Six thousand people rise to their feet and start to applaud enthusiastically. A young woman close to me in the audience starts chanting "Carlin! Carlin! Carlin!" The house lights in the packed indoor arena dim and, after a few handshakes with members of the front row, Carlo Petrini takes to the stage before meekly beckoning for silence so he can begin his speech.
Rock star? Self-help guru? Superchurch preacher? Carlo Petrini – or Carlin, as he is affectionately known by friends and fans - is none of these, yet in his native Italy he commands a following few others can match. Once every two years, foodies and farmers flock to Turin from all over the world to attend an event that was launched by Petrini, a one-time journalist who used to write restaurant reviews for Italy's communist dailies, back in 1996. Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food movement's biennial jamboree, is now one of the world's leading food fairs attracting more than 180,000 people over its five days. Since 2004 it has been joined by Terra Madre, a conference for a global network of small-scale farmers wedded to the slow food principles that aim to buck the ever-present threats of homogeneity, globalisation and environmental unsustainability.
Just a couple of hours before his big speech at the closing ceremony, I meet Petrini inside the Lingotto exhibition centre on the outskirts of Turin where the twin events are being held. From a balcony we look down at the throng below. On one side of the vast room, farmers from Benin to Bolivia are displaying their wares ranging from shawls and seeds through to dried fruit and herbal drinks. On the other, Italy's best artisanal producers are offering samples of their cheeses, breads, oils and meats to the crowds. The pessimist in me leads me to ask him what, given the world's current economic woes, the future is likely to hold for all these proud producers, many of whom are already feeling bludgeoned by both the downturn and the heavy hand of globalisation.
"First, I was worried because there are going to be great problems for the poor people of the world," he says. "But I have a simultaneous feeling, too. It could lead to a freedom from a false, dog-eat-dog economy. We have to return to a real economy. That's the opportunity. If agriculture returns to a local economy this could be enormously helpful."
Petrini, who began his slow food crusade in the mid-1980s after rallying (unsuccessfully) against the opening of a McDonald's in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, seems noticeably buoyed by the thought of, as he calls its, a "revolution" not just among the producers, but among the "co-producers" (his term for "consumers", a word he detests). Indeed, his far-left heritage is never far from the surface throughout our conversation.
"In this false global economy, the people have always been told they are marginal and irrelevant," he says. "The real pirates were these derivatives. Finally, they are crashing. This is a historic and epic moment. We are now waiting for a new school of economic thought. But these new schools can only emerge, like plants, if you prepare the ground. There has to be a new humanism if this ground is really to be ploughed: a change in values and a change in the idea of what money means and what richness is. There hasn't been a true sense of reciprocity for a long time. It has been a life of egoism. You were seen as good because you were rich and had a good car. A new humanism has to push that out of the way. Rather than constant consumption it might be better to recycle and to give."
Petrini speaks in a fluent, sometimes heady blend of manifesto and metaphor, but how does he intend, I ask, to realise these hopes? Sales of organic food, for example, are now starting to decline as purse strings tighten. Won't slow food producers suffer the same fate? In these new times, how does he answer the critics who say that slow food is little more than a self-congratulatory, elitist luxury for a wealthy few?
"In the past 50 years food has lost its value," he says. "This is what has to change. Back then it was sacred and respected. Waste is the fundamental characteristic of the consumer society. Everyday in Italy 4,000 tonnes of food are thrown away and I bet it is the same in England, too [I look this up afterwards: in England and Wales, just under 10,000 tonnes of food is discarded each day].
"At the same time, quality food has become a status symbol. The perception is that organic is for rich people and is a niche product. But I hate niches. That's where you put corpses. Poor people always end up with poorer quality food and yet there's this 4,000 tonnes of food being thrown out everyday.
"But we are told to keep consuming. And who is the central character in all this? The Wizard of Oz? No, it's all of us. We go to our fridges and open them. But fridges are like tombs – places where food goes to die. And when it dies it goes straight into the bin. Our freezers are the same. Yet we feel we must have full freezers. All of us are joining in with this perverse culture. This historic moment has given us time for this kind of thinking. As long as quality is seen as a luxury, everything is a disaster. Quality should be a right for everyone. We should be producing less so there is less waste."
Yes, he says pre-emptively, this means eating less meat and fish, two food types that currently have a disproportionately large environmental impact. "We can't go on with the same levels of meat consumption. I also believe in eating locally. But products that are preserved and conserved have always travelled around the world and this should continue. Even here in Italy I would like a little bit of Stilton every now and again. Not every day or week, but maybe once a month. That's what I call good sense. It's the same with meat. I've now made myself eat less meat. I eat meat twice a week and fish once a week. I've always relied on the pleasure concept, not a health formula, when eating. But now I think more about moderation. I regulate myself. We Italians are very lucky as we have pasta, a very important carbohydrate, and I eat it everyday."
One of the other main hurdles we face, he stresses, is the fetishisation of food. "We're all full of gastronomy, recipes etc. Turn on a TV anywhere in the world and you will see an idiot with a spoon. And every newspaper and magazine has recipes and a photo of the dish taken from above like a cadaver. It's a form of onanism and is masturbatory. We must normalise food rather than put it on a pedestal far out of reach. Petrini then paints a blissful vision of farmers' markets in every neighbourhood and people tending community vegetable allotments, but he says it is only by inspiring children that such change can be achieved. "We try through Slow Food to inspire school gardens everywhere around the world. Children find this experience a thousand times more interesting than reading about it in a book. They learn about the rhythms of the earth. Children should meet people who produce food. That's how you learn to be a co-producer. My own first food memories are the meals my mother and grandmother would prepare just after the war. This was a generation that saved and saved and wouldn't throw away a thing. They'd make fillings for pasta the next day with leftover vegetables. But now people just go out when they're hungry and buy a big hunk of meat."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017