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The superficiality of food and eating


Paul Murray

Paul Murray is the Senior History Master at Diocesan College, where he is also the Director of The Bishops Society. He reviews books for The Cape Times and Fine Music Radio. He co-edited The Valley by C Louis Leipoldt, and Leipoldtís Food and Wine.

Slow food is a counter to fast food. Eating fast food is not superficial. The food itself is. It was once said, “Image is the undisputed language of the new millennium.” The taste and senses that accompany regional cooking is a testimony to this saying.

Slow food does not mean you eat slowly or even that the food is prepared slowly, although the nature of slow food is that time is taken to grow the natural produce and traditional recipes are used to prepare food in the way of the regional methods, slowly so that the tastes can blend and integrate.

The Slow Food Movement was formed in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, after Italy’s first McDonald’s opened in her capital, Rome. Groups meet in chapters, to promote the products of small producers and combine their knowledge of the products with the history that lies behind the produce.

Hands-on activities include extraordinary tasting events. Previous subjects for workshops have included “Monastery Cheeses” and “Palestine and Israel: Table Talks”. The Ark of Taste is an important project initiated to protect from extinction certain endangered produce such as tuna roe and Moselle red peaches. By invoking an interest in the lover of these rare foods it was hoped that suppliers would respond. The Slow Food Movement encourages children’s tastings.

I recall well the fine dining which we as guests of members of the Slow Food Movement who visited Cape Town experienced. The venue was the spectacular Twelve Apostles Hotel on the Atlantic Seaboard. Members from the main chapter of the Movement, based in Turin in northern Italy, were impressed with the setting, although their own travels had taken them to similar although much more densely populated settings along the Amalfi Coast. The conversation centred on the delights of eating well, enjoying fine, intelligent conversation, cutting out the small talk.

The Mediterranean has been fished out, while the Cape coastline sports a huge variety of fish. But we need to guard against extinction. One’s mind goes back to those days when the fishing resources were more plentiful along our coastlines, in particular to our fortunate forages for abalone and those most delectable of the crustacean specimen, crayfish. C Louis Leipoldt reminds us that more than 100 years ago there were 40 different kinds of edible fish available from the Cape Town fish market. This is hardly the case today.

I remember the little dining room of the bungalow perched on a hillock on the sea face overlooking the bay where some of the survivors of the Birkenhead swam to safety on 28th February 1852 – most did not have the same good fortune – where family and friends would enjoy fresh fish, crayfish and perlemoen and many other kinds of fish. The cooking traditions and ways of preparing these delicacies were the time-honoured ones, carried over from generation to generation, and prepared by the expert hand of Aya Olga Petersen, who gave service to the household for half a century.

Steaming perlemoen in fresh bamboesstok remains indelibly printed on the mind, as well as deep into the nerve canals of the olfactory senses, and on the tongue. A chilled steen served as a suitable accompaniment as we would stand round the fire waiting for the fish to steam, then cut open the bamboo, and, with the fork, lift out the perfectly cooked pieces of sliced abalone, marinated in a sauce of beer and thyme.

From Cape cookery the conversation changed direction – to one of the world’s riches culinary centres, Italy. Regional cooking is Italy’s forte – after soccer of course! Each region has such a wealth of experience of cookery. Piero, a member of the headquarters of the Slow Food Movement in Turin, enquired, “Which is your favourite area for food in Italy?” knowing I had been a student in that country from 1978 to 1979.

It’s hard to say, I told her. I remember walking through the little alleys of disgustingly opulent Venice, with the smell of delicatessens and eateries. You can smell the cured salamis from the salumeria, or the cheese in the cheese shop. Unfortunately today there is a fast food outlet in the centre of Venice and the smell of the rancid fat coming from the extractor fan sticks out like a sore thumb.

Learning to roll pasta in the cold winter of 1978, in the kitchen of the boarding house, taught by the mamma herself, leaves an indelible impression, and serves me well when I prepare something really “slow”, was another reply.

Reading the masters, Platina, Martino of Como and Artusi, is inspirational and evokes a strong sense of food in conjunction with history.

School boys on our annual overseas history and cultural tours would make a pact never to betray the fine food traditions in Italy with their daily lunch allowance. Their favourite light lunch came from the deli or alimentaria, which serves massive bread rolls bedecked with a mountain of Italian cheese and Parma ham. Then they make for the ice cream parlour, to choose from the manifold tastes of gelato artigianale.

An ice cream parlour recently opened in one of our Boland towns. The owner said it was real Italian. So it is. But it’s not artigianale, which means made 100 percent from natural products. There’s a difference.

That’s what Slow Food is all about. You can taste the difference.

Piero was interested to learn of the passion we have for Leipoldt, the guru of slow food in South Africa. Leipoldt reminds us that the foundations of Cape cookery lie in the Roman civilisation. Italy exported the art of slow cookery to other parts of Europe, especially to Holland and France, and the Vatican cooks were ranked as the best in the world.

This led to further discussion of slow food, in particular the great Italian writer of cookbooks, Pellegrino Artusi, and his classic way of making a minestrone, that favourite-among-Italians dish. He likes to add in some rice, in sufficient quantity until the minestrone turns almost dry, and then before lifting it from the heat, sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese for good measure!

The sun was setting over the Atlantic. Our aperitifs were appropriately coming to an end and we were summoned a table for a treat of slow food par excellence.

The art of slow cooking, graceful conversation and fine dining remains a highlight in anyone’s culinary diary. It’s lamentable that our world has reached the state where eating like this is the exception rather than the rule. The irony is that we eat faster and more quickly, but the length of the body’s colon has not grown any shorter, waiting desperately to honourably digest slowly, the slow food we have slowly eaten – which seldom happens.

We live in the instantaneous age.


Artusi, P. 1960. L’arte di mangier bene. Giunti. Firenze.
Leipoldt, CL. 2003. Leipoldt’s Food and Wine. Stonewall Books. Cape Town.

LitNet: 26 July 2006

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