March 2, 2021

“Coffee is part of the restaurant”: Exploring Slow Food philosophy in the coffee sector

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly automated and accelerated, and the way we eat and drink has not been spared. Takeaway food and the idea that everything can be made “to go” have become the norm. The pace of modern life is broadly frantic and hurried.

Despite this, third wave coffee culture in recent years has embraced the idea of taking time to enjoy coffee. It is also partly rooted in learning more about the people and story behind the coffee. Altogether, this line of thinking has led consumers to learn about the value of an equitable and fair supply chain.

But this approach is not unique to coffee. First conceptualised more than 30 years ago, the “Slow Food” movement has since spread far and wide across the world.

To better understand it and how it is linked to coffee, I spoke to Cristina Reni, food expert for the International Trade Centre’s Alliances for Action, Emanuele Dughere from Slow Food International, and John Wanyu from Slow Food Uganda. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article about the effectiveness of direct coffee trade.

What is Slow Food?

Slow Food is a global culinary movement that is characterised as a response to globalisation, fast food, and the disconnect between consumers and what they eat.

Cristina Reni is a food expert for the International Trade Centre’s Alliances for Action agribusiness programme. According to her, the philosophy is about “understanding ingredients through taste and taking the time to sit down and enjoy”.

Cristina also tells me that it is about making quality more inclusive and accessible. In the world of gastronomy, the French school of cuisine used to rule with specific techniques and ingredients.

In recent years, however, a “new wave” of chefs has challenged that. For them, modern gastronomy is instead focused on simple, everyday products and foods that can taste amazing. It is no longer about luxury for the elite.

Slow Food is also the name of a grassroots organisation founded in 1989. Its aim is to protect local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of “fast life”, and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat. This includes a focus on where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.

Emanuele Dughera is the “focal point” for Slow Food International’s coffee projects. He tells me that the organisation principally works to ensure everyone has access to “good, clean and fair food”. 

It also holds consumers accountable through the belief that our food choices can collectively influence how food is cultivated, produced, and distributed.

How does it apply to coffee?

Coffee, though not “food” per se, is a core component of gastronomy and consumption more widely. It has undergone huge changes over the past few centuries, through coffee’s “waves” and beyond.

“In Europe’s 18th century, coffee was a social experience, all about slow sipping,” Cristina says. “With industrialisation, everything accelerated and it became something to gulp down and stay awake.”

She also notes that the focus of the Slow Food philosophy is on the transformation of the ingredient, and understanding how it connects us as consumers. This resonates with a lot of modern conversations about coffee.

Under the Slow Food organisation’s umbrella is the Coffee Presidia project, part of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.

The Coffee Presidia project aims to raise awareness about a number of cultural and social issues in the coffee sector. Each Presidium has the same ultimate goal: shortening the supply chain and improving quality of life for producer members. It works with both farmers and roasters to reach consumers and promote a “new” coffee culture.

However, Emanuele adds that they are taking it a step further. He tells me that Slow Food and Lavazza are currently collaborating to create what they call the “Slow Coffee coalition”.

“[It will be] a mosaic of every player across the coffee supply chain, from farmers to consumers,” he says. Concepts such as defending agricultural biodiversity, improving food security, and ensuring a living income for farmers are at its core. 

As for why the project partnered with a major commercial brand like Lavazza, Emanuele says: “We need to change the system together. We cannot do it alone. 

“We want to reach as many people as possible, and need good players and partnerships to improve the coffee supply chain.”

A focus on sustainability

Food – and coffee – produced in line with Slow Food principles is fundamentally sustainable. It is:

  • Good, because it is healthy, as well as having enjoyable sensory qualities
  • Clean, because it is mindful of the environment and animal welfare
  • Fair, because it is respectful of the work of the people who produce, process, and distribute it

Slow Food at production level

John Wanyu is the co-ordinator for Slow Food Uganda. He also manages Uganda’s Coffee Presidium, one of the Slow Food Coffee Presidia.

John tells me that Slow Food promotes agroecology to farmers, and notes that there is a focus on supporting crop diversification. Coffee is a cash crop for producers in Uganda. Harvesting ginger, bananas, and vegetables alongside their coffee plants means food to take home as well as extra income from the local market.

Another area of focus, John says, lies in encouraging farmer communities to preserve crops that face extinction. John says that in Uganda, Kisansa (liberica) and Nyasaland (a derivative of Bourbon/Typica) are two varieties with amazing cup profiles but dwindling production volumes. 

According to John, this is because the Ugandan government is offering free, more resilient arabica hybrids. These are gradually taking over coffee growing areas as farmers observe that they are more profitable.

The problem, John explains, is not that the natural varieties are not productive. Instead, it is that the farmers do not know enough about them or how to care for them.

