Food for thought

When it comes to pace, there’s nothing slow about Cat Gazzoli, despite being CEO of Slow Food UK. Typically, she’s up at 6am organising her kitchen from the previous evening’s cooking. At 7am she heads to Yotopia, the yoga studio opposite her Long Acre flat, for an intensive session. And then she’ll make for the Slow Food office, half a minute’s walk from her home, in the historically foodie Neal’s Yard, to liaise with her team about the day’s events.

The Slow Food philosophy means taking the time to cook, eat well, and think about the story on your plate and begin to make informed decisions as a consumer

The short trip between home and office usually sees Cat teetering precariously on high heels, laden with leftovers to share with colleagues—her way of thanking the many volunteers who help in the office. Today, as I arrive breathlessly at her fifth floor apartment, the high heels are discarded and I’m warmly ushered in.

I sit down at her large wooden kitchen table, but she can’t resist unpacking some newly arrived Livio Felluga wines from her husband’s native Friuli region in Italy. Cookery books galore adorn her shelves and the surfaces are covered with a bewildering array of appliances. The kitchen itself has a rustic feel, with a traditional gas cooker of industrial proportions made to Cat’s specifications and sporting no fewer than four compartments. The wooden floors throughout her home are covered by warm-coloured rugs, and trinkets from her global travels reflect her international lifestyle and upbringing.

“I work like my dad, who was an auditor for the UN and whom I learned my work ethic from,” she laughs at my shocked reaction to her daily to do list. “The joke in the office is that I’m always telling my team to go off to Inner Space in Covent Garden so they can learn to meditate and take time for themselves. I need to practice what I preach!”

To “make time” as she puts it, she got up especially early to prepare a cake for me.

“I believe deeply in the principles of the Slow Food movement, around healthy eating and taking time to cook properly,” she continues, “but when you’re running a non-profit, there’s always so much to do and never enough capacity to do it. I love to work and get a lot of pleasure from knowing I’m taking the organisation to the next level.”

Food, she says, has always been her passion. “My time at the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, based in Rome, made me feel so strongly about food security and biodiversity. We’re faced with an obesity crisis on the one hand and starvation on the other. Our global food system is in disarray. That’s why we should care.”

The Slow Food movement was founded some 20 years ago in a small town in northern Italy by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini. The initial idea was to support and defend good food, the enjoyment of eating and a slow pace of life. “In a nutshell,” explains Cat, “it promotes the antithesis of fast food and fast life and what the consequences are. By that I mean junk food on tap and the consumption of too many processed foods which have very little nutritional value. So the Slow Food philosophy means taking the time to cook, eat well, and think about the story on your plate and begin to make informed decisions as a consumer. But all of that harks back to the bigger issues of learning how to make good nutritional choices so we can begin combatting things such as the obesity crisis afflicting our society. At Slow Food, the ethos translates into what we hope is a game changer on a bigger scale.”

Slow Food now boasts groups in 150 countries worldwide and its message has grown to include sustainability and environmental issues. Everything to do with the movement is driven from a grassroots level, with local volunteer groups promoting its values. “It’s the little steps which are important and which constitute the basis of the Slow Food ethos,” says Cat. “The system of production and distribution needs to be modified and return to more traditional methods which give the producer and consumer a better deal. We want communities to connect through food. Many of our groups are doing just that with their local activities around Britain.”

Thousands of volunteers around the world have set up Slow Food groups so they can share their passion for good food and showcase their local produce. They get together and organise taste workshops, farm visits, social meals, markets, festivals, educational projects and more. Recently Cat made her own contribution to the movement in the form of a Slow Food wedding in the Friuli region of Italy.

“My in-laws thought I was particularly challenging on the sourcing front,” she laughs, “but I wanted to drive this value that it’s part of what you should do in life—every bride should aspire to that. I won’t lie, it took more effort. It took ages to find a chef who understood what I was trying to achieve. My chef had to really understand what it means to work with local producers—sometimes environmental factors affect the produce and so a chef has to be flexible. It’s all about respect and friendship. Ultimately, I wanted all the money we spent to go back into the community.”

In preparation for her big day, Cat spent time traipsing up mountains to investigate what was on offer in the region. Not in heels, she assures me. “I found some beautiful things. A lot of the producers are involved in initiatives with local schoolchildren because they don’t want to lose the traditional way of doing things. Sometimes the livelihoods of whole villages revolve around food production—prosciutto from the village of San Daniele, and formaggio frant, the intense typical cheese from ‘malgas’ in the mountains, help to sustain the whole community.”

