Continuing on the series of transcripts, up next is the textual form of an old episode with my friend, writer Gino De Blasio. In this podcast, Gino applies his amazing storytelling to describe the origins of the Slow Food Movement, in response to the fast-food orientated mentality that was spreading in Italy in the ‘80s.
Listen to the original episode
Hello and welcome to the audio blog, Paolo here for another episode of Thoughts on the Table with Gino De Blasio. Hi Gino, good morning, good afternoon actually today. How are you?
Not too bad. Good morning to you Paolo. How are you?
Good. Today we connected in the afternoon for Gino and morning for me. Much better, I have to say. Today, a-
Everybody feels more polite.
Yes, it’s more ourselves, I think, I hope. We’ll see. Anyway, yeah, today a different topic, today we’re going to talk about slow food and fast food. Gino, you were saying, you would like to start with some history of the slow food movement.
Yeah, and I think it’s a fantastic area, fantastic moment in food history. You have to go back to, this is me now storytelling, so kids try and keep awake, so you have to go really back to the mid 1980s. It was a time where capitalism, free market economics was rife. You have the Reagan era in the States, the Thatcher era in the UK. It was really at the forefront of thinking. Communism was being broken down from the east slowly and surely.
You have to think of this very wobbling time of what you could regard as really a capitalist machine, a capitalist model. What was behind that really in terms of food was fast food. Now, in 1986, at the height of this capitalism, the golden arches of McDonald’s sent Carlo Petrini into shock.
Italy already had some fast food chains. There was in the north, I don’t know if it was widespread all over Italy or not, a chain called “Burghy”.
A few of us would remember. “Burghy” is Italian pronunciation of “burgy” [from burger]. You were right, fast food was up and coming and a lot of people were interested.
Yeah. There was this fascination because culturally, you just look at the films that were being produced. 1980’s Italy was probably what you would say at its lowest in terms of quality. Foreign films were all the rage. If you look at the 1980s films, they were really highlighted by the Spielberg era, the Back to the Futures. Which it was so popular, I mean it was popular everywhere, but in Italy people were talking about the Delorean because they were so fascinated about the car, all these things.
That’s what it was embodying. That’s what it was trying to capture. I think Italy was trying to capture it through this idea of the food. Basically, Carlo Petrini, he started this movement in 1986 because McDonald’s opened on the Spanish steps.
That was his first McDonald, is that right?
I think that was the first McDonald’s in Italy.
It was in a lot of ways being accepted. This will be the norm, and that was Petrini was against. In fact, he was against this idea that food isn’t being savored, both in the preparation and in the execution and in the tasting. He conjured up this brilliant movement called the slow food movement. Really, the way to think of it is take the recipes from old, from yesteryear, we’ve spoken about it in the previous podcast, La Cucina Povera, those elements, but bring them to the forefront of our imagination again. We spoke last week about the polpette in a sauce. Now, that is slow food. All of these things which are classical home and rustic dishes, that’s what the slow food movement started to bring back to our imaginations. It was moving away from this capitalistic drive, and a lot of people see it as this anti-globalization movement.
In terms of food, it actually is because it’s taking the local ingredients, local chefs, and bringing it altogether. I speak with a smile in my voice because it is a fantastic, fantastic movement, and one which I think can be unique to every nation.
It’s absolutely amazing, and I think if you were to look at, for example, there’s a … Can I say his name? The celebrity chef?
Yeah, of course you can. Yeah, absolutely.
Jamie Oliver with his Ministry of Food. That is almost going into the slow food movement in some regards. That’s about actually growing your own food, about making things basic in the kitchen, and giving people cooking lessons, which is what the slow food movement has become in Italy with Petrini’s latest Eat Italy.
It’s that one world Eat Italy, all is one, Eataly. These are big complexes where people can go to learn about how you grow your food, how you eat your food, where your food chain comes from. It’s all part of this movement which is really, like you said, it’s trying to dig back into the past and say, “This is what it is, fantastic to have it.”
It’s also behind the Salone del Gusto, the Salon of Taste that takes place in Turin in October. I think it’s every two years.
Yeah, I remember reading something about like how it was they have all these competitions of regional cuisine and some of the things. In your experience, fast food in Italy, apart from the burger of the 80s, how is it regarded? How do you see it as being considered?
Well, a lot of Italian food is fast by nature. A pizza takes 90 second to cook. Fast food doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. There are a lot of chains that do produce something that can be considered fast food, the Autogrill chain, or Spizzico, Ciao. These are owned by large organizations. Yeah, probably the slow food movement would have a lot against them. However, in my opinion, they do make something that is quite authentic. Overall, they provide a service which is useful when you’re traveling and often you’re driving around Italy, and stopping at the Autogrill is a very refreshing experience, and sometimes, you may even have a good meal. Actually, often you do have a good meal.
Yeah, I mean, this is probably for another podcast about service station meals.
Oh yeah, very interesting.
Yeah, there’s a whole podcast in it, but the one thing that I will always get for my friends who travel to Italy, if they’ve ever had to drive a car, there will always be stories, firstly, how they were scared for their lives whilst driving, and the second one is how well they ate.
