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Little snail on a grueling journey to change the unalterable - nutrition habits

  • 2010-12-02
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

ENJOYING THE WAIT: Though the Lithuanian slow food movement is still relatively small, Dainius Juozaitis (center) says growing, attracting more growers and ‘eaters.’

 KLAIPEDA - If Carlo Petrini, Italian cuisine buff, had not been disgusted at seeing snacks abundant with taste-enhancing ingredients in a fast food joint, the Slow Food Movement maybe would have never wriggled its way through. However, the nourishment-savvy and patriotic Italian has well perceived what dangers trendy fast food foreign eateries pose to traditional Italian cuisine and its deep traditions. Therefore, he embarked on a seemingly futile plight - to make a change. The colossal striving, 20 years after Petrini’s fateful visit to the snack-bar, resulted in a movement that has spread to 122 countries, paving its way to Lithuania last year as well.

Promoted as an alternative to fast food, the movement strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic to the local ecosystem.

Frankly, the name of the international movement, Slow Food, likely conjures up images of a digestion-savvy freak munching scrupulously, not a multifaceted international movement. Having heard that remark, Dainius Juozaitis, one of the leaders of Slow Food’s Lithuanian branch, smirked, maintaining, “It has to do not as much with eating specifics, as much as what encompasses forming, sustaining and developing local culinary traditions.” Besides, he adds, it is about preserving and promoting local and traditional food products, as well as organizing small-scale processing and educating consumers about the risks of fast food.

The Lithuanian Slow Food community, Juozaitis acknowledges, is still tiny, but is assuredly expanding, involving food growers, producers and eaters. “So far it consists of a dozen active members, but we have a few hundred supporters. We are trying to set up a well-knit community where everyone knows each other, focusing on food preparation and consumption,” the movement’s spearhead revealed to The Baltic Times.

The snail, embodying the movement’s gist, is its trademark, as if inviting one not to rush, but to stay calm and savor local food’s pleasurable tastes. “During the Soviet years, many deep Lithuanian culinary traditions have simply vanished or been put on the brink of extinction. Thus, some cattle breeds, as well as linseed oil and some local spice plants have disappeared. For example, hemp, a popular beneficial plant, has been victimized and ostracized, though its seeds were regarded as the best vitamin source in pre-war Lithuania. We strive to revive the culinary traditions of our heritage,” Juozaitis maintains. He affirms that the Slow Food Movement, in order to respond to endangered culinary traditions, has composed a catalogue of food products that are on the brink of extinction or have already evanesced. “Some cattle breeds, as well as linseed oil and hemp, have been listed in it. Poles, for example, have included their midus, a honey-rich alcoholic beverage, into it,” says Juozaitis.

Though the fledgling Slow Food Movement in Lithuania paves its way for bigger goals, its egg, to tell the truth, goes back to 2006, when Viva Sol, the association of Lithuania’s farmers, manufacturers and consumers, spearheaded by the prominent Lithuanian cheese maker Valdas Kavaliauskas, started it.

Juozaitis wants Slow Food Vilnius, the name by which the movement goes in Lithuania, to raise Lithuanians’ awareness about the drawbacks of commercial agro business and factory farms, as well as to educate citizens about the risks of monoculture and reliance on too few cattle breed genomes. “Unfortunately, now in Lithuania we witness an encroaching of foreign-to-us culinary traditions, which drives away our national culinary heritage,” regrets Juozaitis. He admits his propensity for natural, ecological farming: “As amateurs, my wife and I grow ecological vegetables in the Vilnius region. We may undertake farming in the future,” the eco-savvy man admits.

What started as Slow Food Vilnius has already shaped into a Taste School, offering its attendees a wide range of lectures on food consumption, manufacturing, policies – whatever nutrition is all about. Thus, a few weeks ago the school invited everyone for a discussion about meat, its types, old and new ways of its processing and preparing. “Over centuries we have used for taste smoked, salted or dried meats and sausages in our villages where our grandparents lived. Regrettably, with time elapsing, we produce these products ourselves less and less, as our knowledge about them diminishes and we tend not always to ask our grandmothers about them. Besides, our dishes more often are being prepared from pork, beef or chicken, while our ancestors preferred lamb, duck and goose…” the school’s official Web site put out the announcement inviting health-conscious people to the discussion. During the talk, participants learned about seasonality of meats, their nutritional value and the ways of their processing and conserving.

