Almost three decades ago, in 1986, McDonalds opened a branch by the famous Spanish steps in the center of Rome, Italy. A revolutionary movement emerged in response, resisting and renouncing everything the fast food chain stood for, and Slow Food International was born.
A grassroots non-profit global food organization, Slow Food was created to counter the mechanisation of food and globalization.
“What differentiates Slow Food from other food organizations is an added emphasis on pleasure in tasting food,” says Sara El-Sayed, president of Slow Food Cairo and a Slow Food International counselor. “Food is not just a right, it can also be a pleasure beyond the upper classes.”
The organization has over 100,000 members in 1,500 local chapters spread over 150 countries worldwide.
There are currently four chapters in Egypt, in Cairo, Fayoum, Alexandria and Siwa. Although it has been active for over two years, promoting food growing in schools and communities in collaboration with A Thousand Gardens in Africa, the Cairo chapter was only officially established on September 11 this year, after it gained the requisite five members. Now it has 12 members.
Slow Food insists on the importance of maintaining local heritage and biodiversity.
“The Egyptian diet has often sidelined local species and products in favor of foreign ones, due to the common false assumption that they are Egyptian,” says El-Sayed, who is a biologist, a certified biomimicry professional and co-founder of Nawaya, a local grassroots agricultural organization. “Zaatar (thyme) and labneh (cheese type), which are Lebanese, are examples of this.”
Hundreds of indigenous species, which could provide many benefits, remain unknown or on the verge of extinction. El-Sayed cites Wahati rice from Bahareya and peanuts from Aswan as local examples.
In order to raise awareness about unknown ingredients in localities worldwide, which are often on the verge of extinction, Slow Food has created an ‘Ark of Taste’ catalogue — an online database which documents endangered varieties of local foods worldwide.
Slow Food Cairo, meanwhile, has partnered with Ma7sool Productions and is in the process of creating a documentary to catalogue and raise awareness on many Egyptian ingredients.
“Documenting several species also helps remove the Cairo-centric nature of our lifestyles and mode of thinking,” says Aurelia Weintz, co-founder of Slow Food Cairo. “There are several unknown species, both within and outside of Cairo, which have high potential uses.”
Weintz gives the example of the Al-Amhat date specie, which is being sidelined because its high perishability and pulpous nature means many do not buy it. She says that turning the date into a paste could be a good use of its structural properties.
On September 28, Slow Food Cairo and Nawaya organized the first Palm Dates Festival at the Fagnoun center in Abu Sir, a village in the periphery of Giza, to celebrate palm date culture.
Part of the effort to bring back cultural heritage, the festival celebrated the diversity of Egyptian foods and their contribution to Egyptians’ diets and lives.
Slow Food also aims to encourage the sustainability of small-scale farmers and producers. Its vast global network of chefs, producers and farmers includes over 2000 “food communities” — networks of players in the food chain who together support sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity — who practice small-scale and sustainable production of quality foods.
“Promoting local ingredients not only brings back Egyptian cultural heritage, it also serves the livelihoods of those who produce them or help in other steps in the food value chain,” says El-Sayed.
She believes that chefs should not just be defined as people making food at gourmet restaurants, but also in cheaper local restaurants or families all over the country.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 47 percent of the world’s population live in rural areas, and that includes over 70 percent of the world’s poor, who thus depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.
“Our philosophy stems from an aim to return to nature and agriculture,” says Omar al-Masry, head of the Slow Food Fayoum Development Association. “This also means putting a value on the centrality of a farmer’s role in the food chain.”
“Promoting the livelihood of farmers also ensures that biodiversity flourishes,” El-Sayed adds.
Through more than 400 projects worldwide, Slow Food International works with 10,000 small producers to protect them and preserve the quality of local products.
From Tibetan cheese makers producing yak’s milk cheese to small farmers picking pistachio nuts on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Slow Food International has helped establish many projects worldwide.
Many traditional food manufacturers are shutting down or facing economic challenges as they struggle to survive in an increasingly mechanized food production environment. Through its vast network of members, researchers, chefs and producers, Slow Food International provides such projects, or “presidias,” with expertise to improve production techniques and encourage innovative uses of local products.
It coaches manufacturers on hygiene and fair standards, eco-friendly packaging and technical logistics.
In Egypt, there currently exists only one such project type — a tiny number compared to other countries in the region — and that is the Siwa Dates Presidia.
Many traditional manufacturing units are closing down or disappearing due to lack of funding or awareness of how exceptional the methods they use are. In Qos, for example — a town in the southern governorate of Qena — there remain only two oil presses that perform traditional methods to create oil from lettuce, black seed or mustard seed.
El-Sayed says Slow Food hopes to promote more small producers by increasing the number of projects throughout Egypt. Their next project aims to create a Wahati Rice Presidia — Wahati rice comes from Al-Wahat al-Bahareya, approximately 360 km southwest of Cairo.
In collaboration with local chapters in Egypt, Slow Food International also aims to use its vast worldwide resources to create a network of local chefs using methods which are “clean” — not harmful to the environment, animal welfare and our health — and “fair” — with accessible food prices for consumers and fair conditions for small-scale producers — while promoting local tastes and products.
As the newly established chapters grow and extend branches and leaves throughout the country, El-Sayed hopes that Slow Food culture will also spread.
“We hope that we can show that Egypt’s vast resources can ensure that we all have the right, not only to nutrition, but to enjoying Egypt’s cultural heritage through its food,” she says. “We need to think beyond basic alleviation of poverty and strive for a good quality of life for all.”
Contact [email protected] for further information about Slow Food Cairo.