It is amazing. You get such a variety, and it’s so cheap, which is the complete opposite to, well, in England where you look and get four times a price of what it would normally cost and it taste absolutely awful.
Yes. I think Autogrill is relatively cheap compared to a restaurant but is fairly priced. I’ll have to say, it’s not the level of other fast food chains where really the race for the lowest possible price seems to always be there. Frankly, shocks me to see that you can get a burger for 1.75. One eats that not because it’s the best way to use the $1.75, but because it’s the fastest, the easiest way.
I noticed there’s more McDonald’s in Italy.
I think people have become more accustomed to it. McDonald’s has had to change its menu for Italy. It’s now offering pasta, which you won’t find in England. I think it’s trying to cater for the local palate.
Also, there is a place for a chain, especially in the big cities, when people live a very frenetic life and they need to get from Place A to Place B and grab lunch in-between.
Yeah, and I think as long as the market demands it, there will always be a McDonald’s or a Burger King. I keep on saying McDonald’s but I think-
Oh yeah, it’s not just McDonald’s.
A generic fast food equivalent, which is why Spizzico has come about. People want a piece of pizza. It’s great idea. It’s a grab and go. It is what it is. It’s not the pizza which might be which my pizzaiolo makes.
Admittedly also, I get much better customer service from the Spizzico than I do from my pizzaiolo (laughs).
Very good point (laughs).
I’m usually getting a lot and lots and lots, into a lot of trouble with my pizzaiolo…
We should be talking sometime about customer service in restaurants-
Oh, that’s even another podcast… Yeah, we got service station, customer service.
Yeah, I wrote articles on both my blog. You can read about my view of Autogrill and my view of customer service in restaurants. A lot of interesting considerations, I think, that one can make. A good travel guide for people that want to visit Italy and venture themselves into what customer service is or isn’t.
It’s all relative, I think we’re used to it a little bit too much in Italy. Personally, I think it could be better, but at the same time-
I don’t think it’d be hard to improve.
No. It won’t be hard to improve. I am the first to admit it and I am sorry. I apologize to all the people that didn’t get treated the way they do at home. However, people go to restaurants for the food more than for the hospitality. You go to somebody who is the owner. It’s not your host necessarily. It’s the person that owns the place, and you adapt to their customs and their rules, as long as they feed you what you know they can make and make really well. We’re willing to put up with that. Yeah, we should talk about it some other time, so much to say.
So much. We’ve spoken at large about really the slow food movement. We’ve touched upon the fast food moment. Where do you see Italy now? Do you see it turning more towards the slow food or do you feel that we’ll be a cultural shift to more fast food orientated mentality? What do you see happening?
I think that the slow food doesn’t need to be a movement in Italy, necessarily. There is a large resistance built-in with the Italians. Fast food would naturally be there and grow, reach its potential, but it won’t takeover slow food. There is no such risk. You may even start to see a Starbucks, just to name some more brands in this episode. I don’t think espresso will ever be lost in there and the many non-chains that make fantastic espresso in every Italian city. There’s no risk because of there’s such a at base palate that is entrenched in the people from Italy. You’ll occupy as much room as the Italian allow it to occupy, and then the rest will still be family dining and traditional restaurants.
I certainly agree. I certainly think coffee, it’s not that I don’t think I’ll ever see a Starbucks, but I don’t ever think I’ll see the fruition of Starbucks or all the large chains. I think one of big thing would be trying to make people queue for their coffee. I can’t see that in Italy. I don’t think it would go down well, because of the culture where you walk in, you stand at the bar, within a minute, you’ve got your espresso.
The word espresso means quick. This morning I went to have a coffee in a chain and it took me nearly 8 minutes to get served and there was only one person in front of me. It is like, that just couldn’t happen. It just couldn’t.
Yeah, it’s weird. It’s the double-edged sword of good customer service. If they’re too good with the person in front of you, it may get very, very slow. In Italy, it wouldn’t be acceptable. You know what you gain, you know what you lose too, because there’s no way you can have a conversation with your barista because he’s got to move. He’s got to get on the next one really quickly.
As my granddad always say to me I many occasions, most things in Italy are slow, apart from the cars and the coffee. I think that’s different. Coming back to where we see Italian food moving, I think what would might be successful is something which is almost marks it really on a slow food ideology of the produce that we get is from a ten-mile radius from here. Things like that. I think that would see more success.
Yeah, the ‘eating local’ idea, I think, would be welcome. It does already happen. In Italy, we’re fairly lucky that we can grow a lot of produce locally, not all of it, but some more than other, more northern countries where it’s harder to produce locally without expensive greenhouses. I think it may become more of a trend to advertise that and enforce it.
Gino, I think we got to the end of this episode. It was a very fascinating discussion for me. I’ve learned a lot researching about it and talking about it with you, Gino, this morning. I hope that you people listening have enjoyed it. We’re looking forward to your feedback as usual. Please contact us. There are several ways, on the website, on my blog, disgracesonthemenu.com, on Gino’s blog….
As well as through our Twitter and Facebook handles. You will find them very easily on the websites. Thanks very much for listening. We’ll get back to you with another episode shortly. Bye-bye.