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Imagine five days filled with tasting the best food products from around the world and meeting the artisans who make them. Then add a whirlwind of political discussions, wine tastings and serendipitous meetings with fellow food enthusiasts, and you have a piece of what the biennial Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre convention offers visitors. We traveled to Turin, Italy, for the 10th convention, organized by the international Slow Food movement, to meet producers from some of the countries Culinary Backstreets covers. There are two parts of the convention: the Salone del Gusto, where hundreds of food producers from every region of Italy and many other countries offer their goods, and Terra Madre, where 130 producers from around the world give tastes of their artisanal products. This means you can inhale a perfect thin-crust pizza made by a famous pizzaiolo, grab a gianduja gelato from a pushcart, then walk a few minutes to Terra Madre for steaming hot tamales. If you decide to join the thousands of visitors who descend on the Lingotto Fiere convention center in 2016, come hungry.

Karina Abad Rojas of the Los Danzantes mezcal co-op, photo by Roxanne DarrowMexico
The Mexico stand called us over with fresh roasted cacao beans, bottles of deep-red chili sauce and crowds lined up for mezcal tasting. We spoke with Karina Abad Rojas, representative of the Los Danzantes cooperative, which markets small mezcal producers under the Mezcal Alipús brand. She poured us a shot from the Santa Ana del Rio producers, then instructed us to sip and savor – not shoot it back like kids on spring break in Cabo. The spirit is excellent: smooth, smoky with a hint of fruit. Rojas says the artisanal mezcal market has grown since they started the co-op 12 years ago, but its takes seven years for an agave plant to mature for harvesting, so they haven’t caught up to demand yet. She recommended a visit to their Los Danzantes restaurant in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City to taste their artisanal mezcal in a proper cocktail.

Jose Reyes Flores’s family has been growing chilies for 180 years in Michoacán, Mexico. He was feeling jet-lagged, so he ate a whole jar of his chile negro condimento (roasted chilies, onions, tomatoes) and felt good as new. One bite of the smoky, sweet hot sauce made us homesick for the intense California sun and home-style Mexican food. Flores has been growing chilies for 12 years now. Before farming he worked in the San Diego horseracing world. “I came back to be with my family,” he said. He sells his hot sauces to Wal-Mart and to the only organic farmers’ market in Mexico City, Mercado del 100.

China
Hunters in the Yunnan province of China used to press loose tea into bamboo sticks to make it easier to carry. This is the origin of the famous pu’er tea, which is still aged in bamboo and sold in compact pucks. We chatted with Hexie, the vice general manager of TianZi Biodiversity Products. He elegantly poured us a cup of golden caramel-colored tea, which tasted like roasty, sweet soil and mushrooms. TianZi is a family-run company, started by Li Minguo and her late husband, Josef Margraf, a German biologist. They source tea from traditional growers, age it, then sell it under the TianZi brand.

Hexie explained that TianZi is fighting against monoculture rubber, banana and sugarcane production, which are destroying the rain forests needed to produce tea. TianZi advocates and provides a model for a biodiverse tea ecosystem that allows for tea to grow within a balanced rain forest environment. TianZi is building a shop on its model farm, which will open to the public soon.

Greece
All the products at Terra Madre are special, they all have a story – but some are extra-delicious. But since everyone presents from the same, humble fold-up tables, with standardized signage, you never know when you might stumble upon a superstar bite. This happened to us at the Greek table, when we tried Trikalinos grey mullet bottarga (dried and cured fish roe). “Usually, bottarga is preserved in salt, which masks its flavor,” explains Lila Kourti, who is the gastronomic consultant for Trikalinos. Her husband, Zafeiris Trikalinos, figured out how to preserve the fish roe with less salt and seal it with beeswax to create a product that can be stored in the fridge for up to one year. This ingenuity came about because Trikalinos’s friend had a heart attack, and afterwards his doctor included bottarga on a list of forbidden foods because of its high salt content.

Trikalinos bottarga, photo by Roxanne DarrowKourti sliced us a piece of the red-orange fish roe and topped it with a few flakes of fleur de sel, lime zest and extra-virgin olive oil. It was sweet, creamy and totally luxurious – the taste of the sea, without all the salt. Seems like we aren’t alone in loving this product; chefs Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller use Trikolinos bottarga in their restaurants. For Athens visitors, Kourti recommended we try their bottarga at Travolta restaurant (Arkadias & Agiou Pavlou 33, Peristeri, tel. +30 210 571 9222).

Next to the bottarga, we met Sofoklis Panagiotou, a partner in Septem microbrewery on the island of Evia. Panagiotou was a winemaker for 13 years before he started Septem in 2007. “Hops are the grapes of beer,” he explained. His winemaking approach to brewing shows in his nuanced, balanced beers. We tasted the Citra Single Hop IPA, a fresh, crisp beer with lime and elderberry notes. “Try that with the bottarga,” he recommended – and he was right: They’re a remarkable pair.

Brazil
We don’t think of raw milk cheese when we think of Brazilian food, but the country’s stand was full of funky, unctuous cheeses, from some of the countryside’s 100,000 artisanal raw milk cheese producers. They have banded together in the Slow Food Queijos Artesanais working group to promote their products and fight for laws that will allow them to sell their products in the big cities (it is currently illegal to do so). Eledenir Zils Lorenz has been farming and making raw milk cheese in the southern state of Santa Catarina for 18 years. She swears her youthful glow comes from the glass of whey she drinks every day. Lorenz buys milk from small producers in her region, who have four or five cows, then sells her cheese in farmers’ markets and via home deliveries. Unfortunately, she cannot sell her cheese in supermarkets because of strict laws made to suit large agro-exporters, not small-scale producers. Rosangela Cintrão, a leader of the working group, says consumers seek these cheeses to make the addictive pão de queijo (manioc bread with cheese). Nothing like hot cheese bread to motivate legislative action.

Spain
Spain’s area was crowded with people salivating over the ruby-red ribbons of jamón ibérico that were being sliced by uniformed men. We ogled, then squeezed past to visit the Araba/Álava table, laden with olive oil and honey. Araba is a province in the Basque countryside (Araba is the Basque name, Álava is the Spanish name), and we chatted up a young olive oil producer, Iker Diaz de Cerio Hernaez. His family has produced olive oil for 50 years in Arróniz, in the neighboring province of Navarra. “This year’s olive oil is less spicy, because two years ago we had a lot of rain,” explains Hernaez. He suggested we try his olive oil in the pintxos at Koska Taverna in Barcelona.

Turkey
We raised a glass of wine with Turkish delegates and leaders of the Foça Zeytindalı market to celebrate their Gigi Frassanito Prize, awarded to the most innovative Earth Market of 2014. Earth Markets are farmers’ markets that meet Slow Food’s standards for small-scale artisanal production, a project established by the late Slow Food superstar Gigi Frassanito. Gül Girişmen founded the Foça Zeytindalı market near Izmir last year and has already implemented innovative programs like a partnership with the municipality and prison. The municipality buys seeds from Foça producers, then gives them to prisoners who grow vegetables and sell them at the Foça market. We spoke with Defne Koryürek, leader of the Slow Food Istanbul convivium, who hopes the award will inspire other small producers in Turkey to create their own Earth Markets.

Terra Madre gave us the incredible opportunity to hear stories from talented farmers and artisans from around the world who are safeguarding their local products. Yes, we may have overindulged in various traditional distilled spritis and danced at the Slow Food Youth Network booth with new friends, but that is the beauty of this convention – the combination of pleasure, education and activism.

(photos by Roxanne Darrow)

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