How far can you take in a placewithout feeling the breeze at the top of the mountain range or the change in oxygen level themoment you step out of the car? Being at the MIL is a sensory experience, inviting you toimmerse yourself in the moment and connect with the environment. When sharing about aplace like this you face the limitations of using media such as words, photos and videos, ittakes a bit of time to begin to unravel the layers behind MIL. A place like this deserves to learnabout its context to start making sense of it
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak about MIL, and the work of MaterIniciativa, at theUniversity of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG), in Pollenzo, Italy. This was the third year in a rowthat we have been invited to share our philosophy, evolution, mistakes made, learnings, valuesand plans to a diverse international audienceof the one-year master’s program ‘AppliedGastronomy’. The university is in a fascinating location, with the Italian mountain range visibleon the horizon. Here, in 1989, the Slow Food Movement was born, a movement that valueslocal food cultures and traditions and has now evolved into a global network. It is a place thatbreathes knowledge and aspiration in its architecture, its energy and the people around it.
It may have been an initial surprise to the students that someone from a restaurant wouldcome.Someone who spends most of their time not talking directly about the cuisine or thedishes being served, but about the cultural context of Peru, the reciprocal social relationshipswithin Andean communities, or the day-to-day reality and market opportunities of an Andeanpotato farmer. I believe it is crucial to have an understanding of this context before talkingabout the projects Mater does or the food we cook, as it is this context that has a greatinfluence on the type of projects we undertake. MIL isin constant negotiation with itsenvironment, looking for ways to grow in collaboration. It would not make sense to shareabout MIL only from the experience of the interpretation center itself. The actions that oneundertakes in the Andes are in interaction with their environment, they should not stand ontheir own, they are an interaction with the surrounding communities, the ecosystem, ouragricultural fields and the producers of the restaurant.
In this context, gastronomy is not limited to the food that is served. Working at Mater has a lot to do with the stories that are born around food, that give value to the work and place it in the social and environmental context. And sharing about MIL has a lot to do
with these stories. This in no way means downpl aying the importance of the dishes and drinks served, this is still the framework that holds the other elements together, the way we link the restaurant’s diners with the producers, and is the basis for facilitating the projects we undertake. By first talk ing about the context before talking about, for example, the dishes being served, these dishes become part of a larger narrative, rather than just a set of ingredients and techniques. To share our work is often not to dive directly into the dishes we cook or the projects we undertake, but rather the contextual information or interactions that lead to these projects. Perhaps there were some initial surprises for the students in class about the social and historical components discussed, however, they were shared with an audience whose education is shaped around similar types of stories. Slow Food’s values shape the university and its field of interest, and these overlap with the work we do at Mater. Slow Food defines its goal as follows “to prevent the disapp
earance of local food cultures and traditions, to counter the rise of fast living, and to fight people’s declining interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the world around us” (www.Slowfood.com). Slow Food and Mater may work in very different formats, but they share an important similarity in valuing the stories and practices around the food we eat. These are stories that deserve to be valued and shared, as they can shape our perspective on the future. Gastronomy can serve as a lens that can be placed in a broader context, and these insights can add value to what happens around the table. Talking about a gastronomic research organization like Mater or a place like MIL can therefore refer to many more topics than the dishes and drinks that are served, and in our context, we feel that these diverse stories are the basis of what we do.