Sunday, July 10, 2011

will the real slow food please stand up?

In between all the eating and drinking* I go to school. Here’s proof.

This is an adapted version of the paper that my colleague, Laura, and I wrote on our experience at Panetteria Fagnola. The project was for an anthropology course; what was supposed to an exploration of a food space ended up being hour after hour of bread and treats (not complaining), establishing a sweet honey connection (apologies), and a fascinating discussion on Slow Food with the artisans themselves. It’s a bit long, so feel free to skim, Mom; you may want to skip over the “academic” parts – can you tell we had to somehow incorporate our course readings? Comunque.

“Vorrei lavorare bene con materie prime più naturali possible e sopratutto che garantiscono qualità e igiene per poter essere sinceri nei confronti dei clienti.”

I want to work well with the most natural ingredients that guarantee quality and health so I can be sincere to my clients.

Gianfranco Fagnola, the current owner of Panetteria Fagnola, epitomizes a philosophy that has been passed down for nearly a century - a dedication to food and integrity which one still finds today in his modest bakery in the outskirts of Bra. A humble man, Gianfranco defends quality over quantity while promoting an environment of genuine exchange and working ceaselessly to keep his independence in the face of increasing bureaucracy. Gianfranco is part of a growing but fragmented group of producers who are working to redefine their roles as artisans. Based on our fieldwork, we believe that it is artisans such as Gianfranco who practice the true essence of slow food - in a way that Slow Food as a business no longer does.

Our methodology took on a congenial tone from the beginning. We first met with Emanuela, the pastry chef, who quickly swapped opening questions for a barrage of “taste me” treats. This, we soon learned, would set the pace for the rest of our study. We returned three times to the panificio, each time with a specific goal in mind: to observe customers, interview la mamma, take pictures, draw diagrams, etc. Instead, each time Gianfranco took us by the hand, led us to the back and sat us down for yet another round of treats and talks. Our interviews were lengthy (amounting to nearly 9 hours), and involved several informants, including Gianfranco, Emanuela, Mirco and Dario. We communicated in both Italian and French, languages shared by informants and researchers. In order to preserve the spirit of their own words we have included their direct quotations in their native language in italics.

The strong connection between past and present at Panetteria Fagnola is clearly visible in the sign that hangs just above the display of freshly baked bread: a picture of Papà, working the wood-fired oven that was used until 1962. The same image adorns the panificio’s business card, proudly handed to us by the current titolare - il figlio di Papà, Gianfranco. Opened in 1923, the panificio was the creation of Gianfranco’s grandfather, an Argentine immigrant returning to his Italian roots. Having learned the craft from his cousin, he instilled in his business an important philosophy: growth through learning. Though the neighbourhood has changed, Gianfranco assures us that the spirit is still this same. When his nonno died, his father took over; major renovations were subsequently made and the bakery grew to the size it is today. In 1987, Gianfranco’s father passed away, leaving his wife and sixteen year old son to handle the business. After a brief stint in Law studies, Gianfranco retuned home to take over his family’s craft. Like his grandfather, he learned from those who surrounded him in classes, trips and fateful encounters, allowing him to take over the panificio in 1994. After decades as the oldest running panificio in Bra, a turning point came in 1999: Carlo Petrini sampled his bread and told him that it was, in fact, not any good at all. Gianfranco explains that è una brutta cosa sentire che non sei bravo, però così impari e diventi più bravo - and so he did. (it sucks to hear that you’re not talented, but this way you learn and become better.) By traveling more and joining the Richemont Club, a professional bakers’ association, he has since dedicated himself to the improvement of his products. In 2003, Gianfranco, tells us, mi sono reso conto che bisognava fare altre cose, e non solo pane. Non si può fare tutto bene. (I realized I needed to do other things, not just bread. You can’t do everything well.) And so a new member was added to the Fagnola family: Emanuela, his pastry maestra.

Walking into the panificio today one finds a variety of breads and baked goods. An avid fan of non-traditional ingredients such as kamut and rye, Gianfranco often experiments and produces a rotation of over 40 different specialty breads. Naturally, the ubiquitous pane di Bra, has its place here, too: square, circle, hollow oval, in a twist or simply the pane biova, il tipico piemontese, he produces it all and his customers respond in kind. Gianfranco also produces piadine di kamut, pizze, foccacce and enough grissini to supply a majority of the restaurants in town. Emanuela’s confections - from tartufini di cioccolato to baci di dama and biscotti alla camomila dominate the other half of the panificio.

