Slow Food show taps consumer trend for adventure

By Chris Mercer in Montpellier

- Last updated on GMT

Visitors have doubled in two years as the identity, individuality
and heritage of food takes on new importance among consumers
increasingly scouring the globe for authentic tasty sensations.

It was somehow ominously appropriate that, in the week building up to the Slow Food exhibition in southern France, the European Court of Justice handed sole rights for Feta cheese production back to Greece.

The EU has listed 41 products it would like to receive global 'protected origin' status at the up-coming World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong.

The Feta ruling only served to highlight the potential authentic, bona fide food and drink now has in what market research groups believe is a growing move against processed products.

The international Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in 1986, encapsulates this trend in the extreme, standing for the celebration of difference and the regional and cultural identity of quality food and wine.

The Slow Food show, Aux Origins du Gout​, this weekend allowed more than 80 small producers, including producers of wine, liqueurs, cheese and those with novel foods such as anchovy oil known only on Italy's Amalfi Coast, direct access to consumers.

The event put a strong focus on wine, offering more than 600 varieties for visitors to taste.

Laurent Dal'azovo, technical director of an agricultural cooperative on southern France's Côte Vermeille, was representing the only remaining producers of Vins Rancio left in France.

The wines, most made using Grenache grapes, smell more like a port and have a smooth yet acidic taste.

"Nobody makes it anymore because it's all about sugar, sugar, sugar now,"​ said Dal'azovo, adding that some vintners still make vins rancio for personal consumption.

Thierry Hasard, an independent wine maker based near Montpellier, said he knew some consumers preferred simpler, less complicated wines, but that there was space for all kinds. He sells his wine, made mostly from the very old Carignan vines, to several good restaurants.

"I want to make something that has personality. I want to say this is my wine from my terroir. This is what gives wine character, the way vines are picked, treated and nurtured."​ Hasard hopes consumers will learn to appreciate more complicated wines after they are used to the simpler, industrial stuff.

And, while people like Dal'azovo and Hasard may pose little threat to drinks industry giants like Constellation Brands and Pernod Ricard, their growing presence is a warning shot across the bows.

Jean Lhéritier, president of Slow Food France, said the idea of Slow Food was to bring something different to the market. It is an idea that seems to be catching on.

Lhéritier said the event in France had doubled in size since it was first held two years ago, attracting between six and eight thousand consumers from all over the country in the last three days.

He said the idea had great potential to expand over the next decade and that Slow Food groups had already begun working in many countries, including the UK, US, Japan and Germany. The movement now has around 83,000 members worldwide.

"It is the opposite to industrial products,"​ said André Labourde, visiting the Montpellier exhibition. "A lot of people in France are becoming really aware of quality products, and they want to buy them and support them."

A number of market research firms have pointed to a growing adventurousness among western consumers in particular. A recent Mintel report said that 42 per cent of Britons who went out to eat were "willing and even wanting to try new dishes and different foods"​.

Meanwhile, many large food firms now place the development of new flavour combinations at the top of their research and development lists.

Some of the producers at the Montpellier show have no aspirations to become larger. One exhibitor at a stall selling five-year-old cheese from Bordeaux said the family-run firm was happy sticking to markets and shows.

The problem for the world's larger producers may come not from direct competition, but from the EU's love affair with protected designations of origin and the possibility that speciality products could eat further into premium segments.

A special Brazilian jam called Umbú at the Montpellier show was recently picked up by fair trade firm Alter Eco and is now set to be launched in French supermarket chain Leclerc.

And of course, the internet, as a medium for direct selling and vital publicity, has also made it more possible than ever for consumers to find such products.

"At Slow Food, the consumers are co-producers,"​ said Lhéritier.

"It is important to talk about the culture and the 'terroir': the people, the climate and the earth that have made the product. It is about responsible and quality production, but it is also about giving people pleasure through what they eat."

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