Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Gastro-tourism (Γαστροτουρισμός)

Elias Mamalakis, a well respected Greek gastronomist whose TV series have always enjoyed great popularity, was at MAICh today, speaking about gastrotourism, in the framework of a researchers' meeting about future tourism prospects. In his short speech, he reiterated a number of points made many times about tourism in Greece, which I have already alluded to in other blog posts, namely:
- tourists in Greece are generally of the package type,
- they do not spend much money on activities we, the providers, perceive as worth spending money on,
- they look for cheap prices and not quality services, and
- Greek laws and regulations impede tourist development.
Therefore, gastro-tourism in the general sense, is not for everyone: it's mainly for the well-padded pocket of the well-informed tourists, and above all, it is organised in a formal manner by a tour operator, not a state representative. Gastro-tourists are brought into contact with producers and restaurants by well-informed executives, and these producers and restaurants will be offering tailor-made services which are often not advertised on the internet. The itinerary for each tourist/group will be unique and will naturally come with a higher price-tag. This is not to say that cheap gastro-tours cannot be arranged: we can all create our own gastro-tours over the internet, simply by surfing through the web. But the gastro-tourists are those that are willing to pay for someone to do all that for them, and even more, going beyond what is being offered on the web. Therefore, gastro-trourism is very hard to execute - it's a highly specialised high-level branch of tourism, going beyond the mere act of feeding people.
Elais Mamalakis at the podium, with the Director of MAICh, Dr George Baoureakis, in the background
Elias reminded us of the human aspect of cooking for visitors. Above all, people must show ΚΑΛΗ ΔΙΑΘΕΣΗ - good will and a happy countenance. People in the food world must show an active interest in the sport that they are performing - that means everyone, from the driver of the bus/taxi that takes someone to an event on an itinerary even though that driver may have a splitting headache, to the cheese-maker whose equipment might be malfunctioning the moment the visitors arrive, to the cook whose assistant just burnt a sauce, to the low-paid immigrant hired to clear the plates off the table. In other words, all the chain involved in gastro-tourism must show a professional image.

In Greece, we are extremely lucky to have some of the bases of gastro-tourism provided to us 'de facto', without making any special effort to have them:
- Greece has an exceptionally good climate
- Greece is a very beautiful country
- Greece produces a high degree of natural nutritional elements
The future of tourism is in our hands...
An added bonus is that throughout Greek history, the concept of hospitality has always been held in high regard. So the foundations for gastro-tourism do not need to be laid here. What needs to be done is to find a nice 'wrapper for it, to make it presentable to people who do not know our culture well, and that includes Greeks too, since every region is different.

The icing on the cake in Elias' speech was when he mentioned that Crete is one of the few regions in Greece that can truly claim to have ζώσα παραδοσιακή γαστρονομία : a living traditional gastronomy. This may sound rather egotistical, but there is a certain ring of truth to it: there are very few places in Greece where non-generic Greek food is not being served everywhere. Even when you go to the tiniest village cafe in Crete and ask for a few nibbles to have with your drink, you can expect to be served some locally produced fresh seasonal produce and some locally made products. A typical meal in Crete will include very regional ingredients combined in a very regionally unique manner.
What I like about the food that is prepared for all our guests at MAICh is that it is not elitist; it is prepared for everyone using the same ingredients as a base, with time being the biggest investment according to the occasion. Food should not be treated like a luxury - everyone needs to eat fresh quality food.
Through his work, Elias has had the opportunity to see some of the most isolated places in Greece, so he must have had a reason to say this. Cretan cuisine is not only different in some aspects to Greek cuisine, but it is also well and truly living and continuing to develop. And for the tourist to truly understand the significance of this statement, s/he must be an informed tourist, like the gastro-tourist.
A variety of cheesecakes inspired by locally made soft Cretan cheeses. The raw zucchini flower was stuffed with cheese and walnut and topped with marmalade. Flowers are often added to salads in their raw form.
Food in Crete can be created for the highest level of tastes, but its deconstruction will show that it is made up of food that is available to everyone.

Quick update: I got the chance to talk to Elias for just a couple of minutes at the end of his stay at MAICh and told him about my interests in food as a blogger, and how I have often written about many of the aspects he covered in his speech. He was glad that we were in agreement, auto-confirming each other's observaitons - that's what I liked most about Elias, he's simple, he's humble and he's honest.

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