Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Slow Food Movement is Picking Up Speed

In recent years Slow Food is definitely talked about more than ever, but for many it still is not clear what the term slow food exactly means. There are the perceptions of slow growing food and slow cooking food. After all, we have slow cookers and even slow service in restaurants.

The Slow Food movement started 27 years ago in Italy. Roman citizens started protesting to a situation that we are faced with in San Miguel, the planned opening of a McDonalds fast-food franchise next to their much beloved historic landmark, the Spanish Steps in the San Marcos Square.

Carlos Petrini, a journalist, was among a group of very outraged Roman citizens. However, instead of using signs to picket and protest, they decided to protest in a very different, yet effective and deliciously proactive way. Petrini and his fellow protesters brandished bowls of penne and other home-cooked Italian dishes to demonstrate their culinary and social importance which was in danger of getting lost to consumption of fast and homogenized foods.

What a great idea! Maybe in San Miguel de Allende we should have parked one of our busy taco stands outside the proposed McDonalds location in the historic center. With the help of mariachis, the message would have been clear. The historic center should remain the cultural heritage of San Miguel, including with its local family-owned restaurants and stores.

After the protest the Italians began to look at all the flavorful, traditionally produced foods from the different regions of their country that had made Italian food one of the most popular cuisines in the world. These foods were beginning to disappear in the trail of industrialized food production and fast food operations.
A solution for preventing these severe losses needed to be found and three years later 15 nations signed a manifesto in Paris. The essence of their mission statement was: “Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.”
Today, Slow Food has grown into an impressive global movement. There are over more than 100,000 Slow Food members in 150 countries working for good, clean and fair food. Their goal is to help producers of traditional foods to make good products, in clean environments and receive a fair price for their efforts so they can provide for their families and educate their children.
My personal century-old family history is very closely tied to growing and garnering food. My father’s ancestors in the Bavarian region of Germany were farmers and on my mother’s Danish side they were farmers and fishermen. 

I have worked on farms, too, in the family tradition and know what hard and back-breaking work this is. Hacking at frozen soil to harvest sugar beets in freezing weather with clothes not fit for the cold, always made me wonder why farmers are not highly respected and paid fair wages for their harvest. Here we were providing affluent tables with their much coveted sugar, yet we were covered in mud, freezing cold, hungry and tired.

Photo Getty Images -that's just how it was, back braking.

Carlos Petrini, president of the Slow Food movement, is trying to make the world understand that we have to respect and support the persons who grow the food that sustains us and to make sure they can earn a decent living for their hard work. For that reason I am a Slow Food member in support of this cause.

In 1999 Slow Food started to catalogue traditionally produced foods in Italy that were on the brink of extinction and decided to protect them from disappearing. They formed what they called Presidia (meaning in Latin “garrison” or “fort”) singling out producers of traditional foods and providing them with assistance for better development of their products and marketing tools to make them economically viable.  This support system now has been applied in over 75 countries in the world.

Mexico today has five Presidia.
Vanilla from Chinantla in Oaxaca. It’s the only region in the world where vanilla grows wild. This might mean that the area is the origin of the vanilla plant. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma demanded regular tribute of vanilla from the people of Chinantla.

Cacao from Contalpa, Tabasco. After the devastating floods in 2007, Slow Food stepped in, organizing fundraisers to help the growers restore their lost cacao trees.

Puebla Norte Sierra Native Bees Honey. The art of bee keeping was highly developed in Mexico and most varieties were stingless. The biodiversity in the mountains of the Puebla Sierra Norte is a delicious buffet for local bees to garner pollen to bring back to their hives and turn them into their highly regarded honey.

Seri Fire Roasted Mesquite. The Seri people of Sonora are eking out a living in an area that has less than 100 ml (6 inches) of annual rain. Relying on planting crops is not an option in this region. Fortunately, they have the Pacific Coast for fish and seafood. However, the Mesquite tree provides them with beans which when dried is milled into flour for making tortillas.

Tehuacán  Amaranth. This is most likely one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world. In Tehuacán it has been traced back to being cultivated 6000 years ago. This grain is a whole food, it has accompanied astronauts on their space missions, just in case they run out of junk food up there.

