Slow Food, originally an anti-fast food organisation launched by Italian Carlo Petrini, is now gaining pace in the UK through the Chef Alliance - a new initiative backed by a raft of big-name chefs including Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux Jnr and Richard Corrigan. Hilary Armstrong reports
Slow by name, slow by nature, you might be excused for thinking, as international food movement Slow Food has been in no rush to make itself known in the UK.
Founded in Italy in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, a twinkly-eyed former journalist almost invariably described as "charismatic", its original impetus was anti-fast food in the wake of the opening of Italy's first branch of McDonald's by the Eternal City's hallowed Spanish Steps. That initial campaign was unsuccessful, but Slow Food has since gone on to become a globally recognised organisation with more than 100,000 members in 150 countries worldwide.
Huge in Italy where its flagship event, the Salone del Gusto, a biennial international food fair in Turin, attracts 200,000 visitors over five days, it's also getting that way in the USA where the likes of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have helped it make headlines.
But here in the UK, where its call for "good, clean and fair for all" surely chimed well with our preoccupation with local, seasonal and sustainable food, it seemed to be achieving brand recognition about as quickly as the snail on its logo.
There are signs that all that is about to change, however, as following the winding-up of its old Ludlow operation in 2009 and the arrival of an energetic new CEO, in the form of Italian-American Catherine Gazzoli (pictured), membership is up to 30,000 and a raft of big-name chefs, including Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux Jnr and Richard Corrigan, have signed up to a brand new initiative, the Slow Food UK Chef Alliance.
Sponsored by Orkney's Highland Park Whisky, from the world's most northerly distillery, the Chef Alliance is Slow Food UK's first concerted collaboration with chefs. It has already launched in London, Yorkshire and Scotland, with further regional launches still to come. Gazzoli doesn't take credit for the idea, instead giving that to people like Blanc, Corrigan and Mark Hix who were among the first to extend a hand of friendship to her.
"It was very challenging terrain to be on, because Slow Food hadn't been doing very well in the UK," she recalls. The chefs, she adds, were frustrated Slow Food fans who were champing at the bit to find "something to put their teeth into".
Gazzoli, now based at Slow Food UK's new Covent Garden HQ, had seen something similar in action in Italy (where she previously worked for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome) and thought it could benefit Slow Food, the chefs and food tourism in general, if launched over here. The alliance's stated purpose is "to engage Britain's chefs in actively supporting the aims of Slow Food UK through championing small scale producers, good quality local and sustainably produced food". This ties in with the Ark of Taste (see panel, right), a catalogue of "forgotten foods" that Slow Food is working to preserve.
Getting the chefs on side is a smart move and for Slow Food UK, it can only mean greater visibility. "What's really exciting to me, being American, is that chefs have a lot more leverage. They can talk about difficult subjects and get it on television here," says Gazzoli.
She makes no secret of her high hopes for the alliance and is eager to get all her signees working on the other "interesting and innovative food education projects" she's launched, including Slow Food Baby and Slow Food on Campus.
"The chefs aren't all in it for 'what's in it for me?' They have a philanthropic side and they care about the issues of the day. That's what membership of the alliance says. It's not just a marketing tool," she says
So far, she's had Corrigan, a vocal supporter and Chef Alliance ambassador, donate money; Francesco Mazzei, another ambassador, spend a day away from his kitchen at L'Anima to teach students; and had Massimo Riccioli give over a whole day at Massimo restaurant & oyster bar at the Corinthia London for a Slow Food family fundraiser.
For the most part, Gazzoli's wider hopes for the UK movement aside, the chefs who are coming on board are doing so because they want to show support for Slow Food producers. There's inherent value in a multi-Michelin-starred chef putting their name to it, particularly, as Michel Roux Jnr points out, because there was a feeling that Slow Food was "a fad, a gimmick, a bit wacky". He wants to say "it's a proper movement - a serious matter".