She took time getting to know the families and asking lots of questions so she could better understand the craftsmanship behind the products. “It was so worth the effort. The taste was amazing. The guests loved it and I even managed to introduce some of the locals to specialities from their region they’d never tasted before,” she enthuses. “This was my way of getting to know my husband’s family better and so the guests could understand who I am and what my philosophy on life is. We even printed the story of the products on the back of the menu. Eating becomes a different experience when you understand the story behind the food on your plate.”

Most of the food at Cat’s wedding is on Slow Food’s International Ark of Taste. The Ark of Taste programme aims at raising awareness of ‘endangered’ foods—locally produced quality foods which could ultimately be lost unless positive steps are taken to preserve them. To qualify, the products have to fulfil certain criteria—they have to be of outstanding taste, at risk biologically or as culinary traditions, be sustainably produced and in only limited quantities. Slow Food now has a list of over 1,000 products from more than 60 countries and is still counting.

“Sometimes it really is a case of ‘eat it or lose it’,” explains Cat. “My favourite local flavour saver is Randolph Hodgson, the man behind Neal’s Yard Dairy. He specialises in regional British heritage cheeses that are really high quality and totally delicious.” Randolph is on Slow Food UK’s National Ark Commission and is one of those who gets to enjoy Cat’s cooking, being conveniently located within earshot of the cheese shop.

And to help spread the word and maintain the foods, the UK Slow Food Chef Alliance plays an important role in bringing producers and chefs together to promote unique and seasonal ingredients. The founding chef and spokesperson of the Alliance is Irish-born Richard Corrigan of Corrigan’s in Mayfair and Bentley’s on Swallow Street. “Richard’s perfect for this role,” says Cat. “He totally espouses our ethos and believes in using seasonal produce in his recipes. He’s fantastic at promoting small artisan producers in every possible way. I feel very privileged to have Richard’s support.”

When Cat rushed into Richard’s restaurant on a particularly busy day of back to back meetings with various supporters, she was in panic mode as she’d failed to prepare a dessert for her evening guests. She asked him for some pastry to make one, but also to make a quiche. “Richard rustled up what he could spare before that evening’s service,” she giggles, “but I stupidly mixed the pastry up and made the quiche with the sweet pastry and the dessert with the salty one. No one said a word at dinner that night which was incredibly polite as nothing really tasted as it should have!”

Cat’s career at the United Nations, where she worked on sustainability and development projects naturally led her to launch Slow Food UK three years ago. At the time, she and her board were adamant they should have a tangible impact in Britain, so they decided to focus on food education as the main long-term goal. The resulting projects include the Slow Food Baby, Slow Food Kids and Slow Food on Campus educational programmes. They’re run in partnership with major charities such as the National Childbirth Trust for the baby project and the National Union of Students for the campus project.

“The baby version is about ‘happy eating’ and is an interactive workshop for parents and babies, where parents come and talk with our trainers about any issues they have. We handle their concerns and help them with getting into good habits when embarking on their babies’ first food adventure.”

The kids programme, aimed at children between the ages of three and 10, is based on the five senses—using the eyes, ears, hands and nose to explore different types of food. One activity has little bags with different types of food the children have to try and identify. It’s all a game and the kids enjoy that aspect particularly. “Again, depending on where we are in the country, we try to use local products like barley, or different types of grain, to vary the textures on offer.”

Slow Food has rolled out this programme to include schools, community centres and food festivals and about 13,000 children have so far benefitted from it. Cat says reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. “It’s been a huge learning curve for us too,” she admits. “We had one child identify everything as a chip, but the child before was identifying passion fruit and star fruit! And that was in the same school. Others didn’t even know the names of some of the basic fruits we offered, like bananas. We’ve learned not to assume too much.”

The other new aspect of the kids programmes has been the introduction of cheese. The Italian cheese association of certified DOP producers, Grana Padano, has been supporting the project which has included taking a whole big wheel of cheese into the schools and festivals. “Making cheese is craftsmanship,” says Cat. “That’s why we chose Grana Padano as a partner. It’s so nutritious and in Italy, athletes and children snack on it. I want to get the message across by offering the children and the parents a nibble from this huge big wheel we take around. That’s gone really well. People are amazed at the size of the wheel, and its beauty, and that helps to educate people that cheese doesn’t come in plastic packets from the supermarket—there’s a whole ageing process involved.”

As we wind down our chat, Cat brings out the cake she’s prepared for me and insists I try a slice before I head off. As I drink my tea and bite into the cake, I do so with the Slow Food ethos in mind—enjoying every mouthful.