The amaranth plant that went to Chicago to grow in Rick Bayless' garden 

Mr. Petrini was recently on a multi city visit to Mexico. He attended “Mesamérica” a gastronomic summit meeting of chefs in Mexico City, a Slow Food event in Puebla and “Morelia en Boca” an international gastronomic festival. I attended this 3-day festival and as a member of the press was invited to listen to Mr. Petrini’s talk to a large group of students from one of Morelia’s leading culinary schools. His passionate talk in, Mr. Petrini’s own words, his best “italiañol”, he made it very clear that the situation is urgent and we are running out of time.

Carlos Petrini, press conference "Morelia en Boca 2013"

He vehemently addressed the danger of Mexico losing its over hundreds of variations of corn, which have been cultivated in their country for thousands of years, to the invasion of Monsanto’s GMO corn (genetically modified organisms). What does this mean? Mexican corn farmers have been selecting their seeds for millennium to ensure the best corn harvest for the coming seasons.

The corn seeds sold to farmers by Monsanto “invaders” with the promise of much higher yield than their traditional crops, those are referred to as “suicide seeds”. Their seeds do not reproduce new plants. To be able to successfully grow these seeds the farmers need to buy the Monsanto brands of pesticide and fertilizer. If winds or birds spread Monsanto seeds into fields of farmers who did not purchase the seeds from them, they can and have been sued by Monsanto since their seeds are patented. After about three years of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the soil is exhausted and cannot support any more growth. It takes about five years for the soil to recuperate from this damage.
During the following press conference a young women tried to point out to Mr. Petrini that fast and packaged (junk) food was much less expensive, affordable and convenient for low-income households. His answer was NO, NO, NO. You will pay for it in the long run with astronomically high medical bills to treat junk food induced illnesses such as obesity, diabetes (often with limb amputations) and heart attacks.

Herein lies the tragedy of this grave situation; the indigenous farmers of Mexico were excellent and advanced agriculturists that bred and grew many grains, fruits and vegetables that made them one of the healthiest people in the world before the conquest.

Go to the Slow Food website and learn more about this movement. If you are interested in becoming a Slow Food member, please ask me. The annual membership is 100 pesos.

I highly recommend these documentaries, most of which can be viewed on the Internet.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mexico's Cuisine Rocks!

Looking back at the 2012 culinary year in México, an explosion of exciting events took place in many areas of the country and young chefs and restaurants rose to national and international fame. There is no doubt anymore, México’s cuisine is hot! After becoming the first and only cuisine in the world to be designated an intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) foreign chefs from Berlin to Melbourne are paying attention and flocking to the Mexican mercados to learn more about its amazing foods. As with any new trends, there are a lot of pretentious newcomers that pick up on the buzzwords du jour, without knowing the foundation of the original that led to the trend.
I have attended many food events in México over the years but two of the most memorable events that stand out for me I attended last year. They made it very clear that all Mexican food trends and inspirations today are deeply rooted in its culinary traditions. In May at the first “Festival Internacional del Mole” in Puebla, many cooks from the state of Puebla proudly presented their moles to festival attendants. Mole heaven! And no, it is not a chocolate sauce; it is a very complex sauce with many variations that, in my opinion, leaves French sauces wanting, but more about moles some other time.

