The pace at which a snail goes through life holds a valuable health lesson. Its unhurried existence and sensitivity to the environment have become the symbol of a crusade against the pervasive fast-food culture. Slow Food, which is represented by a red snail, is a movement that began in Italy 24 years ago. It has since expanded to 150 countries, where advocates push to preserve culinary traditions and promote awareness about local, clean and fair produce that is full of flavour.
A similar urgency to reverse the standardisation of taste and reconnect Dubai residents with where food comes from, made Laura Allais-Maré, a trained chef and restaurant owner from Italy, bring the snail fight to the UAE this year.
"It is not just about food, but about a whole lifestyle around it," says Allais-Maré, 51, who set up Slow Food Dubai a few months back, making it the first convivium (chapter) in the region.
"People ask us, what is so slow food about Dubai? That is just why this place needs this movement. Everyone who comes to the UAE is caught up in this race and you think this is normal and good. It isn't bad but it is not sustainable in the long run.
"Setting up a convivium will allow members to empower people to think about sustainable ways of living."
Slow Food was the practical response of the Italian foodie Carlo Petrini to the McDonaldisation of his homeplace in 1986. When the American food chain penetrated the Italian market, instead of hurling slogans, Petrini, who savoured gourmet preparations, decided to counter the erosion of the gastronomic culture by spearheading an educative movement. By 1989, the author, founder of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy and Time magazine's Hero of the Year in 2004, Petrini had launched the Slow Food Manifesto in Paris.
"Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of 'the fast life' with tranquil material pleasure," it read. "Appropriately, we will start in the kitchen, with Slow Food. To escape the tediousness of 'fast food', let us rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines."
From modest beginnings in Bra (a town and commune in the province of Cuneo in northwestern Italy), Slow Food International has increased in volunteer strength with more than 100,000 members representing over 1,300 chapters across the globe.
Their efforts have become imperative after a recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that highlighted a rapid decline of genetic diversity among livestock and crops. About 75 per cent of genetic diversity has been lost in the last century, with local varieties of crops being replaced by genetically uniform, high-yielding plants. Out of the 30,000 edible plant species, only 30 crops account for 95 per cent of the human food energy. Sixty per cent of it is derived from rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum. UN biodiversity chiefs have also warned that 22 per cent of domestic breeds are on the path to extinction.
What this implies, explains 27-year-old Joanna Jarosz from Poland, the co-founder of the Dubai chapter, is that people need to understand their connection with their plate and the planet. "It is simple. We want people to question what they are eating. We promote good, clean and fair food," she says.
"Good" represents the cultural journey on the plate, while "clean" suggests the produce is grown in an eco-friendly manner, adopting organic methods and avoiding genetically modified crops. At the same time, biodiversity has to be supported and producers must be remunerated fairly.
Slow Food Dubai members get connected to the international movement and can share ideas with other people to create the best initiatives for their community. The Dubai chapter aims to host information gatherings, tastings, local farm and producer visits. Members organise meetings and develop community projects with organisations and schools. The first meeting in March was held at the Emirati restaurant Al Fanar, where nine people signed up. Now the club has 39 members who work to promote ethical, organic and sustainable choices.
Jarosz, who writes a Polish food blog (www.asiathinksthings.com) and works as an event planner, says there is no excuse to lead an unhealthy lifestyle and all it takes are small steps to change. "What is also important for us is cooking at home with your family. Even hummus, make it at home so you know what the ingredients are," she says.
The Dubai-based cookbook writer and chef Suzanne Husseini tells people off when they complain about being strapped for time. "My answer to all those hurried people is that just like you make time for things that really matter to you, it's even more important to make the time to cook and nourish your body," says the author of When Suzanne Cooks. "Cooking doesn't mean you have to spend hours in the kitchen. Good, wholesome meals can be made in minutes when you have taken the time to prepare in advance and then it's just a matter of putting it together."
