 3,000 delegates representing 130 countries at Terra Madre, the international gathering of food communities that is a part of Salone del Gusto (“Hall of Taste”), the world’s largest food and wine festival, organized by Slow Food International. In honor of the United Nations’ declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, this year’s Terra Madre is focused on biodiversity protection and family farming. Housed in Turin’s Oval Lingotto, built for the 2006 Winter Olympics speed skating events, and an adjacent empty factory, Terra Madre is often called the “Olympics of Food.” The analogy is apt. In the Oval Lingotto, the Slow Food USA booth is sandwiched between the British pub, Slow Food Canada and back-to-back with Bornholm (a Danish island in the Baltic). This small section of the pavilion samples the variety and vitality at Terra Madre.
Earlier today in the Oval Lingotto, I “traveled” to Turkey to hear about the Istanbul vegetable growers united to occupy and save ancient food gardens; to Uganda to learn about its food education work in school gardens; to Korea to learn Buddhist vegetarian temple cooking; to India to taste some of the 200 edible crops used by indigenous communities in its North East, one of the most agrobiodiverse and culturally diverse hot spots in the world.
I “boarded” the 800-square-meter Ark of Taste, a display of sustainably raised, culturally important foods from around the world that are in danger of becoming extinct or forgotten. In its online catalog, Slow Food International has documented more than 2,000 Ark of Taste products, from Ogiek Honey of the Mau Forests of Kenya to Roy’s Calais flint corn of the western Abenaki people in Vermont. At Terra Madre, attendees are invited to bring and nominate their products as Ark passengers. There I proudly displayed Shelburne Farms farmstead clothbound cheddar. The first commercial clothbound cheese made in the U.S., Shelburne Farms cheddar is made from raw milk at our certified humane grass-based dairy, cheddared by hand and then sent to ripen at the Cellars of Jasper Hill in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
“Fuori di questo mondo!” This means “out of this world.” This is what I hear back at the Vermont Farmstand, as an Italian family tries maple syrup for the first time, this sample from Butternut Mountain Farm. We’re offering tastes of iconic Vermont foods to honor Green Mountain State growers who uphold food traditions, promote sustainability and drive innovation in agriculture. Vermont is one of just 17 U.S. states and Canadian provinces in the world that produce maple syrup, a tree sap indigenous to North America. Spearheaded by Slow Food Vermont, maple syrup was recently nominated to join the Ark of Taste.
The Vermont Farmstand wouldn’t be complete without cheese. Forty-five cheesemakers in the Green Mountain State make 150 varieties of some of the most distinguished artisan cheeses in the world, part of a renaissance in cheese and cheese traditions over the last few decades. Earlier this year at the 31st annual American Cheese Society competition, 16 Vermont cheesemakers took home 36 ribbons, including the Best in Show award for Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise and third place for Shelburne Farms’ six-month cheddar. More recently at the World Cheese Awards in London, Jasper Hill won “World’s Best Unpasteurized Cheese” for its Bayley Hazen Blue, selected from more than 2,600 cheeses. Unfortunately, due to Italian customs red tape, only cheese carried in our luggage made it to Turin. Lessons learned for Terra Madre 2016.
Paired with Vermont cheese is, of course, Vermont cider. There are reasons Vermont is called the Napa of cider (see, for example, articles in Modern Farmer and Seven Days), and we’re thrilled to have Albert and Eleanor Legar of Eden Ice Cider demonstrate why. Eden uses 30 varieties of heirloom and traditional apples to make ice cider, a style of cider-making that they say “obtains the purest essence of apples.” (Personally, Eden’s Windfall Orchard revolutionized my relationship with cider.) Hard cider sales have tripled between 2007 and 2012, with Vermont as a major player for local production and creativity.
Beyond sharing tastes from our working landscape, we’re inviting the world to experience it. Vermont has more than 2,000 farms involved in food tourism, from direct sales to bed-and-breakfasts to educational and other on-farm events. Our small state is a key destination for agritourism in the United States, a concept already well established in Italy as agriturismo. At Shelburne Farms alone, we see 150,000 visitors a year from around the world.
The Vermont Farmstand is “a dream come true” for Slow Food Vermont board chair Mara Welton. Sponsored by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, it’s a state initiative that Slow Food Vermont members have been working toward for many years. No other single U.S. state has exhibited at Terra Madre before.
Back at home, friends have asked me how our small state fares in the vast Slow Food landscape. Well, within Slow Food International’s network of chapters, small is celebrated. Through initiatives like Earth Markets, school and community gardens, culinary workshops and dinners, chapters bring together the local community to celebrate and champion the foods and traditions important to their regions.
And Vermont isn’t considered small in impact. “A lot of chapters that represent small communities find inspiration in how much we do,” Mara Welton tells me. In fact, several chapters in other parts of the world, such as Wales, have approached Slow Food Vermont with interest in becoming sister chapters, to share, exchange and support each other’s food traditions. Slow Food Vermont has also developed a unique governing structure that Slow Food USA is about to adopt at the national level.
“The Vermont delegation of people and products at Terra Madre did so much to express with discerning integrity how the imagination and taste of place in Vermont is inspiring other American communities as to how to band together in community and economy,” Slow Food USA executive director Richard McCarthy wrote me after the conference. “We at Slow Food USA are so honored to be associated with the agricultural leaders and entrepreneurs in that little state of cheese, syrup and gumption.”
“Terra Madre is my vitamin for the next two years,” Mara reflects. I concur. Meeting people from around the world who are passionate and do similar work as we do is a form of renewable energy. The people I met at Terra Madre affirmed our commitment to Slow Food as our lifestyle and livelihood. We are protecting—and breathing new life into—our food cultures, as this creates resilient communities, strong identities and people and land who are cared for. While we speak different languages and honor many cultural traditions, taste intimately connects us at Terra Madre and beyond. Vermont is just a small dot on the map, but we aren’t looking to get any bigger. More diversity—of food varieties, cultural traditions and people within the movement—means more ways to celebrate, grow and ensure good, clean, fair food for generations to come.
The next Terra Madre will take place in Turin, Italy, October 2016.
The most memorable food Vera Chang tasted at Terra Madre was bitter honey. Bitter honey is harvested by indigenous people of the Nilgiris forests in India who risk their lives to carry on their tradition of climbing into nests on high cliffs and in tall trees to gather. This doesn’t detract from her love of maple syrup, however.