Eating With The Brakes On: How Italy Embraced Slow Food

I’m out for a walk, because Italy has destroyed me.

I stagger away from the celebrations, the long tables glowing with all the colours of food in the sunshine, the red tomatoes and golden cheeses and glistening slices of….ghagh. No, don’t look at them. Just keep walking. It’s okay. This will be going on for hours yet. You won’t miss a thing.

My friend’s wedding is taking place on a hillside in the Abruzzo region, on Italy’s southeast coast. Over the horizon is the Adriatic – but here, I’m facing a sea of a different kind, a stunningly beautiful patchwork quilt of green fields, advancing in soft yellow-green waves in every direction, dotted with farmhouses.

The village of Castel del Monte in Italy's Abruzzo region
The village of Castel del Monte in Italy’s Abruzzo region

There’s one ahead of me, at the bottom of the hill I’m lurching my way down: roof collapsed in, greenery bursting from one window. It’s almost absurdly picturesque, and in a happier physical state I’d be entertaining fantasies of moving here, buying a run-down farmhouse of my own, maybe one with an olive grove that just needs a little tender love & care to get itself profitable again…

But I’m bathed in the sweat of extreme discomfort, and all that’s in my head is “don’t fall over! You’ll never get up again.” I am agonizingly full. The kind of full that has terrible, terrible consequences if your body isn’t upright and held just so. Full to your boots, as we say back in England. 

This was my first experience of the speed of Italian cuisine. As an Englishman, I’ve usually taken a trencherman’s approach: the food arrives, you focus intently on scoffing it as quickly as possible, and when the feeding-frenzy is over, you return to whatever you were doing. Meals in England are generally quite efficient affairs, and seen as an interruption to the main event – an ad-break that fills your stomach, you could say.

This would probably horrify the average Italian, and certainly those making a living growing the food the country is rightly famous for. This wedding has shown me how a feast is laid in Italy – and now I’ve eaten myself incapable of continuing. When we all sat down and the first delicious course showed up just after noon, I threw myself in. And with the second. And again with the third. And then I had seconds of that third because it was really delicious. 

At some point I asked when dessert is arriving. 

“Not sure. We’re still on the starters. Probably near sunset?”

Um. Sorry?

Italians take their sweet time to eat a meal, with the emphasis on “sweet”. You don’t hurry through these flavours. They’re there to savour, slowly. But “slow” isn’t just rhetoric. This is a full-blown movement. It’s the name of an organisation born in 1986, in outraged reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. An organisation that says “why should food be fast when it’s most enjoyable by going slow?”

A selection of food best enjoyed slowly
A selection of food best enjoyed slowly

Slow Food now has over 100,000 members, with branches in 150 countries (including the United States, interestingly enough). One item from their lengthy and hugely impressive mission statement: to develop an “Ark of taste” specific to each region of every country, preserving all the foods at risk from over-industrialised food production and fading memories of traditional practices.

Their three-part mantra (good, wholesome, right) includes within “wholesome” the teaching of sustainable practices – and within “right,” a championing of the rights of small-scale farmers and food artisans, anywhere they’re being overlooked by larger commercial pressures.

However international it may be getting, the home of slow food in every sense will always be Italy. As I’ve explained before, Italian food is hyperlocal. Whatever region you’re in, you’ll have access to a few ingredients and dishes that cannot be found anywhere else, including in Italy. Everywhere has its own unique take on how to create a meal that will last all day and stay in your thoughts for the rest of your life. 

Take Tuscany, the focus of Wheel & Anchor’s next LiveAways program. If you stay in Tuscany for any length of time, you’re going to learn something new about bread. Specifically, stale bread.

How do you feel about stale bread? Is it:

  1. Something disappointing, because you were sure it was going to stay fresh longer, but oh well, into the bin it goes…
  2. An endlessly versatile source of gastronomical delight?

Tuscany is where you learn the wisdom of (b). It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tuscan cuisine is built on a bedrock of stale bread, and for visitors, this requires a shift of mindset. No, your bread isn’t “out of date” when it goes hard – which is really what “stale” means, even though we lump it in with moldiness and other unpleasantries.

What Tuscans lump it in with…is soups. Stews. Salads. Anything and everything. The secret is the type of bread they use: unsalted and without preservatives. When it hardens, which it does pretty quickly, it has merely moved to the next stage of its life-cycle. Why would you waste perfectly serviceable bread? (For this reason, the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Florence apparently has a section of its bread-making course called “Do not throw bread away”.)

Fresh tomatoes and bread in the Tuscan countryside
Fresh tomatoes and bread in the Tuscan countryside

Like a lot of Italian food, Tuscan cuisine is uncomplicated. That’s the point – to keep everything simple. You’re here to enjoy every flavour of every ingredient, and to give your palate so long to do it that you end up working the rest of the day around your meal. For example, you’re in Tuscany, so of course you want to taste the tomatoes here, arguably the most flavourful in the world. Why mask that simple, fresh taste with anything else?

Once your bread goes stale, a new chapter of the Tuscan cookbook opens up. Maybe you could whip up some Panzanella, chunks of stale bread in a rich salad. Or you could try Ribollita (literally “cooked twice”), a thick bread & vegetable soup that’s more like a stew: beans and greens and chewy lumps of bread, heavy without being stodgy. Or Pappa al Pomodoro, a variation of the classic tomato & bread soup, where the flavour of the tomatoes is so utterly unlike the creamed, tinned variety that you’ll assume something new has been added. (Nope. This is how tomatoes actually should taste in soup. Now you know.)

I have a tip for you though, as you eat your way around Tuscany, or indeed anywhere else in Italy. It’s this: hit the brakes with everything. Your expectations. Your understandable but misplaced desire to race through your day to get the maximum sightseeing done.

And above all, dial back the speed that you eat. Don’t tackle any meal like it might be your last. Instead, treat it like the Scots treat a good whisky – something to drag out and relax into, and an excuse to enjoy your surroundings and, you know, really, really talk for a change. There’s nothing better to do. This is the best thing. Fill your day with it.

When I return to the wedding feast, they’ve just started serving Fifth Main Course (or whatever they call it here). I sit down a bit sadly. No, no, it’s fine, not for me, thanks, I’m still full. Yes, I ate too much starter. (Yes, I’m English, how did you guess?) 

Perhaps with luck and a few uncomfortable walks, and maybe a new hole whittled into my belt, I might have room for something else before the sun goes down. We’ll see. No rush.

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