Dishing out an à la carte education

December 24, 2004

Geoff Andrews explores a university that serves up gourmet courses

One of the dilemmas that new university students often grapple with is how to manage their food budget. Shelves stocked with tinned food or visits to the refectory for microwaved steak and kidney pies are the best most can hope for.

There will be no such dilemma, however, for the first intake of students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, which opened its doors this term at its two campuses in the traditional heartlands of Italian food. The very first "Slow University", founded by the Slow Food Movement, occupies acres of land in Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, and comes equipped with its own restaurant and hotel, and has visits to vineyards and olive groves on the curriculum.

However, the purpose of the university is not to offer cookery classes or wine-tasting courses, but rather to address a major "cultural vacuum" in the provision of higher education. This vacuum, according to Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, is the absence of an interdisciplinary approach in the study of food. It has meant that the humanities have largely ignored the "idea of pleasure" as not meriting serious attention, leaving the study of food to scientists. Scientists, meanwhile, have denied the humanist basis of the history of food, focusing too narrowly on food science and nutrition.

In the university's prospectus, Petrini argues that it "is truly incredible that such an important feature of our lives and a field so vast... has never acquired academic recognition". His conclusion, shared by the growing Slow Food movement, which now has members in more than 80 countries, is unequivocal. More intensive farming and industrial food processing has resulted in environmental damage and the impoverishment of farmers. Our palates, meanwhile, like those of most university students, too often become reliant on fast-food outlets, what Petrini calls "protein filling stations".

To rectify this, the university curriculum offers an innovative range of degree courses, employing scholars from disciplines as wide ranging as philosophy, anthropology, botany, gastronomy, agriculture, biology, economics, sociology, agronomy and nutrition science. Wine journalists, food critics and leading restaurateurs will offer specialist lectures. The 60 students, chosen from 500 applicants worldwide, can study a variety of interdisciplinary courses.

Typically this might include the history of cooking and gastronomy, in the first year, followed by the geography of wine, in the second, and the sociology of consumption, in the final year. Or for the two-year specialisation degree, students could do gastronomic literature and consumer psychology in the first year, followed by business marketing and food law and legislation in their second.

The university also offers "thematic" and "regional field seminars", which could take students not only to Tuscany and Sicily, but to Californian wine regions, the Champagne area of France, and gastronomic centres in Japan and South Africa.

Laptops, laboratories and multimedia libraries are all provided, which means that the cost of studying in the slow lane does not come cheap, though scholarships are provided for successful applicants who need them, and the university itself has received generous sponsorship.

The main site, where the hotel and restaurant are located, is at Pollenzo just outside Bra, the small town that has become the headquarters of the Slow Food movement, and in the centre of the Langhe wine region famous for its Barolo. As the Slow Food capital, Bra has been transformed. More than 100 staff now work in its offices, and with university students taking up residence there its status as one of Italy's "Slow Cities" is likely to be enhanced.

This raises the question of whether the idea of the Slow University will catch on elsewhere. The more frenetic and austere environment of the British university might seem a million miles from Petrini's ideals. The grey-suited technocrats who run our universities are too busy keeping us all "up to speed" on the latest ways to meet targets, while university curricula face increasing pressure from education ministers to service the needs of the economy.

Yet when I interviewed him over lunch at the university's restaurant, Petrini was optimistic that the Slow Life would continue to provide answers to many of the problems of globalisation. "To see the world through gastronomy is to address a number of political, cultural and social questions," he says. "The Slow Food Movement brings three values to the globalisation debate: respect for the environment, respect for social life and the right to pleasure," he told me over a glass of Barbera d'Alba 2001.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy after Berlusconi , to be published by Pluto Press in 2005. He is lecturer and staff tutor in politics at the Open University.

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