For Rowley Leigh at Le Café Anglais, chefs have a responsibility to support producers. "For a lot of small producers dotted around the country doing some very good things, to be recognised by a group of chefs is heartening and it should be of some assistance to them commercially," he explains
Corrigan, whose restaurant in Mayfair played host to the London launch of the Chef Alliance, is not only an ambassador but the spokesperson for it. As someone who is already known for his support for small farmers, producers, artisans and alternatives to the industrial food system, can he explain why wanted to formalise his support for Slow Food? "It's somewhere we were naturally going, but it's being part of something bigger," he says.
"Without getting too political, we should be supporting our own. When my customers dine in my restaurant, the monies that historically went to France and Italy and other places now goes back to these small producers in Britain and Ireland. If we support the producers and put them on our menus, this list of wonderful ingredients will grow and grow. It's not just a PR statement."
For the chefs using Slow Food produce day to day, it can't just be for PR and it can't just be for the warm, fuzzy feeling it engenders: it has to make business sense, too. So, we have to ask, isn't it just a wee bit expensive in the current climate?
No-nonsense practical advice comes from some of the alliance's Yorkshire members. John Pratt, from the Traddock hotel in Settle, reckons that "with a little forethought and planning", he can actually cut prices from the norm. This he does by keeping close contact with all suppliers, not buying through a middleman. Yorkshire rhubarb, for example, came in early this year so Pratt got it straight on the menu when his supplier called to say "We've got plenty, it's ready, and it's a good price". Similarly, he's already met with his salad grower to discuss planting for the year ahead. "This way we can negotiate a good price from the off," he says.
Ark of Taste products can be a point of difference but they have to be able to get from farm gate to your kitchen. Social enterprise the Create Foundation's Richard Walton-Allen says: "I'm interested in how some of these niche products get to market. Chefs like me can help the process by saying 'if we try to buy this more regularly...', 'if we commit to using it on our menus for a year...'"
Sometimes, the barrier is as simple as a seller not being able to take a credit card or BACS payment. Victor Buchanan, of the White Swan at Pickering, adds: "It's happened to us before that somebody started selling great local produce but the business wasn't sustainable because it takes more than just us to keep them going." For him, price isn't an issue. "There's no price barrier to quality whatsoever in our marketplace."
Not all "forgotten foods" suit all businesses. At Create (where mains rarely top £12.50), Walton-Allen accepts he can't use all Ark of Taste products as they are. Morecambe Bay shrimps, for example, make regular appearances but not necessarily on their own. In a fish pie, he's able to "stretch" the product so it's not just a "prime, really expensive product". Formby asparagus and Yorkshire rhubarb work perfectly at the peak of their season, and very affordable Grimsby smoked haddock is a particular favourite of the chef. "The fact that not all the chefs choose to use it is not down to the cost but their preferences," he says.
Some of the produce just needs a slightly more active "sell" which is why David Gillott, a new alliance member whose Four Gables Fine Dining group does everything from farming to wedding catering, finds Slow Food works best at their "fine-dining dinner parties" where chefs introduce each course, and why Mazzei will himself explain to the guests why his Jersey Royals baked in a wood-fired oven with Grano Padano Riserva and onions aren't "just potatoes".
Good communication also gets round the issue of limited availability of some produce (an issue when L'Anima's hitting 300 to 400 covers a day). "There's an opportunity there to communicate on the website when it will be back and get the customer back in," Mazzei explains.
Interestingly, though Slow Food is encouraging chefs to include the Ark of Taste symbol on menus, few plan to do so. The fashion for information-heavy menus seems to be over, and most chefs cite social networks, personal blogs and websites as the place for detailed supplier talk.
All agree there are some great stories to be told and it's those stories that will inspire customers and other chefs. Back to Corrigan, who understands better than most the value of such stories. "We don't need to be standing on any boxes. When you make bread from beremeal coming out of Golspie Mill, let that speak for itself. All great chefs, wherever they're working, from schools to hospitals, if there's one thing that opens their eyes and makes them think 'I can use that', isn't that wonderful?
"We're not out to change the world, but we'd like to change part of it."
the ark of taste
Consider the Ark of Taste a gastronomic SOS signal, a call to save "endangered foods and breeds which have a place in our food heritage" - not just because they're delicious but because, without them, we lose biodiversity.
