Although I was born in Britain, my earliest and most profound food memories all come from Sicily where I spent all my childhood summers with my Sicilian nonna, aunts and cousins. It was here that I discovered how food always comes with a story and how it connects people, not just to each other but to a place.
Perhaps it was no surprise then, that when I first started working on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme in 2007 and was asked to make my first programme, my mind went immediately to Sicily, where I knew the orange harvest was beginning. It was also here in Sicily that I first discovered, at a meal to celebrate some of Sicily’s rare orange varieties, that there were such things as endangered foods. The Slow Food man sitting next to me told me that the various oranges used to create the meal were on the Ark of Taste, an online sort of Noah’s ark for food. Set up by Slow Food in Italy, the Ark was steadily filling up with foods from across the globe and the stories I found on it – about unique foods, the cultures which created them and the people trying to save them – were spell-binding to me.
Ever since, I have sought out stories of endangered foods and when it was suggested to me that I should write a book, it’s these stories that I wanted to tell. Each story stood alone as telling its own tale about the part of the world it came from – it spoke of history, politics, culture, community and flavour. But as I started to write, something started to become clear to me: the diverse foods I was writing about, whether an Albanian mountain cheese, a Georgian qvevri wine, an Orkney variety of barley or a piece of fermented Faorese sheep, were all at risk because of one thing. The homogenisation of food taking place across the world was edging foods that had been created over thousands of years – foods which contained important genetics, disease-resistance, nutrition and flavour – towards extinction.
In my book Eating to Extinction, I argue that we need these endangered foods – for our future food security, the good of the planet and the good of our own health. These are precious resources that were a long time in the making. We can’t afford to lose them.
My father, Liborio ‘Bobo’ Saladino, was born in south-western Sicily in a small town called Ribera. This is where I spent the summers of my childhood. Ribera was my introduction to farming, to crops and to harvests, and it shaped my thinking about food. On the outskirts of the town, a towering, brightly painted sign proclaims: Ribera: Città delle arance – ‘city of oranges’. For me, arriving in Ribera as a child was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first realises she’s not in Kansas any more. Coming from the black-and-white food world of 1970s Britain I was dazzled by the MGM Technicolor of Sicilian food. It’s no surprise then that I found the kernel of the idea that eventually became Eating to Extinction in Sicily.