Equally important to the process is planning what to buy and where to source foodstuff from, according to Sally Prosser, another food writer in Dubai who writes the blog www.mycustardpie.com. "It is difficult in the UAE as most of our food has to be imported, the climate and geography of the country means that is not viable to produce very much locally. I do think it is depressing however, to see large food exhibitions here focus primarily on highly processed foods from other countries."
Prosser points out that alternatives, such as items at Baker and Spice in Dubai, the seasonal farmers market and organic farms producing non-homogenised organic milk from traditional breeds of cow, are becoming popular.
"Meat choices have got better, too. I buy less meat and choose carefully when I do. The Farmhouse in Souq Al Manzil sells local organic chicken and quail."
"The environmental and health impacts of intensively reared animals and GM crops is devastating our world and lives," she stresses.
Sherry Bohlen, the vice president of the American Women's Association in Dubai, has also joined the movement and has one solution to overcoming the challenges of location and cost of organic produce. "Grow your own food," she says. "You can grow a variety of herbs and vegetables. With a hydroponic window farm system, which requires no soil, anyone with even a small window can produce their own food." The group has started a balcony gardening club to teach members how to grow greens at home.
Allais-Maré says they aim to restore the sanctity of eating. "It isn't about having a cigarette or answering your phone while eating. Cooking and eating should take centre stage. Why do we think that the west has the answer to everything? Every region, valley and hill is totally sustainable. We need to look and learn from nature and how we can take things from nature to feed ourselves better."
Husseini, who grew up with this ethos, hopes the movement will alter perceptions of residents in the UAE. "I would like to see this movement grow to create the much needed awareness of preservation of the Emirates' food culture and spread the word of taking back control of our food choices."
Top food documentaries
Food Beware (2009)
The movie, Nos Enfants Nous Accuseront, originally in French, and also titled Our Children Will Accuse Us, is set in a school in southern France that decided to introduce organic produce in the cafeteria. The documentary uses this case study as a base to talk about the depletion of food nutrition by the excessive use of pesticides and its effect on health and safety.
Food Fight (2008)
The documentary explores the popular counter-culture during the 1960s and 1970s that affected consumption choices and led to a local-sustainable-organic food movement in California. It also provides an insight about the American agriculture policy and food culture developed in the 20th century.
Food, Inc. (2008)
Authors, farmers, company executives and campaigners give their feedback on the unnaturally sped up farming and agricultural practices that have led to the loss of nutritional value in produce and affected the environment.
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (2006)
The documentary revolves around urban agriculture, energy dependence and sustainability during the peak oil period and Cuba’s limited access to fossil fuels for sustenance.
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
This book tackles the everyday dilemma of “what to have for dinner?”, while exploring the political, economic, psychological and moral implications of our choices.
Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket by Bran Halweil
The author makes a case for a locally sourced diet.
Jamie’s Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals by Jamie Oliver
This British celebrity chef and restaurateur’s name is synonymous with unprocessed homemade eats. Oliver, who also leads the health school dinners campaign, wanted to encourage people to learn how to cook by laying out simple steps to start them off.
Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food edited by Carlo Petrini
This is an anthology of more than a hundred articles written by top food writers from around the world. Readers will get a glimpse of the food habits and movements in different countries and understand the usage of food references in popular culture.
Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel
The author highlights the drawbacks of a corporate food monopoly and a need to halt the exploitation of farmers and consumers as a way to achieve global sustenance.
This Life by Joan Dye Gussow
The author, a suburban homesteader, makes a case for locally grown, in-season food and its positive effect on the economy, ecology and health by introducing personal anecdotes from her organic journey.
Head to The National's Bites blog for excellent recipes for fruit salad and lemony garlic chicken with rice and yogurt sauce, by Suzanne Husseini
For a video of the recipes, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia. Head to The National's Bites blog for excellent recipes for fruit salad and lemon garlic chicken with rice and yogurt sauce, by Suzanne Husseini
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