There are currently 45 products in the UK Ark of Taste, not a certification scheme but part of a network forming the International Ark of Taste which now numbers some 700 products from 30 countries. Some are wonderful local foods that rarely cross county lines - Jersey ormers and Windermere char, for example; while others are "affordable luxuries" - think traditionally produced Jersey Royals, Formby asparagus and artisan Somerset Cheddar.
What they all have in common is that they are (or were) threatened by current food production and distribution systems, and without them our food culture and wildlife would be the poorer.
Cultivated hazelnuts, sold fresh (wet) in September. In 1913, there were 3,000ha of cobnut "plats" (orchards) in Kent; now there are only about 100ha. Their decline is linked to the decline of hop growing in the same area.
Who uses them? Massimo Riccioli likes the smoother texture that antioxidant-rich cobnut oil gives pâtisserie and ice-cream. He uses it in his hazelnut ice-cream, chocolate mousse or walnut and pear tart.
British Red Grouse
This native game bird, appreciated for its rich gamey meat, has only survived in areas where there are expensive-to-maintain keepered heathered moorlands (mainly in Scotland and the north of England). Season: August to December.
Who uses it? Francesco Mazzei cooks them very simply in his wood-fired oven at L'Anima.
Grimsby Smoked Haddock
Hand-filleting, a slow smoking process, the design of the old smokehouses and generations of tradition are key to producing good, firm-textured, creamy coloured smoked haddock.
Who uses it? Richard Walton-Allen calls it a "diamond in British food that's accessible to anyone".
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb
A delicately flavoured, vividly coloured rhubarb grown in darkened forcing sheds and harvested by candlelight in Yorkshire's "Rhubarb Triangle". Only 12 growers remain in the area after many of the fields were sold for building houses. Season: January to March.
Who uses it? John Pratt at the Traddock currently serves rhubarb in his Yorkshire rhubarb panna cotta with Yorkshire parkin and a rhubarb and ginger coulis
Three Counties Perry
A cider-like alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of bitter perry pears, usually in the Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire area. Very few producers make a living from it.
Who uses it? Richard Corrigan uses perry vinegar in the red cabbage marmalade he serves with game. "When I first tried it, I thought 'my God, why isn't this on every supermarket shelf in Britain? Why the love affair with balsamic?'"
Grimsby smoked haddock with boxty cake, soft-boiled egg
4 x 150g fillets of Grimsby smoked haddock
4 medium-sized eggs
4 cabbage leaves, chopped
1 leek, sliced and boiled
2 spring onions, chopped
For the boxty cake
1 tsp salt
100g mashed potato
100g raw grated potato (squeezed of excess water)
For the boxty cake, combine the flour, soda, salt, eggs and buttermilk, and fold in the grated and mashed potato. In a small frying pan, melt some butter and add a large ladle (a quarter) of boxty mix. When brown underneath, place in oven. Use two pans. Repeat this for four cakes.
Cook the cabbage and leeks in boiling salted water. Keep warm. Soft boil the eggs for five minutes.
Poach the haddock in hot milk for four to five minutes until just cooked. Warm the cabbage and leek in a little butter. Peel the eggs.
Place a boxty cake on each plate, toss some cabbage, leeks and spring onions on top. Place a piece of haddock on top and serve with the soft-boiled egg.
Richard Corrigan, Corrigan's Mayfair
chef alliance membership
The Slow Food UK Chef Alliance in partnership with Highland Park Whisky - how to join
To keep company with Richard Corrigan, Marcus Wareing, Raymond Blanc and co in the Slow Food UK Chef Alliance is by invitation only. To be in line for an invite, it's taken as read that you already practise what Slow Food preaches, for example, you offer local, good quality, sustainable food.
It's free to join, but to do so, you'll have to join Slow Food UK (you can do that at www.slowfood.org.uk/join-us) paying £25 a year in membership fees.
Slow Food UK includes information about the participating chef and restaurant on its Chef Alliance web pages, and they are, in turn, expected to return the favour on their own website.
Alliance chefs are encouraged (never obliged) to use Ark of Taste products and to produce an Ark of Taste menu twice a year. They can flag up the produce with an Ark of Taste symbol on their menu, if they so wish.