No time for fast food
Members of the slow-food movement find super value in meals prepared carefully and savored slowly
Once you leave Interstate 5 behind, the road to R.H. Phillips Winery and Vineyard in Yolo County is almost impossibly bucolic, with the kind of quiet agricultural charm that has been fast giving way to subdivisions. In late February, it winds past almond trees in bloom and fields full of newborn lambs and placid cows. As the green of the hills yields to vineyards, a deserted-looking road leads straight to the winery, a modern-looking building of corrugated metal that matches the gray sky.
On this blustery early-spring day, the winery was hosting a tasting sponsored by the Slow Food Yolo Convivium, a local branch of the international slow-food movement. Inside, the event’s organizers and the co-leaders of the Yolo Convivium, Georgeanne Brennan and Ann Evans, lamented the threatening rain. Last year, a similar tasting exploring aged, raw cow-milk cheeses was the inaugural event for the Yolo Convivium. The day was sunny, Evans said, and the organizers planned for 60 people, but more than 100 showed up. This year, the weather kept a few away, but the smaller crowd—young and older alike, from as far away as Lincoln and as close as Davis—was enthusiastic about the cheese and wine pairings devised by winery chef Rachael Levine.
The smaller crowd not only meant second helpings of the hard-to-find cheeses, but it also made it easier to hear Levine. She had lost her voice and half-whispered her remarks about the cheeses, her voice cracking. The attendees were seated at long tables facing an open kitchen in the airy, spacious room whose windows gave a view of the winery courtyard. They nibbled appreciatively at the beautifully arranged wedges of creamy cheese—five in all—and sipped the wines that glowed pale yellow and deep red in the glasses.
One of the best matches was a deliciously mild Laura Chenel goat tomme with sauvignon blanc and an earthy, coral-hued juniper-quince preserve made by Evans and Main—a local producer co-owned by Ann Evans. She noted that quince is “an ancient fruit, but it’s time-consuming to prepare—it’s fallen out of favor, which is why we use it.” A very different, but equally successful, pair was a syrah with Bellwether Farm’s San Andreas sheep-milk cheese and Levine’s crunchy, peppery-sweet fig chutney, which she makes from the figs that dot the winery.
Afterward, the happy, sated crowd asked questions—many of them about where to buy the cheeses—and both Levine and Evans spoke evocatively about serving a cheese at home. “The cheese course lets you make the moment at the end of dinner last,” said Levine. “It’s ideal for lingering.”
A cheese course featuring artisanal cheeses might then be the ultimate in slow food: Not only does it encourage diners to savor food, but it also uses products made from traditional methods. As Brennan said, in her animated and enthusiastic introduction of the slow-food movement before the tasting, “Slow Food was founded by an Italian journalist horrified by a McDonald’s going in at the Spanish Steps in Rome. The movement is the antithesis of fast food. There’s an increasing number of people who think it’s worthwhile to do things the old way.”
Among them are Evans and Brennan, who took up the reins of Slow Food in Yolo County over a year ago. Both have deep roots in local food culture. Evans, who lives in Davis, helped found the food cooperative and farmers’ markets there when in college. Brennan, a nationally recognized cookbook author, divides her time between Winters and Provence, France. The pair has worked with farmers, producers and restaurateurs from Winters to Woodland to advance the ideals of the slow-food movement: “enjoying food and wine and company, slowly,” as Brennan said; helping to preserve the agricultural lands that formed the setting for the tasting; and, above all, eating locally.
Slow Food Yolo has attracted about 120 members, but they are far from alone in the region. A brand-new Slow Food Placer Gold Convivium is led by Christina Abuelo. Its kickoff dinner two months ago drew more than 100 people. Kira O’Donnell leads the large Sacramento chapter, with about 160 members. Each chapter holds events, such as lectures, dinners, and fund-raisers, that are open to members and often to the public as well.
Each of Slow Food’s more than 800 local chapters, or convivia, is tied to the international movement based in Italy. You might see Slow Food’s logo—a charmingly stylized snail—in locations as far-flung as Oaxaca, Mexico, or Ljubljana, Slovenia. The international organization sponsors events on a grand scale, such as last year’s Terra Madre conference—a gathering of some 5,000 farmers and producers in Turin, Italy—and the biennial International Salone del Gusto, an enormous food and wine fair. But the local convivia are instrumental in carrying out the goals of preserving food traditions and fostering communities committed to local, sustainable food production.
