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Take it slow and stay safe

Updated: 2012-09-19 09:45
By Eric Jou ( China Daily)

Gutter oil, melamine-tainted dairy products, fake eggs - these are only the tip of the iceberg of gastronomic nightmares that the Chinese consumer must face when shopping for food.

There's no question that food safety and food education are among the biggest problems these days. But there is hope on the horizon as both Chinese producers and consumers become more educated, and that is where Slow Food Saturday come in.

For the past two years, Slow Food Saturday, an event by the Mutianyu Schoolhouse, has been trying to teach and educate Beijing residents, taking them out to the outskirts of the city to learn where their food comes from, and also to bring them back to their culinary heritage by showing them how locals have been preparing traditional dishes for centuries.

"We will have events across the four villages - Mutianyu, Beigou, Xinying and Tianxianyu - near Mutianyu's Great Wall," says Tana Wu, sustainability program manager for the Mutianyu Schoolhouse. "Some of the events we held previously included food demonstrations by local restaurants, as well as a tofu-making demonstration."

Wu says Slow Food Saturday started off as a charity event designed to promote and raise awareness of locally sourced food, based on the Slow Food movement.

Slow Food began as a push to return to the roots of traditional food production. It is often viewed as a means to aim for sustainability. Started in Italy by Carlo Petrini, the movement adheres to the principles that good food should be "good, clean and fair". The food should be good in all senses of the term - it should be clean and not processed, and the people who produce it should be rewarded fairly for their work.

Julie Upton-Wang, a partner of the Mutianyu Schoolhouse, says that Slow Food is an important concept that often gets confused with organic. Upton-Wang says that organic produce is good but it isn't necessarily slow.

"It's really hard to claim you're entirely organic - you need the five years of the soil being chemical free, you've also got the acid rain here, I really feel it's not that easy to do," Upton-Wang says. "I think right now it's easier for us to introduce slow food, to say that we appreciate food that isn't processed."

To Upton-Wang and the Mutianyu Schoolhouse, slow food serves as both a selling point and a philosophy of life. Much of the food that is served at the Schoolhouse is locally grown and sourced, and many of the employees are locals.

Upton-Wang recalls a story of a mother bringing her kids to the Schoolhouse to learn about the countryside. They ordered pulled noodles for lunch. The noodles came with all the fixings and a hefty bill of 80 to 100 yuan ($12-16). Finding out that a bowl in the city normally costs about 20 yuan, the older child was outraged.

Upton-Wang says the girl's mother explained the reason for the cost and the girl understood.

The Mutianyu Schoolhouse is able to charge a premium for their noodles because they are offering a whole experience. The location where the daughter was eating was rented from the poorest man in the village who also happened to be the night watchman of the complex, the produce used to create her noodles was locally grown and made by locals, and she was able to get a view of the Great Wall underneath blue skies.

"The reality is that nothing is sustainable if it isn't economically viable," Upton-Wang says. "The price of the noodles goes back to everything. If you want instant noodles you can come eat instant noodles but that's not what we're about. We want people to enjoy great fresh pulled noodles.

"It's a total package experience that you're paying for."

Now in its third year, Slow Food Saturday is working directly with the Slow Food Convivium Beijing. According to Wu, all proceeds will go toward the convivium's mission to educate people on slow food.

Unlike previous years, the number of guests this year may be limited to about 250 people.

English teacher Stephanie Sneed is interested in attending this year's Slow Food Saturday. Sneed says it's important to raise awareness of where food comes from in China as well as give support to farmers.