Of course, to truly understand Panificio Fagnola is to understand the people behind it. Though Gianfranco is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the operation, he is still a sum of his parts. La mamma, as everyone calls her, has been the face of the panificio for as long as anyone can remember. She refers to her son as the titolare and speaks in piemontese to customers whose names she has never bothered to learn. Arrogant and reserved, she stands in sharp contrast to Gianfranco. The kitchen is the shared domain of Gianfranco and Emanuela, whose drive, humility, and openness make her the ideal right hand woman. Apart from brief smoking breaks, she was the only person we observed to be constantly working. At her side is Mirco, a pizzaiolo from Turin who hopes to learn the craft of dolci during his time as an intern.

Though he would be the last to admit it, it is Gianfranco himself and his three guiding values of humility, professionalism, and exchange which have made Panetteria Fagnola the institution which it is today. Though he graciously accepted our praise, he was equally insistent on qualifying it: yes, the piadine are fine today, but they need some more salt; the humidity is no good for the dough today, he probably won’t sell that bread tomorrow. Is such perfection tiring? Absolutely not: mai avere la presunzione di essere arrivati. Devi guardare sempre avanti. C’è sempre da imparare. (Never be presumptuous enough to think that you have arrived. You must always look ahead. There’s always something to learn.) Anything less would be complacent, lazy and dishonest to his valued clients. Yet such humility was delicately balanced with his pride, which was felt more towards the institutions he was a part of than any personal efforts; proud to continue in his father and grandfather’s traditions, and proud of the Richemont Club and its commitment to excellence.

Along with creating a better product, Gianfranco also strives to achieve a higher degree of professionalism in the shop. Taking cues from his experiences in French boulangeries, Gianfranco considers a sense of order in the form of queues to be one way of doing so. Additionally, he would like for his personnel to be able to better communicate the products to his clients so as to enable a more active discussion. The importance of this healthy exchange between himself and his clients, he believes, cannot be understated. While he admits that too often people critique others because they are jealous, in its most constructive and positive sense criticism is not only welcome but necessary: dobbiamo saperci criticare. (We have to know how to critique one another.) Having honed his craft from his fellow bakers abroad and in Piedmont, Gianfranco hopes to give back to others in an equally valuable way. Rather than a cheap source of labour, Gianfranco recognizes that he can teach Mirco - whom he repeatedly calls bravissimo - just as much as he can learn from him. His enthusiastic welcome to us is also indicative of his appreciation of others’ talents. Upon learning of our baking aspirations, he immediately invited us to come whenever we wished for a formal lesson; when we brought him a fresh sample of our homemade bread, he praised our effort while providing the critical perspective needed for growth. Slightly taken aback by such an encouraging reception, we asked if we could expect this from other producers. Gianfranco seemed slightly confused by such a question: siamo così perchè non abbiamo niente da nascondere. (We’re this way because we have nothing to hide.) There is nothing to hide, only to share; to not be generous would be unnatural.

As a native of Bra and self-proclaimed artisan, it was only a matter of time before Gianfranco discussed his views on Slow Food. His personal philosophy seems to undoubtedly support that of Slow Food; but would he consider his bread to be good, clean, and fair, the three standards by which Slow Food judges all products? His humility prevented him from admitting that his bread was good. Though he is undoubtedly proud of his work, he notes that it is more important to consider each day separately, and what he would deem “good” one day could be unacceptable the next. To admit that his bread is good and will always be good would be folly; rather, he considers himself to be forever in pursuit of a better product. However, after spending several days with him and eating more bread than we thought possible, we can confidently conclude that, yes, his bread is good.

The question of fairness was easily answered with an anecdote. On a busy Saturday morning a new customer asked for a loaf of kamut bread, but left empty handed upon hearing that it would cost five euro. A week later, the same woman returned and bought the loaf; after comparing prices and quality of kamut bread in multiple bakeries in Bra, she concluded that Gianfranco’s was indeed the best loaf for the best price. The only real injustice in his bakery, Gianfranco chuckled, was that he worked too much.

When asked if he considered his bread “clean,” Gianfranco went on a tangent about the hygiene of the baking space and the strict regulations which they must follow to guarantee it. Thinking it was a misunderstanding, I clarified what I meant by the term – the use of ingredients that are free of pesticides, generally organic, and that did not harm the environment. He rolled his eyes: non vendiamo la poesia. (We don’t sell poetry.) It is very difficult to use products entirely free of pesticides and coming from strictly local sources, he reasoned. Were he to limit his flours to those found only in Piedmont, he would lose much of the very diversity which distinguishes him from other bakers. Does he try to use as natural ingredients as possible? Absolutely. But to dismiss his products for the small traces of chemicals present in some of his ingredients would be to miss the point. And thus began his critique of Slow Food, a thorough discussion of which, he explained, would require the presence of Dario Pozzolo, il maestro di miele.

