Covered in vineyards, the Barolo hills are only a few kilometers away from the academy, and under the hazelnut bushes, unforgettably fragrant white truffles grow in the sandy soil. The local pasta is made with 30 egg yolks per kg of flour and every little village has a different recipe for its salami. Culinary pleasure is part of daily life here, where it has also been taught for more than ten years. For here in the heart of Piedmont lies the world’s first university of gastronomic sciences. Its founder is the charismatic president of the international Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, who grew up in the area and has been fighting globalization and homogenization of our food for more than 30 years.
Petrini is passionate about diversity, about food as a cultural asset and about transparency. Everyone should know what their food contains, where it comes from and who produces it. “What annoys me the most about fast food is its uniformity. An Inuit is expected to eat like a Moroccan – isn’t that a little disturbing?”, says Carlo Petrini. In order to create a place for young people to study food from an academic perspective, he founded the “Università degli studi di Scienze Gastronomiche” ten years ago, not far from his home town of Bra, and he could not have chosen a better place. There are now 450 students from 39 nations attending classes on an old estate of King Charles Albert between vineyards and taverns, close to the truffle capital Alba.
At first glance, it looks like a gourmet’s paradise, but for the students this is far more than just a course they take for pleasure. They want to change the world through gastronomy, rethink industrial agriculture, protect biodiversity and create a connection between gastronomy and agricultural science. And to achieve this, they travel all over the world.
Six times a year, the students visit a different country for a week. There they meet shepherds in the most remote places to make cheese with them, or they go to sea on small fishing boats to get to know the traditional fishing methods of the Ligurian fishermen. From Albanian mountain farmers, they learn everything about the effects of traditional medicinal plants and analyze the gastronomic landscape of a city such as Barcelona. They visit the smallest (as well as the largest) coffee-making establishment in Italy and compare the quality of the soil between highly industrial agriculture and Demeter farms.
“In general, we take a great interest in the soil, the earth in which our food grows. We grow fruit and vegetables for the cafeteria in our university garden according to biodynamic guidelines. This teaches us what seasonality means, what artisan farming means,” says Konstantin Steinmeier, a former student who now tends the garden. His hands are dirty, and after a day in the field, he has an enormous appetite.
How wonderful that what is probably the best cafeteria in the world is located in a restored old horse stable next to the garden. The concept is unique – in the kitchen, alumni and students work side by side, and once a month, celebrity chefs such as Massimo Bottura, Ferran Adria and Alex Atala respond to the call of Carlo Petrini. Here in the cafeteria, far away from their famous restaurants, they prepare a menu of local and seasonal products that costs the students only five euros, and at the same time they become guest professors. They talk about their relationships with their producers, innovation and tradition in the kitchen, and they share their thoughts on the future of food. Because it is precisely there that the students want to play a decisive role, as restaurateurs in the most diverse areas, as teachers, farmers, journalists, bakers, politicians, chefs, activists and, above all, as ambassadors. Because that is how the more than 2,000 students who have studied, lived and eaten here in this very special place since 2004 see themselves.
Text: Felix Watzka
Born in 1989, Felix Watzka is himself a graduate of the “Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche”, where he graduated in 2014 with a Master’s in Food Culture and Communications
Photo at top: ©Marcello Marengo