Once, people sat around the table enjoying quality food. Food bought from local farmers, baked by neighbourhood bakers, prepared using unprocessed ingredients and cooked to be savoured. It seems like a fairytale, now replaced by ready-made minute-meals in jars and plastic containers consumed without thought about the food’s origins – and often without pleasure. But the international Slow Food movement has strived since 1986 to put the brakes on the fast food life. The Czech Republic counts itself among the 132 countries that compose the 100,000-plus-member organization.
Journalist Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food in the northern Italian town of Bra in reaction to a McDonald’s opening on Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. A parallel to the fast food movement this event epitomised, Slow Food seeks to protect local traditions, bring together producers of excellent cuisine with consumers (or co-producers, as they’re called) through tastings and other events, and reawaken palates by educating people to recognise good fare.
Although the movement is headquartered in Italy, Slow Food’s heart is in local “convivia” that members join to spread the movement’s principles. The 50-member Slow Food Prague began in 2001. It was created by a group of people from various countries who shared a love for food and whose main focus was to find good restaurants where they met for Czech and international cuisine. They also met in one another’s homes to cook the cuisines of their respective countries. In 2005, however, the group shifted its focus to Czech products. Through building relationships with producers, Slow Food Prague supports a group of people threatened by industrial manufacturers; provides members and nonmembers with the opportunity to know where their food comes from, what it contains and how it ought to taste; and preserves the heritage of Czech cuisine.
“We would like to find producers who are specialised in good products that are not sold in supermarket chains,” Slow Food Prague vice-president Blanka Turturro said. “To be in a supermarket chain, you have to be selected on the basis of your investment, and there are so many small and good producers who are unknown because they are not able to be competitive.”
“Cost over quality” is the phrase Zdeněk Štefan, Slow Food member and bakery owner, uses to describe it. The criteria producers and products must meet are defined by Slow Food as good, clean and fair: good as in recognisable to a trained palate for being made from mainly raw materials using methods that don’t alter ingredients’ natural state; clean as in produced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, animal welfare or humans; and fair in that suppliers are treated respectfully and compensated appropriately. Many consumers buy pre-made fare and are unaware of what’s inside it. “Knowing what the product contains, I think is very important,” Turturro said.
Along with working to find producers, who are introduced to consumers through tastings and press conferences, Slow Food Prague holds discussions about various food-related topics, organises lectures by members and friends of the movement on subjects such as the use of fresh herbs in Czech cuisine and plans trips and outings for aficionados to enjoy different cuisines. Last winter, for example, members went to a brewery where the entire meal was based on beer.
‘The thing of marketing’
Another activity that the group has recently begun, and which has become one of its main focuses, is what members refer to as the presentation of regions. Providing another opportunity to discover good local producers who can then be introduced to consumers, the first instalment was the presentation of the Vysočina region, which took place in May. The products included baked goods, honey, Havlíčkův Brod’s Rebel beer, Mr Liška’s mead from Pravíkovice, wine from northern Moravia’s Sádek vineyard, organic flour from Biomlýn Březník, cheese, smoked meat, an assortment from a Vyskytná chocolatier who produces 60 varieties based on an original recipe from the 1930s, and a selection from the Hotel Jelínkova vila, which has its own small brewery and uses fish from its private lake to serve at the hotel’s restaurant. Along with providing an efficient means of bringing more visibility to Slow Food Prague – in the hopes of recruiting more members, another focus of the group – these presentations (the next will look at the Pardubice area) offer the opportunity to expose people to regional traditions and remind them of their cultural heritage, something Turturro and the movement feel is important.
“I think we belong to our country, and our heritage we have inside,” she said. “Therefore we have to, from time to time, know that Mr. Štefan, for example, produces his sweets because the recipe is from his grandmother. It is very important to know, because otherwise we will forget and we will only eat the thing of marketing.”
The “thing of marketing” is that standardised taste, the result of food made by machine as opposed to by hand. This idea is the impetus behind one of the group’s activities currently in the works: the creation of a list of Slow Food restaurants, which would be followed by the establishment of a group of eateries dedicated to the movement’s principles. Like the local producers, these restaurants would have to meet the Slow Food good, clean and fair criteria. And because the group wants the restaurants to find the majority of their raw materials within the country, but realizes this is not always possible, it has set the very specific criterion that at least 50% of the raw materials must be Czech-made.
Learning to recognise good things
“Our recipes are very based on handwork,” Turturro said. “Therefore, today, in our restaurants there is not as large of a selection as in the past. Recipes today in restaurants are based partly on ready-made products. This is a pity because if, for example, you find fruit dumplings already done, it means they were made by machine and all have the same taste, but if they are done by the cook, it is another thing.”
One of those cooks is chef Jaroslav Sapík, owner of the U Koně restaurant just outside of Prague. The eighth generation of a family that has been dedicated to the gastronomic trade since the 17th century, Sapík describes his cuisine as modern Czech and old Czech and characterises it by cooking according to the season, by his patient preparation, and by what is most important to him: freshness. “In the past people didn’t prepare a menu for the week. Everyday they bought fresh products,” Sapík said. “For me it is logic to buy from producers close by.”
Taking part in the establishment of the criteria for the Slow Food restaurants list as well as the selection of the restaurants, Sapík was approached by Slow Food because his own restaurant meets the criteria. “We didn’t even know we were a Slow Food restaurant,” he said. “The philosophy of Slow Food has just been inside me my whole life.”
The formation of the restaurant group is to satisfy both locals disappointed that the cuisine in many restaurants is prepared for tourists – “without the taste of home,” as Turturro said some of the friends of Slow Food Prague have complained – but also for discriminating tourists and devotees of worldwide convivia who are passing through and looking for a wider selection of regional specialities.
Hosting convivia from other countries is one of the several international activities that Slow Food Prague involves itself in. “Slow Food is not only to learn and know about one’s own habits, but also about others’ habits,” Turturro said. “Habits from other countries influence your own cuisine.” In addition to cultural exchanges with a group from southern Italy that came to the Czech Republic and invited several local producers for a visit south, Slow Food Prague has participated for the last several years in a biennial international event called Terra Madre in which small creators from around the world attend conferences and seminars and, most importantly, exchange ideas and insights with one another. Another important cultural exchange is one with a Germany-based convivium. This past April, Slow Food Prague attended a fair in Stuttgart, Germany, and has been asked by a German convivium to be involved in a children’s education program in which it would organize lessons in the cooking and baking of typical Teutonic meals. Turturro says she would like to reciprocate the exchange. Education, which Turturro would like to see as the group’s main focus, is Slow Food’s starting point: teaching children through cooking and exposure to good cuisine.
“You have to educate the children to recognise good things, to have good taste,” Turturro said. “But you can do it only [in such a way] that you teach them to do it themselves: to recognise real taste from artificial taste. If you buy it, you don’t recognise it. You can recognise it only by doing it yourself. These lessons must carry on into the school cafeteria, to the parents and into the dining halls of the elderly. This is infinite work. We are the first fighters; we are not fighting, only teaching the people to recognise good and honest quality.”