However, nothing prepared me for the impact that the “9° Encuentro de Cocineras Traditionales de Michoacán” (9th Encounter of Traditional Cooks of Michoacán) sponsored by the Michoacán tourist council, would have on me. In the past, I have attended culinary events featuring maybe 10 to 20 wonderful and exciting cooks and chefs, but at this event, 45 women cooks from numerous rural Michoacán communities participated. The festival drew a record breaking 5,000 hungry attendees!
As my taxi pulled up to the large park of the Morelia convention center, I knew I was in the right place. Smoke rose from white tents and delicious smells wafted my way. My taxi driver was ready to park his car and join me in the festivities. I told him to come back later with his family and he did.
The day was very hot. I forgot to bring my hat. My new iPhone, that I had not a clue about to how to use, took fuzzy pictures. Smoke from all the wood-fired cooking facilities burned my eyes and made my hair and clothes smell like I lived in a meat smoker, and yet, overwhelmed with this sensory input, I was in culinary heaven.
I have visited Michoacán many times during the past 20 years and have always loved the foods. Diana Kennedy, renowned Méxican food expert and my friend and idol, first introduced me to sopa tarasca (now called sopa purépecha). I love the classic enchiladas de plazachirupa (a special occasion rich meat soup, see recipe), corundas (the unique Michoacán three corner shaped tamales) and charales, the little delicious white fish from Lake Patzcuaro, pozole, a soup made with hominy and many condiments, just to mention a few. These familiar dishes were all served at the festival. However, this is where my familiarity stopped and now I was on new territory.
Where was I going to begin tasting all of the overwhelming variety of foods, for which I had only three days to eat my way through?
On the first day I decided to walk past all the cooks’ tents and then choose my first meal. I am a big fan of pozole and even if it is not a traditional breakfast fare, I got a bowl of pozole batido (beaten pozole), which was a pozole that I was not familiar with. It was creamy and scrumptious. No disposable dishes were used at the event (I loved it, si se puede); therefore my pozole was served in a traditional clay bowl with a “spoon” of a piece of agave that was cut to a point.

As I sat at a long communal table that was covered with a white cotton tablecloth, and marveled over the incredible taste of this dish, I realized that in the next few days I had to open my stomach really wide to be able to taste these amazing dishes.
My next choice was a taco with freshly fried charales, the little white fish from Lake Patzcuaro. When I took my first bite I thought this would be a good moment to die, it was heavenly. 
I watched a small boy sitting across the table from me contently munching the little fishes, head to tail, just as if he was digging into a bag of chips. A table companion was curious and asked me why this extranjera (foreigner) was scarfing down foods that were generally not much appreciated by non-Mexicans. A long conversation about food followed and sharing of more taste treats, such as the fried-to-a-crisp white fish, followed by endless family introductions. One is never alone in México.
My next taste was atapacua. This vegetable and masa-thickened soup can be embellished with any type of tender cooked meats; I enjoyed the vegetable version. The cook, dressed in her finest, gold lace napped traditional dress, proudly presented my bowl to me with welcoming outstretched arms.
In Michoacán, a type of tamale, uchepos, are made from fresh corn and wrapped in fresh corn leaves. They are very different from any other type of tamales served in México. This preparation is much more common in South America, where they are called humitas. In the US they were the culinary darlings in the 80s called “green corn tamales”. Green because of being wrapped in fresh green corn husks. Here I was treated to an unusual tamale of the same preparation with an amazing taste, called chircus (this might not be the proper spelling, I could only record it phonetically) made from fresh blue corn, chile pasilla, yerbabuena (mint), cilantro, and very finely shredded meat. The taste reminded me a lot of a dumpling (Semmel Knödel) served in soups in my home of Bavaria, even if the ingredients were not related at all.
Throughout the days I revisited the tent of the cook Benedicta Alejo. I had seen her cooking demonstration at a previous culinary event in Morelia where she totally stole the show. She apologized for her poor Spanish (which it was not) that she only had learned a few years earlier. She ended the demonstration with a greeting in her native Purépecha language. She is an amazing leader whose knowlege has given great integrity to the heritage cooking of Michoacán, the state that was partly instrumental in the UNESCO designation of Mexican cuisine.
 Benedicta was invited last December on the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe to the Vatican where she cooked a Mexican dinner for her namesake (tocaya) Pope Benedict XVI and 600 guests. I would have loved to see this experience through Benedicta’s eyes. Her grand, grand, grand, grand children will probably still remember this event and be showing pictures of la abuelita Benedicta at the Vatican cooking comida por el papa.
Among the smoke of burning wood, the global heat source for preparing meals since times immortal, I wanted to urge young Mexican and other chefs to learn as much as they can about these traditional preparations. This is their real heritage, this should be their inspiration, not the foams, smears and sad drips on the dinner plates that they have accepted from foreign cuisines, that seldom will be a truly satisfactory dining experience.
¡Viva la Cocina Mexicana!