For O’Donnell, a former pastry chef and confessed “die-hard foodie,” those ideals fit her personal interests perfectly. When she moved to Sacramento, she wanted to find more people who shared her interests. “I knew there was probably a community here of people who valued food, but I wasn’t sure where,” O’Donnell said. She had heard about Slow Food and, after checking its site, realized there was no local chapter. Starting one has helped her connect with that community and see it grow.
The convivium also works with and celebrates local producers, “honoring and acknowledging those who do that—not just farmers but people like beekeepers,” O’Donnell said. “I want to point out people who have made the choice to do that for their life’s work.”
Above all, O’Donnell believes the convivium’s purpose is educational. Events have included farm tours and dinners, an evening with a local beekeeper, and restaurant dinners like a “night of roots and greens,” held last year at Esquire Grill, at which executive chef Kurt Spataro cooked with vegetables from Jim Eldon of Fiddler’s Green Farm. “Kurt did an unbelievable menu with all this unsexy stuff that people never buy, like turnips,” O’Donnell explained. “He just exalted these vegetables.”
After the dinner, O’Donnell received e-mails from members reporting on how they were using the same produce. “It got people excited to eat foods that they hadn’t eaten before, and that’s really what slow food is all about,” she said.
Slow Food Yolo offers similar events, focusing on education and local food traditions. A May 14 class will explore making vin de noix (green-walnut wine) from local walnuts. On June 5, the convivium will hold a dinner under the apricot trees at Good Humus Farm in the Capay Valley, a fund-raiser for an agricultural easement that would legally restrict the Good Humus farmland’s uses to sustainable farming. A community picnic in Davis’ Central Park on the last Saturday in August will raise funds for the Davis Farm to School Connection and school garden program.
Evans and Brennan hope Slow Food USA will support the idea of holding such community meals across the country. “We hope to put this up as a prototype,” Evans said. “The national Slow Food has a number of big fund-raisers planned, which is very good, but they’re different from communities coming together to raise funds for the local community.”
Slow Food Yolo is particularly committed to offering support to area farmers, several of whom attended the Terra Madre conference in Italy last year and reported on their experience to the Yolo Convivium at its fall dinner, held at Tazzina Bistro in Woodland. Among them were Annie Main of Good Humus Farm, Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm and Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm in Solano County. In later interviews, all commented on how powerfully the experience of being among fellow farmers affected them.
“I’d heard of slow food, but I didn’t really become involved until I went to Terra Madre,” says Walker. “It was wonderful, sitting at a table with farmers from Zimbabwe and an apple farmer from Hebron, discussing issues and problems with crops and growing. It was very powerful to realize I was not alone. You know, at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning as you’re loading the truck to go to market in San Francisco, it’s not exactly the most positive time of day. I came back from Terra Madre and felt invigorated.”
Walker, originally from England, has farmed at Eatwell for 12 years. He specializes in different tomato varieties; a summer tomato tasting at his farm with Slow Food Yolo is in the planning stages. “People are literally going to be able to walk through the field and taste different varieties of tomatoes off the vine,” said Walker, who grows 30 varieties and numerous different strains. “It’s really helpful for me to have a group of customers and see what they like. I’ve seen people stand and argue by the vine as to whether one deserves to have the seed saved for next year.”
Muller also believes it’s essential for local organic farmers to “link more directly with consumers.” Slow food, Muller said, “is a very healthy and nice fit with the issue of having people be more aware of where their food comes from and support local farmers more.”
Main brought a similar perspective on slow food home from Italy. “I feel like what I came back with from Italy was knowledge of what Slow Food is trying to do,” she said. “It’s trying to foster that love of food and knowledge of food, as well as ultimately making sure the farmer can survive in this world of fast economies, fast culture and fast society. It’s not just having wonderful dinners together, but making sure that the source of the food for these wonderful moments is preserved.”
Walker also came home with a new appreciation for slow food—one that may explain why the movement is garnering so many members around the region. “What Slow Food is talking about—the essence of it—is being passionate about your food,” he said. “Before, I had the impression that slow food was for those who can afford expensive restaurants and all that, but it really is about the quality of food and flavor and supporting local farmers. Some people might say slow food is kind of hoity-toity, but after going to Italy and a few events, I can say it’s about good, tasty, wholesome local food for everybody.”