By giving out free agricultural inputs (like fertilisers) and new hybrid varieties, the government may mean well. However, they are also transforming the country’s biodiversity.

To address this, John says the Ugandan Coffee Presidium is helping coffee farmers reconnect with these native coffee varieties, and supporting them to grow them successfully and profitably.

It is teaching farming communities about how these varieties respond to climate and soil conditions, best agricultural practices, and crop diversification. 

Slow Food & coffee consumption

On the consumer side, Cristina tells me that a “small revolution” has taken place in the restaurant sector over the last 10 years or so. Today, chefs have a lot more responsibility than they used to. As a result, they are more accountable.

“A necessary dialogue is happening,” Cristina says. “And coffee is part of that conversation.”

For all food products (and coffee) socially and environmentally sustainable sourcing is now at the top of the agenda. Chefs, food entrepreneurs, and coffee brands are all taking part.

Zero waste, efficient processing, and fair social practices are three key factors at play. They take longer and are more expensive, but the idea is that a more sustainable supply chain will be stronger in the long term. 

“Coffee is part of the restaurant, and [as such] we need to look at origin; who produced it, where it comes from, and how it impacts the environment,” Cristina says.

Origin & local culture

Until the past few decades, little attention was paid to the story of the communities behind the coffee we drank. This is partially due to a significant geographical divide, but also due to years of cultural repression as a result of colonialism’s relationship with coffee. 

Today, promoting the story of where a product comes from (thus preserving local culture and heritage) is key to the Slow Food philosophy. The same is true of Slow Coffee. 

The Slow Coffee exercise of preserving native coffee varieties and reinstating them into specific ecosystems, as in Uganda, is not just a matter of agroecology. It is also about preserving national heritage and finding value in it.

After centuries of Europe and the United States being presented as examples of “how to consume”, producing countries are finally starting to promote their own national and regional cultural values in consumption. 

Cristina was born and raised in Venezuela, which produces a comparatively small volume of coffee. “Growing up, coffee ‘musts’ were Lavazza and Illy,” she says. “People would go to the supermarket to buy those brands.” 

Italian coffee was seen as glamorous and luxurious and people were prepared to pay more for that – no matter the quality of the coffee grown in Venezuela at the time.

However, in time, communities in Latin America have come to question this line of thinking. More are starting to look at what they have to offer in-country.

Bridging the knowledge gap between producers and consumers

Addressing the disconnect between producers and consumers is a philosophy common to both Slow Food philosophy and third wave coffee culture.

However, while third wave coffee arguably focuses on educating the consumer, Slow Food philosophy also places an emphasis on the educating the producer on where their coffee ends up and how it is used. 

Educating chefs, roasters & consumers

Italy is famous for its national coffee brands and espresso culture. Emanuele says that despite this, coffee knowledge among chefs in Italy is mixed. 

“In Italy, we put sugar in our coffee usually because it is bitter and burnt,” he says. “The coffee may be old or extracted in the wrong way; the real taste is lost.”

However, Emanuele believes that if given the opportunity, consumers will be astonished by the difference in taste. 

“We want to teach consumers and those who serve them about origin, quality, and all the wonderful stories behind it.”

Developing producers’ knowledge of coffee from seed to cup

While Uganda has ancestral links to coffee, it is not a majority coffee-drinking country. Its coffee culture is still developing. For a long time, coffee was an export crop that Ugandan farmers had no choice but to cultivate. 

“Propaganda during the Second World War about how coffee was taken to Europe to manufacture bullets made things worse,” John explains. This distanced Ugandans from their crop and lessened their desire to consume it.

Confusion about the end use of coffee puts farmers at a disadvantage. It becomes difficult to experiment and subsequently improve quality if you have never tasted the final product.

In turn, without the capacity to achieve good quality, farmers can struggle to improve profitability and make a living income. 

John says that one of the Coffee Presidia’s aims is to reconnect farmers to their product so they can address that. 

“We want to teach farmers to taste their work and to gradually create local markets for coffee,” he says. “[I realise how] unbelievable it is that we (Ugandans) are growing coffee yet have no idea of its end use and the joy it brings.” 

However, he does acknowledge that this is no simple feat. It will take time to change a generation’s culture and “unlearn” decades of negative associations.

In the coffee sector, the Slow Food philosophy can add value at every step of the supply chain. It bears many similarities to third wave coffee culture. It is as much about savouring the product as it is consuming with good intentions and transparency.

Building a coffee supply chain that is truly good, clean, and fair has been on the agenda for the sector for some time already. We know that it will not happen overnight. It will take education, effort, resources, and collaboration. And it will take time. But as the saying goes: slow and steady wins the race.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on colonial inequalities in the coffee sector.

Photo credits: Slow Food Uganda, Sarah Charles 

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