Savoring Slow Food and Slow Travel in Italy
November 8, 2022 || views
I recently came across a salad so exceptional that it made me hopeful for the future.
The lettuces responsible for this flutter of optimism weren’t your typical green insalate: They were a rainbow-hued selection of biodynamically grown flowers, herbs, and leaves handpicked from the gardens of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Piazza Duomo in Alba, a quiet medieval town in Northern Italy.
The salad, all bright emeralds and red-veined shoots and yellow blossoms, arrived at the table like an edible Matisse painting: super tweezery and technically precise in its fancy, almost extraterrestrial plating, yet made from the simplest, most rustic ingredients. With almost no dressing to enhance (or mask) its true flavors, every bite came together in sweet-tart vegetal harmony. The secret to the dish, chef Enrico Crippa explained, is that the produce is harvested fresh each morning. “They’re organic and local, yes, but they’re also unrefrigerated and haven’t been transported by truck,” he noted. “Many guests have told me that our greens remind them of their childhood or their grandparents. At the same time, the food we prepare here is futuristic. That double vision is the essence of Northern Italy.”
I came here, to Piedmont and the Aosta Valley, in early 2020 to see what that backward-forward approach looks like today. Italy is the birthplace of Slow Food International—an organization that started in 1989 to counteract the fast-food-ification of the world by celebrating local culinary traditions. Its manifesto is a defense of pleasure: “Homo sapiens must regain wisdom and liberate itself from the ‘velocity’ that is propelling it on the road to extinction. Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’ with tranquil material pleasure.” Long before the zero-waste movement, Slow Food showed us that taking it easy and being mindful of our senses isn’t just sensible—it can help combat climate change.
Slow Food has spawned other cultural movements—including slow travel, a similarly minded ethos that honors a place’s most authentic attributes and fosters genuine connections with local people. In a post-pandemic world, this kind of immersive travel could become more relevant than ever as travelers reassess their reasons for taking trips. In the three decades since its founding, Slow Food has helped Europeans rediscover something crucial: Keeping the past alive isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia—it’s a way to protect the planet and usher in a more sustainable future.
It didn’t take me long after arriving in Alba to realize how everything that sprouts from the soil of the surrounding hills tastes transcendent, from the famous white truffles (which, in autumn, are available to purchase—and, more importantly, sniff—at the local market) to the regal red wines of Barolo, with their notes of roses and loamy soil. Even the hazelnuts that grow around here are transportive, as I discovered when I ate a few—roasted, with nothing else added—at the Altalanga Azienda Agricola shop in the center of town. How amazing to see that something as simple and healthy as a hazelnut, grown in the right conditions, can taste so otherworldly.
As any Italophile knows, a fascinating expression of the Slow Food philosophy can be found at the Eataly chain, which began in Piedmont and now has 37 locations around the world. The original Eataly outlet was opened in Turin by the Farinetti family in 2007. By following a basic motto inspired by Slow Food—“good, clean, and fair”—the company scaled artisanal Italian-made fare into a superstore setting. It believes that each of us can do our part to make the world a cleaner place by spending on ethically sourced products. Now the Farinettis hope to replicate Eataly’s global success by launching a bio-sustainability emporium called Green Pea. The first location opened on December 8, directly beside Eataly in Turin, with additional outlets slated for London, Dubai, Paris, and Los Angeles.
“Green Pea is a place where everything, from clothes to electronics, is environmentally conscious,” explains Francesco Farinetti, Oscar Farinetti’s eldest scion and heir apparent. “Nowadays we all look at the ingredients in the food we eat. But nobody reads the label when they buy a T-shirt. And yet the fashion industry is a major cause of pollution in the world.”
The NH Turin Lingotto Congress hotel represents another step in the right direction. The former Fiat factory was transformed into 240 high-ceilinged rooms, some of whose immense windows open onto the Alps or look out on a charming garden below. But all across the region, other hotels in Northern Italy, no matter how old, are embracing urban revitalization and advanced renewable-energy solutions. The use of solar photovoltaic panels at Castello di Guarene, an 18th-century castle originally built for the counts of Roero atop a hill just outside of Alba, have led to CO2 savings of approximately 4,000 tons a year—the equivalent of a thousand cars’ annual emissions. It’s easy to fall asleep in one of this Relais & Chateaux palace’s 15 suites when you realize that preserving deep historical roots can also mean being eco-friendly.
Another climate champion is the fairy-tale Bellevue Hotel & Spa in Cogne, an art-filled heritage site from 1925 inside the Aosta Valley’s Gran Paradiso National Park. Having eliminated most single-use plastics on its premises, it also built a system that allows the property to serve only pure glacier water from the park. And in line with Slow Food guidelines, its three excellent on-site restaurants all feature “zero-kilometer” cooking, meaning dishes using ingredients that have been sourced from the immediate vicinity.
What is now the oldest national park in Italy, Gran Paradiso became a 173,715-acre preserve in 1922 when King Vittorio Emanuele II donated it to the state for that purpose. (He’d previously declared the area a royal hunting reserve to save the alpine ibex, a species of wild mountain goat that was on the verge of extinction.) As a result of that forward-thinking decision, as well as a later prohibition on building in protected areas, the meadows here are still carpeted in wildflowers in the summer, and those hiking in the park often spot herds of ibex or chamois. The Gran Paradiso certification program has helped Bellevue and others in their sustainability efforts, making Cogne—a hamlet that attracts hikers, ice climbers, and seekers of old-school Italian countryside cooking—a surprisingly pleasurable green destination.
One of the finest Slow Food dining experiences in all of Italy can be found right around the corner from Bellevue at Lou Ressignon. It offers soul-satisfying, hearty Aostan fare such as beef carbonade on rustic polenta, or the house specialty, a local fontina-laced risotto called seupetta a la Cogneintse. “These are the dishes we’ve always eaten in Cogne,” says Elisabetta Allera, whose father, Arturo, opened Lou Ressignon in 1966. In an Italy turning toward renewable solutions and zero-waste options, it’s refreshing to know that those timeless plates are still made the same way today.
On the drive from the Aosta Valley back to Turin, I turned off the A5 to visit the historic vineyards of Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, a Slow Food winemaking cooperative that offers tastings and bottles for sale at its town-center cantina. These traditional mountain vineyards were designed to withstand harsh meteorological conditions—which today also protects them against climate change. Surveying the vines and the towering Alps in every direction, I couldn’t help feeling that, no matter what the future holds, in this part of Italy, at least, it is certain to be delicious. As I reached into the pocket of my jacket, I noticed something rattling around: It was a small packet of seeds from Piazza Duomo in Alba, a gift given to every diner at the end of their meal. Changing our ways takes time, but as I’ve learned through my own slow travel, every step counts.
This article appeared in the March 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler.