I have just returned from my first stint of teaching at the Slow Food University (or, to give it its official title, the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche) in Pollenzo. Established in 2004 by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, the university is housed in the impressive Castello di Pollenzo, a residence of the Royal House of Savoy which dates back to the 14th century. Students come here from all over the world to study all aspects of food culture and practice. The university’s mission, in its own words, is to create ‘new professional figures with multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge in the fields of science, culture, politics, economics and ecology of food, working to apply them to production, distribution and sustainable consumption’.
While the school’s campus is at the Castello in the small village of Pollenzo, most students live in the nearby town of Bra, the birthplace of Slow Food. I was particularly delighted to be invited by my host Professor Simone Cinotto (seen below), to the Osteria del Boccondivino, where the wine-loving Carlo Petrini and his friends would regularly meet in the 1980s and where they reportedly first decided to found the movement that would become Slow Food, in response to the outrage they felt at seeing a branch of McDonald’s opening opposite the Spanish Steps in Rome. Today, Slow Food is an international movement with more than 100,000 members in 150 countries, but its headquarters remains where the movement started, sharing a leafy courtyard with the Osteria.
As one might hope and expect from a university dedicated to food, life in campus revolves around conviviality. Apart from generous daily meals in the airy canteen – where Petrini himself can often be seen entertaining guests – students and staff share regular feasts in their hillside retreat in the countryside, where sixty or so at a time may gather for seminars, to cook together and then sit to chew the cud under the stars over pasta and salad; the evening when I was there, Prof. Cinotto treated us to a lasagne made to his mother’s recipe, which I must say was awfully good.
The greatest pleasure of my stay, however, was getting to know the Master of Gastronomy students whom I was teaching: a wonderfully bright, driven and knowledgeable bunch from a wide variety of backgrounds in farming, hospitality, business and academia. Even though I only spent a week in their company, I have no doubt that they will make a huge difference to the world with their passion and determination to build a better future through food.
At the end of the week I was asked to set the students an exam, and thought it would be interesting to give them the option of drawing their vision of what a modern version of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of the Effects of Good Government might look like. Some of the responses they came up with, like this one by Michelle Elgenmann, were wonderful.