Within a half hour of Gianfranco’s call, Dario Pozzolo arrived - clearly an extended member of the Fagnola family - and introduced himself as well as his work as a devoted apiculturist for the past fifteen years. In addition to his production of honey from the Alta Montagna, Dario also judges competitions and teaches educational courses to people all of ages throughout Piemonte. Though notably more comfortable recounting his achievements than his counterpart, Dario nonetheless emphasizes that it is his product, not himself, that matters most. Finishing each other’s sentences, Dario and Gianfranco acknowledged that Slow Food has been un bene grosso (a great good): its focus on the promotion of artisanal products has created a movement with significant momentum, partially enabling their own success. But, they stress, in the course of its twenty year existence the organization has lost sight of its original values and has, to their anger and dismay, become solo un business. In short, Slow Food no longer represents true slow food. Similar to Nabhan’s experience with the Seri of Mexico, for Gianfranco, this is “a lesson nested in place.” To understand his view is to understand Bra, and the context it provides for both artisans and Slow Food alike. Native braidesi, the pair are proud of their roots and moreover of the bounty of their land and the talent which it has produced. They consequently cannot understand why Slow Food has traveled extensively to search for small artisans in distant countries yet ignored producers who personify their philosophy in Bra. Slow Food as a business has promoted niche products such as yak’s cheese from Nepal as the ultimate expression of their philosophy, despite the fact that Italian and Swiss cheesemakers were called in to teach the Nepalese how to make it. When organizing educational events Slow Food has contacted well-known personalities who can attract large audiences - such as Andrea Paternoster - to lead the tastings, whose high admission price creates a generous profit. Thus, between the foreign artisans and gastronomic celebrities, Dario laments that chi è di Bra non è considerato. (whoever is from Bra is not recognized.) While Dario has repeatedly reached out to Slow Food, offering his knowledge and talents, even as a volunteer, he has never received a response.

His pride wounded, Dario continued to discuss Slow Food and the bitter taste it has left: there is not only the missed potential of a mutually beneficial relationship between himself and Slow Food, but between his fellow producers and the talent which Slow Food attracts at its University. For Dario, Slow Food has successfully recruited students from around the world, charged them an obscene tuition for an “education” in which they will learn solo un cosino. Using their “knowledge” abroad, they will propagate the business of Slow Food. Once his initial anger subsides, we detect the true sadness behind such conviction: è peccato perchè non conoscerete la vera realtà dei produttori. (it’s a shame because you never know the truth of producers.) This reference to their work as a reality - una piccola realtà (a small reality) as Gianfranco repeatedly calls himself - begs the question: Who has the right to call a product a Slow Food, and what value is gained in such a label? Several types of Dario’s honey are protected and sold by a Slow Food Presidium, yet he sells the same quantity at the same price, and makes the same amount of money as he did before the Presidium label was slapped on the jars. Moreover, the prospect of substantially increased profits is of little import to him: he makes honey because he is passionate about it, and he sells honey to pay for his house.

Dario is not the only producer left disillusioned with Slow Food’s marketing campaigns; the small group of artisans producing lardo in Colonnata have also seen their craft and values distorted at the hands of the “niche-marketing of ‘endangered foods’” which the Presidium effectively promotes. Though undeniably the result of peasant ingenuity and craftsmanship, lardo was still perceived as a “common element in local diets” until the publicity it attracted through Slow Food’s efforts to protect it from the homogenizing forces of European Union hygiene laws. Its consequent transformation into an “exotic” and “gourmet” product - which fetches a high price - as well as a “logo for the authenticity of [Slow Food’s] politics” - which does not justly compensate the producers themselves - is an irony which the lardo producers of Colonnata have denounced and divorced themselves from. Gianfranco, too, consistently distanced himself from the business-oriented organization of Slow Food. Despite this distance, however, we felt the values of slow food to be constantly transmitted throughout our time at Panetteria Fagnola. Yes, there is an undeniable carbon footprint involved in the importation of some of his ingredients, but does that negate the overall value of the final product? Do we not learn more from the five minutes discussing and tasting a frolla than in a trip to Eataly to buy, without gaining any understanding of its origin and production process, a Slow Food Presidium product? Questo è il vero slow food, (this is the real slow food) Gianfranco explained as he spread a local cheese and Dario’s honey on his fresh walnut-anchovy loaf.

