Story by Sarah Venable.  Photography by Don Jordan, Sofie Warren and Curwin Cherubin.

Everybody knows what fast food is, but what about Slow Food? It’s a worldwide movement that’s dedicated to re-balancing the lifestyle that fast food reflects and enables. It aims to change the world by changing the menu, and it’s larger than you might imagine. Founded in Italy in 1989, the movement has branches in over 150 countries.

Slow Food’s principles are very pertinent to small islands like ours. With an annual food import bill of half a billion dollars, and about ten days worth of food to live on if the ships stopped coming, Barbados’ food security is more of a joke than anything you could make up about Slow Food taking long to prepare.

The name may be new to you, but the movement honours the past. Remember the way food used to be raised and eaten before factory farming, restaurant chains, GMO’s, and transporting commodities long distances from producers to consumers? Now you are getting the picture. Slow Food sees agriculture, food production and gastronomy as parts of the same whole, rooted in ecosystems and cultural traditions. Members advocate for biodiversity and sustainability. They promote the sheer pleasure of fresh, healthy food and insist that it should be produced in ways that do not harm the environment or the workers, and at a fair price.

Slow Food reached our shores last year with a chapter founded by social entrepreneur and activist Ian McNeel, health coach and founder of In Model Health Julie Hooper, Secretary of the Organic Growers and Consumers Association (OGCA) John Hunte, sustainability planner Lani Edghill and Fraser Young of Eco Structure Barbados. They made a splash by orchestrating Farm to Table dinners to connect producers, chefs and customers. Small, organic farms provided whatever was available to the chefs - Nick Melillo, who catered the initial event at Hunte’s Gardens, Larry Rogers at Cin Cin, and Chef Moo (Mark de Gruchy) at Cafe Luna.

Ian explained, “We procure ingredients from about ten different producers or farmers and take it to the chefs. Hopefully a relationship is struck.” That was the case for John Hunte, who now supplies Cafe Luna as a result of the connection. He said, “Sometimes our farmers need a catalyst outside of the organisation. What Slow Food did was knock on doors which we had not opened ourselves, by negotiating a one-off to show our potential.”

Ian would like to see restaurants using more local produce. “Even if it’s just a few items, it would help the farmers to afford to grow more, to supply more. That could completely shift the food economy on this island. And the chefs will get fresher food too.” Shifting to organic is important too, but our small producers struggle to meet demand. The OGCA has 22 members, most of whom grow a variety of crops on an acre or two. Some of the variations can be surprising. At Conscious Farm, Lisa Browne grows much of her produce in little barrels, specialising in leafies like Swiss chard, collards and kale. She also makes plant nutrient tea from compost, and natural pesticide from neem leaves. Sheila Hope-Harewood makes condiments and liver tonic from her produce, and sells moringa seedlings too. Others focus on fruit. As a functional demonstration project, Fraser Young’s Apes Hill home, Sugarwater, is landscaped entirely in edibles as seen in the last edition of Living Barbados magazine.

Some non-OGCA farmers share their values. Salad greens specialist, Nature’s Produce, is one. At Hoad’s Dairy Farm in St. Andrew 14 acres are devoted to goats. Fed no additives, these frisky ruminants produce milk to be consumed as is or made into cheese, available in all major supermarkets on the island. Our island fishers fit naturally into Slow Food’s paradigm. Stanton Thomas uses long lines for large fish. When jacks are running, he’ll use a net, but only a small one. “If I had my way, seine nets would be banned for the next five years to allow fish populations to replenish.” Richard Archer of Viridis produces 15 different varieties of mangoes on four acres in St. Thomas, using only organic pest control and fertilisers. Future plans include processing into natural organic juices and jams and direct sales through a new produce retail market to be opened next year at Hopewell Plantation.

Keeping up supply on a commercial level is the biggest challenge facing both small farmers and chefs. Ras Mike Bradshaw, a farming member of the OGCA, laments that when his tractor needs a part, he can’t plough and plant as planned. It’s this type of thing that makes supply dicey, something Ian hopes to help with. John Hunte would love to provision more than one restaurant, but could he? He sounds like Amy Winehouse resisting rehab: “No, no, no!”

What the OGCA does quite well is sell to the public at weekend farmers’ markets like Hastings, Holders, and Cheapside. Encouraged by Slow Food, they’ve also started taking orders for weekly boxes containing a mix of whatever’s available. There’s a waiting list, because demand is already exceeding supply. (You can sign up on the OGCA Facebook page.)

Slow Food also supports the cultural identity that is expressed in traditional cuisine. Think fried fish on Fridays, souse on a Saturday, or Sunday lunch with Blackbelly lamb stew, yam coucou, fried plantains, and spinach fritters, for example. These are more than just meals, they carry meaning.

As long as the food is locally produced, you’re also free to turn tradition on its head. That’s what Chef Moo did at his Farm to Table dinner in September 2013. The menu included a salad of Eden Farm rocket and mustard greens with pickled local beetroot, roasted cherry tomatoes and eggplant, Hoad Farm goat cheese, pumpkin seeds, and avocado pear dressing; and sesame crusted yellow fin tuna with pawpaw relish and local gooseberry balsamic syrup.

“I shop at Cheapside market. It’s tastier than imported because it’s fresher and not all GMO.  It’s not delivered, so I can compare and select what’s best. I save 28 to 30%, so I can drop my price point, and make the meals more affordable for the average Barbadian. I put about $36,000 a year into the local farming economy through the market. Imagine if ten or twenty more chefs did that.” What about organic food?  “The end result is a better environment, so yes!”

Larry Rogers of Cin Cin comments, “We as restaurateurs and chefs need to keep building our relationships with local farmers and fishermen. Our farmers have become more efficient in dealing with restaurant demands. Shawn, my purchaser, would go to four or five different farms in a day plus the fish market, because if it doesn’t have to travel for days before it arrives in my kitchens, the fresher it will be. I can get freshly harvested crayfish from Nature’s Produce in the morning and it becomes a star on my menu that night.” 

As an educational project, Slow Food Barbados started the first organic school farm at the Alleyne School in St. Andrew. Learning starts with tasting and grows from there. “We ask ‘What does an imported tomato taste like compared to these that are grown here?’” said Julie. “And different varieties too, because promoting biodiversity is very important. There’s also a nutrition component, and the canteen is now using some of what the students grow. We’re now starting a recipe contest to encourage the  students and their parents to make delicious foods with what we have right here.”

There’s so much to do! Ian would like to ramp up agro-tourism, and help fix the problem with Blackbelly lamb production. (Simply put, it sees lower chef demand because it takes certain handling methods to assure best quality.) And then there’s the seed project. Organic, non-GMO, untreated seeds are being given to certain farmers and sold for donations. Ian said, “That brings us to seed saving, which is important. If people did that, they wouldn’t have to re-purchase; it becomes a seed bank of sorts.”

Slow Food has a long road ahead here, but the goals are clear. And after all, remember the race between the tortoise and the hare.

For more information on future Farm to Table events email Ian or Julie at info@SlowFoodBarbados.org and visit them on facebook.com/SlowFoodBarbados   www.SlowFoodBarbados.org

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