In another discussion, which took place in October, attendees were invited to talk about apples. “Lithuanian apple trees’ branches bend down, not being able to carry ripened apples of such breeds as antaniniai, ananasiniai, avietiniai or pepinai. Sometimes on the tables of our ancestors, little sour wild apples would turn up. Alas, meantime, in our supermarkets, we see only Jonagold, Golden Delicious or Gloster. It is painful to see this. Our movement sets a goal to protect Lithuanian horticulture and agriculture products, which most of the time, in terms of quality and taste, are better than foreign ones. People who live in Lithuania’s regions should use products made in those regions,” Juozaitis maintained. He plans to throw out a discussion on Christmas dishes in December.

“I am glad that more and more people are interested in our movement. I look at it from the point that many people nowadays are very remote from each other, their neighborhoods and the country itself. To become closer, to strike up tight-knit family ties and trust each other, all these objectives can be reached sitting around a properly set dinner table with the right meals on it. Being aware who grew your food and in which way it was grown, and what was its journey to your table, makes you feel quite differently about your nourishment,” Vitalija Pilipauskaite, one of the founding fathers of the Taste School, pointed out to The Baltic Times.

The Lithuanian Slow Food School followed Slow Food’s opening of a University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo, in Piedmont, and Colorno, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, in 2004. The aforementioned Carlo Petrini and his counterpart Massimo Montanari were the leading figures in the creation of the University, which aims to promote awareness of good food and nutrition. It is estimated that the movement encompasses over 100,000 members in 132 countries now. Besides, it cherishes the ideas of promoting sustainable foods of local small businesses, while its political agenda is directed against globalization of agricultural products.

Pilipauskaite asserts that she had long dreamt of establishing this kind of school - way before she heard about the Slow Food Movement. “With a bunch of close friends, I would always bring up issues of healthy nourishment, as well as the necessity to promote local food. The school’s idea popped up quite naturally, from my personal beliefs and the perception that the school is a natural development of the movement we represent,” she says.

The spearheads and supporters of Slow Food Vilnius are determined not to restrict themselves with lectures on foods, but also to exuberantly reach out to agro production growers, manufacturers and consumers. “We contemplate arranging degustation programs at farms and food manufacturing facilities. We do not want our movement to be massive. We are striving to have it as a small, virile community, which would unite farmers, manufacturers and us, eaters. These kinds of communities are known as convivias around the world. For example, there are over 360 convivias in Italy,” Juozaitis remarked. The organizational structure of such a convivia is decentralized, as each has a leader who is responsible for promoting local artisans, local farmers, and local flavors through regional events such as taste workshops, schools, wine tastings, and farmers’ markets.

The Slow Food Movement may seem to be overlapping with other similar movements, particularly eco movements. However, Juozaitis asserts that his organization does not intend to rival any ecological movement. “As in the rest of the world, Slow Food Vilnius firstly heeds local culinary and food traditions and human relations deriving from our nutrition habits,” Juozaitis says. “Besides that, we emphasize food seasonality,” Pilipauskaite interjects. She says that Vilnius Taste School remains an informal and non-binding educational establishment that so far focuses on a wide array of lectures being delivered by nutritionists, agro cultivators, agro product manufacturers, Lithuanian culinary heritage experts and ordinary food consumers, which Juozaitis calls ‘eaters.’

Having started with the Slow Food School, its creators are looking forward to proceeding with more resources requiring undertakings – growing public gardens in big cities where their residents would cultivate fruits and vegetables. “There is an increasing trend of these kinds of gardens in the world. It is being triggered by several factors, including the rising perception that city gardening is an excellent way of leisure; secondly, this way residents manage to grow needed fruits and vegetables in their own neighborhood, thus restoring their fractured relations with Mother Nature; thirdly, it would serve as an educational means for children. It is a widely accepted practice in Italy to grow gardens in heavily urban areas, usually next to schools. We will attempt to implement these kinds of ideas in Lithuania as well,” Juozaitis says optimistically. He is convinced that the price of foods grown nearby would not be as high as in supermarkets. “When you buy food from somebody you know, you acquire only the products you really need. When it comes to shopping in a supermarket, one tends to obtain commodities that he or she often does not really need,” Juozaitis explained.