Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Go for the gusto

Savour the world at the Slow Food movement’s biennial celebration in Turin, Italy

I have come to love Turin, even though it’s a place so easily overlooked that when I lived just an hour’s train ride away in Milan, it didn’t even register on my list of things to do. But now, this elegant city of chandeliered cafés, egg-rich noodles and fine chocolate is an essential destination every other autumn, when I pack my bags and notebooks and head to the Salone del Gusto.

The English translation is “The Big Tasting Room,” which doesn’t begin to suggest the magnitude of what has become the world’s largest artisan food fair. Set in the dazzling mega-corridors of Renzo Piano’s Lingotto complex, the former site of Turin’s Fiat factory, the biennial celebration is hosted by the international Slow Food movement. The Salone is a round-the-world culinary tour packed into five intense days of tasting, talking, dining, wining and listening.

Every aspect of programming is shaped by the principles of Slow Food, an organization headquartered in the nearby city of Bra and dedicated to preserving food traditions and biodiversity while promoting fair-trade, green and ethical practices for the growing and manufacturing of food. Slow-Fooders call themselves eco-gastronomes.

Starting with my first Salone eight years ago, I found that once I’d had a taste of this cornucopia of flavours, it was hard to pass it up. Where else could you wander from a conversation with a Madagascan vanilla-bean producer to a workshop that focuses on the nutty flavours of the silken fat of Iberico ham, pause for a glass of one of the hundreds of bottles of champagne in the enoteca, or wine bar, and then ponder the puckering taste of Tibetan Yak cheese — all before noon?

In 2006, 170,000 visitors attended the Salone, a fifth of whom came from abroad. The 2008 edition will feature over 600 food stands and booths and nearly 250 workshops, seminars, dinners and other events.

The message might be to slow down and savour the finer things in life, but this fair is anything but leisurely, simply because there is so much to do. On a quick scan of this year’s program, I highlight a session on Black Sea tea, a talk on Adriatic oysters and more dinners than I can stomach — even if I could become a ruminant for the duration of the event.

Stand-out events from past visits include sitting in a makeshift classroom and learning from a handful of men and women in white lab coats about pairing bitter chocolate with Barolo wine. It took 90 minutes, six bite-sized squares of chocolate, ranging from milk to bitters and an equal number of small tasting glasses of wine ranging from young and fruity to aged and leathery. A serotonin high gave way to a lasting appreciation of how these two ingredients can be happily married.

A lot takes place informally, too. It’s possible to take in more than a day’s diet simply by moving among the miles of aisles and samples at the food booths, or tucking into dishes served at the national restaurants, which feature the cuisines of the world. The Turinese buy day passes and sport shopping carts, selecting for their home tables anything from Scottish Aberdeen beef to little boxes of perfect Pont L’Évesque cheese, while local kids arrive in packs on daytime field trips.

Choice becomes an issue only because of overabundance. One of the more focussed and eclectic sections are the areas dedicated to Presidium and Ark products. In Slow Food’s vernacular, an Ark item is one that needs saving: the organization, through careful selection, identifies these fringe foods that are rarely tasted outside of their region. When possible, funds are raised and a Presidium is established, which is a market-driven campaign to support endangered foods and their producers.

On one tour through these areas, I discover a tangerine from Montenegro, black pepper from Malaysia, a divine Somerset cheddar, raisins from Afghanistan, Spanish saffron with an aroma that cannot be contained by its sealed packet, delicious American cider and an ebony chocolate from West Africa made by a fair-trade pioneer.

Even more unusual is the opportunity to meet and chat with the producers who are at each stand, often with a translator. Back at home, months later, when simmering a pot of Himalayan Basmati rice, I recall the young, thin farmer discussing the struggles he and his cooperative face in keeping their rice supplies free of the popular Genetically Modified rice varieties.

Turin beckons. Joining the well-fed crowds, I will have the pleasure, once again, of expanding my waistline and my culinary education at the Salone del Gusto. Past surprises have included hearing the Prince of Wales speak on agriculture and seeing Catalonia’s master chef Ferran Adrià set a packed room ablaze with his mystical foam food. There is no telling what this year will bring — except it will undoubtedly be very, very tasty.

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