Slow Food Movement Picking Up Speed on Vancouver Island

On a perfect late summer’s day in September, I drove up Rose Lane in Saanich and parked beside the entrance to Haliburton Community Organic Farm. I saw a sign that said Terralicious Garden and Cooking School, a large Slow Food banner hung up on the fence, and knew I had found the right place. I glanced over toward a small group, huddled around a picnic table, carefully examining an impressive array of tomato varieties. Although I didn’t know anyone in the circle, I was warmly welcomed, handed a toothpick, and invited to start tasting. What followed was a memorable afternoon that included a demonstration on saving seeds, a tomato dish potluck (with iced tea and freshly baked bread to accompany it) shared outside in the sun, and a guided tour of the farm. It was my first real acquaintance with Slow Food, and immediately I understood why they use the term ‘convivium’ to describe themselves. The experience was, in a word, convivial.

One of the people I was soon introduced to was Don Genova, known to many as the voice of CBC’s Pacific Palate and Food For Thought, and now the new leader of the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands Slow Food convivium. He kindly agreed to answer some questions over the phone last week. Don’s first encounter with the movement was in 2002, when he was traveling from Germany to Rome, and decided to stop in Turin for the Salone del Gusto, the annual Slow Food salon of taste. He officially joined the organization in 2005, when he moved to Vancouver Island, and was appointed as new leader of the contingent earlier this summer. Don jokingly asks me how long I’ve got when I inquire what his new position entail, but trims it down to the central objectives of guarding the spirit of the convivium, spreading the good word of slow food, and overseeing the administration of the group.

Don reassures me that ‘slow food’ doesn’t necessarily designate food that takes a long time to prepare. He describes a speedy and delicious lunch he recently prepared at home; a quesadilla made with local cheese and fresh tomatillo salsa (“5 seconds in the food processor”), and stresses the focus should be on where the food comes from, as opposed to how long it takes to make it. As such, the main role for members to play, he says, “is not just a matter of being conscientious but of being pro-active and actively supporting those producers. We shall be ‘co-producers’”, clarifying that the term from the Slow Food manifesto implies that as you discover something, you tell others about it, thus participating in the dissemination of good, clean and fair foods.

The group now stands seventy-five members strong, with an additional six on the executive. Don is quick to say how lucky the group is to have the two founding members of the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands convivium sitting on the executive; Dr. Sinclair Philip, Sooke Harbor House owner and Canada’s representative to Slow Food International, and Mara Jernigan, owner of Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse, and currently the president of Slow Food Canada. When asked how Slow Food has influenced his work as a food writer and broadcaster, Don explains that  “Slow Food has been part of how my journalism has changed over the years. I’m more interested in talking to farmers and producers who are trying to lead a more sustainable food life”, than writing what he calls “service articles” that report on décor changes or new chefs at high end restaurants.

My next Slow Food event is the Victoria premiere of Food Inc.  The convivium has sponsored the showing, and the theatre is packed. I asked Don if he thinks things are better here in Canada than what we saw depicted in documentary, which clearly illustrated the extent to which big business has overtaken health concerns and sustainable food options in the United States. While he doesn’t see any major strides occurring on a provincial or federal level in this country, he does think things are getting better on a local level. He cites cases such as the City of Vancouver’s proposed bylaw to allow urban chickens, the City of Duncan deciding to no longer purchase eggs from battery hens, Cowichan Bay becoming a Cittaslow, and the impressive response he witnessed last summer when the CRD offered plastic composters at a reduced rate as encouraging examples. Another example might be the next function he mentions, though still in the planning stages. Aiming for January, the convivium is organizing a fish symposium modeled after the one Don attended in Genova in 2007, with the intention of bringing together a panel of experts, chefs and local politicians to look for solutions to the challenges facing fish, their producers and consumers. At a time when so much of the news pertaining to food production appears bleak, the Slow Food movement does offer a penetrating glimmer of hope. I’m looking forward to the next gathering.

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