ARTISTS have Burning Man and designers have Fashion Week. For farmers, cooks and the elite troops in the fight against McFood, there is Terra Madre.
The event, first held two years ago, is produced by Slow Food, an international association that mixes food politics with culinary pleasure. The organization is strongest in Italy, where it was founded 20 years ago by Carlo Petrini after he staged a protest against McDonald’s plans to build a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
A decade later, Slow Food started Salone del Gusto to showcase small producers who couldn’t compete in larger, more commercial food shows. It now draws 120,000 people and earns enough money to help fund Terra Madre, along with heavy subsidies from the Italian government.
The association, which now has 80,000 members in 100 countries, catalogs foods and techniques that are on the verge of extinction. Slow Food also takes on small economic projects called Presidia to help develop better production and economic markets for foods like villsau sheep in Norway, the gravenstein apple in Sonoma County, Calif. or the toasty argan oil of Morocco.
From last Thursday to Monday, more than 8,000 people turned the building that held the 2006 Olympic speed skating oval into a kind of culinary United Nations. Chefs and people who like to eat mixed with the people who actually farm, herd, fish or otherwise create the foods that represent what Slow Food is trying to promote.
Basque shepherds mulled over nomadic herding with Mongolian camel tenders. Indian rice growers mingled with Maine potato farmers. Fishermen traded tastes of wild Northwest smoked salmon and Sicilian Favignana bottarga. And everyone partied with the wild Louisiana shrimpers.
Here is a look from the conference floor.
Thursday’s opening day ceremony featured a parade of flags from 150 nations. Iraq and Iran, two countries President Bush defined as part of the “axis of evil,” received some of the warmest applause, as did the delegation from Lebanon. The crowd also went crazy for the Peruvian flag bearer, but it might have been for the pink hat.
Later in the ceremony, Kamal Mouzawak, founder of the farmers’ market in Beirut — billed as Lebanon’s first — provided one of the most crystallizing moments. Beirut has lost almost all of its public gathering places, which makes the farmers’ market so vital, he said. Without a place to sell local products, farmers lose hope. And without local food traditions, people lose hope, he said.
“If you don’t dream, you don’t exist,” he told the crowd. “So let’s dream together.”
The American delegation included Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, the high priestess and priest of American Slow Food, and a long list of other notable cooks and farmers. Dan Barber from Blue Hill had a high profile, as did Poppy Tooker, a cook from New Orleans who helped save local food icons like Creole cream cheese and wild shrimp after the hurricanes.
For many of the 600 official delegates from the United States, Terra Madre provided a chance to meet people from countries they might not otherwise visit and to buy souvenirs like lip balm from Mali and excellent wool hats from Tajikistan.
Between debates comparing Italian and American agricultural policies and samples of products like Herzegovinian cheese aged in sheepskin sacks, the Americans also had ample opportunity to play at culinary one-upmanship.
People jousted over who had the larger white truffle shaved over their pasta in Alba and who tasted the best vintages of Angelo Gaja’s Barbarescos.
And then there was the Obscure Italian Travel competition. One public relations executive gushed about her trip to the “undiscovered” town of Ancona in Le Marche on the coast. “Nobody goes there yet,” she said.
For trend watchers, here’s a list of what was hot at Terra Madre this year: honey, yak cheese and seeds.
At the informal marketplace that sprang up around the conference rooms, there was probably more honey for sale than anything else. It’s portable, for one thing, making it easy for Terra Madre participants in developing nations to transport it to people willing to pay $6 for a small jar.
At a honey workshop, beekeepers delivered a “honey manifesto” calling for the protection of honey gathered in traditional ways. There was also a lot of discussion about the bee shortage. Climate change, disease and pesticide use are taking out bee populations, leaving farmers with poorly pollinated fields.
As for the yak cheese, look for it at a Slow Food event near you soon. Made on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau from boiled curds, Ragya yak cheese smells a lot like aged pecorino and has twice the fat of cow’s milk cheese. The yak cheese enterprise is one of 200 Slow Food projects designed to safeguard artisan foods, and much of the money from the cheese goes to support a small school founded by a Tibetan monk.
It was the one food Erika Lesser, the executive director of Slow Food in the United States, specifically mentioned on stage, sending out a call to arms to eat more yak cheese.
Seed diversity was another a rallying cry. “Every seed saved is a seed of freedom for the farmer,” said Vandana Shiva, a physicist and author from New Delhi and a leader of the anti-globalization movement. Her seed manifesto was in the hands of many people at Terra Madre.
Workshops explored the disappearing stock of seed varieties and the growth of seeds engineered to produce only one crop, which sends the farmer back to the large corporations to buy more each year.
Alice Waters might have been the biggest American name at the event, but the real American star was Rick Knoll, a scientist-turned-farmer who works a small patch of land in Brentwood, Calif. He and his wife, Kristie, built the farm’s reputation on figs and green garlic.
Along with a handful of other farmers from around the world, Mr. Knoll’s image was on promotional banners hung all over Turin on structures left over from the Olympics.
With his long, white Edgar Winter hair and Converse sneakers, Mr. Knoll was easily recognized, and conference-goers stopped him for photos.
He acted the part, too. After a morning of trying to wade through seminars shakily translated into eight languages, he’d had enough.
“We’re going over to the Salone to drink our body weight in wine,” he said.
The story of Terra Madre didn’t play out at the cured meats seminars or the biodiversity lectures, but rather in little corners and small kitchens.
One afternoon, a Jewish chef and a Muslim chef got together to cook for peace. Moshe Basson of the Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem and Nabil Aho of the Restaurant Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center made a menu from traditional Biblical food, including green wheat soup and musakhan chicken with hummus (and let’s just say it was the best hummus I ever tasted).
Mr. Aho said the dishes they made in Turin were designed to appeal to rich and poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew. “We can all gather around this food,” he said.
The men, part of a small group called Chefs for Peace, believe food is a common language that can help solve the Middle East conflict.
“In most kitchens all over Jerusalem or Tel Aviv there are Palestinian and Israelis cooking together, shoulder to shoulder, with long knives,” said Mr. Basson. “They are not killing each other. They are just trying to make a life.”