Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto

Sensory overload. Emotional overload. Complete sleep deprivation. That just about sums up a long weekend in Turin, Italy at the bi-annual Terra Madre/ Salone del Gusto exposition.

Imagine, if you will, five football fields stacked end-on-end, all filled with the world's most treasured foods. And then imagine that wandering between the aisles and ducking into conference rooms are the world's greatest food minds: people who want to see the system changed, who want to preserve forgotten traditions, and who want to challenge the status quo.  Amongst them were Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse and The Edible Schoolyard Project), Carlo Petrini (founder of Slow Food), and Jamie Oliver; I was lucky enough to get into their panel discussion over the future of food education.

Panel discussion (and possibly the worst photo ever taken)

Panel discussion (and possibly the worst photo ever taken)

Yes, there were grand, sweeping ideals that were tossed around as if a utopian society might fall upon us if we all just held our breath and blinked twice. But there have also been definitive steps taken by all three of these activists. Governments have listened. Policies have changed. People like that are pointing the system in the right direction and giving others the tools to enact change in their own corners of the world. If you haven't already, check out:

Slow Food

Jamie's Food Revolution

Edible Schoolyard Project

Serious cheese tasting

Serious cheese tasting

That was the heavy stuff. There were also hundreds of taste workshops on everything from rice varietals to cocktails. I listened in awe as impassioned producers told the stories of their wines; sipped with concentration while discerning the differences between various levels of dosage in champagnes; and savoured the stinkiest of cheeses while an international panel of affineurs talked about their methods. It felt like being back at school. It was heaven.

(And consequentially I'm super excited to get back to Vancouver to put on more tasting workshops. Let me know if you're interested!)

The remains of a mid-afternoon pick-me-up

The remains of a mid-afternoon pick-me-up

But the best part was in between all of the formalities. It was aperitivo with friends I haven't seen in years: a whole generation of people doing incredible things with no presumptions or egos getting in the way. It was being surrounded by people who are full of energy and ideals, but who are still forced to make a living and work in the real world, that really got me excited. Because as we all know, it's easy to say 'know thy farmer' and 'it's just not right that governments dictate our food guide based on lobbyists' pressure'. We all know that in the abstract. What we don't see on a daily basis is educated farmers who are adding value to their products and creating sustainable industry; artisans reviving lost skills; PR professionals and journalists changing the way we talk about food; and restauranteurs connecting city-folk with the land. All of these people are working in the background and the work they're doing is important. We, as gastronomes, are changing the way we think and talk about food.

So what was the point? Where did we end up at the end of the weekend (other than completely and absolutely lost in the outskirts of Turin, but that's a different story...)? Anyone you ask will see 'the great big problem with the food system' differently. As I see it, the largest battle we're fighting at the moment is the stark disconnect between what we've been socialized to eat and see as normal, and what makes sense for us to be eating.

I'm not advocating for the elimination of coffee or French cheeses from the Canadian diet (because what problem can't good cheese solve?). And as I've said 100 times before, just going local isn't the answer; but we do need to know where our food comes from. There's a strong argument to be made for truly understanding what we put in out bodies and supporting the people that produce our food so that they can keep doing it. And that's really what Terra Madre/ Salone del Gusto is about. Knowing the producer, embracing the pleasures of food, and seeing the system from a global perspective. Now it's time to put all of that talk into action.