If you told me while touring Connecticut College that four years later I would be going on an open day at Slow Foods Uni, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would probably have laughed in your face and said, with a mix of sarcasm and disappointment, that I would be standing on that quad thinking about my math homework. Even if you told me earlier this year that I would be going on an Open Day at Slow Food university, I wouldn’t have believed you. Because who goes to Slow Food university?
Rich-looking Northern Italian kids and their parents, that’s who. A handful of Germans, a pair of Austrians and a Swiss girl with her mother, that’s who. An aging Canadian professor, a Lithuanian line cook and a final year English student who’s writing a “dissertation” on Slow Foods, that’s who.
A visit to l’Università di scienze gastronomiche is the only reason to visit Pollenzo. To get there — if you can really call Pollenzo a ‘there’ — you take the bus from the Bra train station, itself is a bit out of the way at the end of a regionale line leaving from Turin. The bus leaves once every hour and a half. Luckily, the bus costs only 2.20 EUR and you buy your ticket on board, not the tabacchi as you’d expect. The bus ride is pleasant as far as these things go, especially if you get one of a nice bus. Even on an old bus, the scenery makes up for the rickety seats.
As you’ll soon discover, there’s a reason why the university is in nowhere Piedmont. The university — UNISG, one word, as they call it — aims not to give students a culinary education, but a gastronomic one. That means they need to understand the entire food cycle. You may think: perfect! The middle of nowhere must have a farm, perfect for them to understand the lifecycle of tomatoes and eggplants. You’d be wrong, as we would be about most things Slow Food before examining them. No, the university is located in Pollenzo because the little town’s was a crossroads for trade in the Roman era. Goods came in from Genova before getting processed in Torino and being sent throughout the country. Pollenzo: gorgeous scenery and a historical epicentre.
I wasn’t expecting to like UNISG, but it was nicer than I anticipated. The classrooms were bright and modern, there was an admirable amount of technology and the library had a copy of Fool magazine. Yet, it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s a private Italian university that paradoxically receives funding from Grana Padano, Parmiggiano Reggiano and Barilla (I’m still scratching my head over that one). The university aims to educate students in gastronomy with a multidisciplinary academic approach, yet doesn’t have research. Most students said they thought there would be more hands on learning. They take five domestic and international trips a year and, despite their assurances, the videos of these scholastic adventures looked more like fun than hard work. UNISG is as much a paradox as Slow Foods is itself.
Carlo Petrini, Slow Foods’ founder, spoke at the end. The speech synthesized the themes and ideas that make Slow Foods so compelling as a movement and UNISG such a strange idea. They don’t make sense. Is Slow Food concerned with how we eat or what we eat? Does it exist in a cultural context or outside of one? Is it trying to create its own? The same can be said for UNISG. Is the university trying to create its own education? Why should anyone choose their academics over, say, a research university? I don’t know and I got the feeling the university doesn’t know either.
Going to an open day at UNISG was the strangest thing I’ve ever done. There’s no reason for an American girl who does not want to live in Italy to go. Yet I did. I went because of my own interests and academics. I went because I was curious. I left even more curious.