Too often the debate is framed in black and white terms: all artisanal producers are good and all industrial products are bad; to be considered “clean” one must use only organic ingredients; producers must be entirely in line with Slow Food philosophy or not at all. Gianfranco and Dario warned of the dangers of such a strict division and its refusal to acknowledge and understand the complexities inherent in their craft. Gianfranco referred to the supposedly artisanal panettone sold at Eataly which was injected with preservatives and additivies to boost flavour and preserve shelf life. Dario stressed that without the use of some pesticides, his bee colonies would inevitably collapse. He is not alone; even the certified organic apiculturists employ such practices, though they would never admit it. Dario emphasized that the most important thing for him is to reason with his own mind and to preserve his own identity rather than follow Slow Food dictates. Is such preservation of individuality and diversity not what Slow Food was originally about?

In this way Gianfranco and Dario have effectively articulated Judith Butler’s critique of “simplistic binaries.” Using the logic of Hughes’ observations in gender studies - in which the concept of a woman derives from the the concept of its opposite, man - one can argue that the value consumers associate with artisanal products derives significantly from their clear opposition to the surfeit of industrial products in the market. Gianfranco understands that this force is indeed real among a large segment of consumers, who are content to pay more money for a product solely because of its organic certification or “authenticity.” Yet through education and a lively exchange between producers and consumers, Gianfranco strives to move beyond the false choice between the small, pure artisan and the massive, corrupt industry. Though at times Dario’s rhetoric seemed based on this dangerous dualism, he himself has worked within the Slow Food system - through his Presidium honey - and continues to offer his knowledge to Slow Food educational courses, despite his past rejections.

In light of such convictions, what sort of future does Gianfranco foresee for Panetteria Fagnola? His understanding of his work is such that he cannot separate himself from his product as he considers his bread to be a reflection of himself: il prodotto deve parlare per me (the product must speak for me.)As Barthes states, an “item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies.” Gianfranco understands that his bread trasmits the piccola realtà of his craft and panetteria, and the wealth of knowledge he has gained at home and abroad. Paradoxically, by making it all about the bread, Gianfranco has made his panetteria mean much more than the bread itself. He sees no true gain in the expansion of his shop, feeling that the associated loss of constant and genuine exchanges with his clients would be unbearable and corrupting. The only growth that interests Gianfranco is personal, so that he may translate it into his bread for his clients’ pleasure. When people consume an industrially produced bread, or buy a product based on a Slow Food endorsement, Gianfranco would agree with Barthes that this product “takes on the characteristics of an institution, [thus] its function can no longer be dissociated from the sign of that function” Bereft of any true value, the aforementioned panettone purchased at Eataly signifies the deviation of Slow Food from slow food in the name of business. Moreover, it just doesn’t taste good.

Gianfranco’s symbolic rather than literal adherence to the Slow Food philosophy - at least in its founding vision - will continue, but not for any grand ideological reasons. Gianfranco will continue to work long hours so that his clients can choose from a diverse selection of fresh bread each morning. He will continue to travel so that he may learn and enrich his beloved hometown. Most importantly, Gianfranco will remain a true artisan by personally greeting and communicating with his clients, thereby maintaining his piccola realtà. Gianfranco is content to live in un’isola felice (a happy island), somewhere beyond the tainted waters of Slow Food. Through our time at Panetteria Fagnola, we recognized these two different realities, both equally convinced of their of own missions: to remain small with integrity and humble passion, or to grow in hopes of doing greater good for more people. One can argue the merits and weaknesses of each position but one must remember that this is no story of David and Goliath; it is with a healthy amount of exchange and respect - and maybe even a frolla or two - that the two can reach an understanding that will defend and create what both sides ultimately want.

And scene.

Tomorrow we leave on our first real stage. Destination: Alto Adige. I spent a couple days in Bolzano just after leaving Spannocchia; it’ll be great to see the city again in a different season (and without my prosciutto thighs) I’ve just realized that this essentially kicks off my summer – apart from two cheese exams (!!) next week, school’s out for the summer. And though I’ve really enjoyed the past two weeks of class, my travel plans have come together to create what could be an epic month. As of now, I’ll be wwoofing at Spannocchia for the first two weeks, then catching a flight to Puglia to meet some girls from school with the specific intention of eating as much burrata as is physically possible; hopping a ride back to Bra to then go to southern France to wwoof (and consequently hating myself for my inability to remember anything from my seven years of French class), and finally/possibly rounding out my trip with my burrata-buddies as we take on la cuisine provençale. It’s a good thing I’ve packed stretchy pants.

*tomatoes, white peaches, apricots, rye-kamut-farro-whole wheat bread, grissini, lardo, more tomatoes, caramelized onion ravioli, carne cruda, more peaches, yogurt, hazelnuts covered in honey, more bread, veal brains, and cow face. That’s been my diet in the past three days. Oh, and then some booze. Whoops.

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