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UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy

"The UNESCO Creative Cities Network is first and foremost a space for collaboration and experimentation to invent the city of tomorrow." Ernesto Ottone R., Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO

This morning as I read the weekly Guardian foodie newsletter I noted that Thessaloniki has just been made the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in Greece. I actually misread it and thought that it was the very first City of Gastronomy. I later discovered that that was somewhere equally obscure - Papayán in Colombia.

Why would Thessaloniki get such an honour I wondered. Why on earth Thessaloniki? Indeed The Guardian article itself was headed What makes food and drink in Thessaloniki so special? I read on and found that the city has lots of lovely looking foodstuffs which are special to the town, and a food culture that seems to have been mostly influenced by its proximity to Turkey. But it didn't really answer my question and so I went in search of answers to what a UNESCO City of Gastronomy was.

And one of the first things I discovered was that Bendigo and Launceston are also UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy. Bendigo since October 2019 and Launceston, more recently in November 2021 - the same time as Thessaloniki. Bendigo? Launceston? Probably not the first cities that spring to mind when you are talking about gastronomy in Australia.

So I decided to find out about this growing number of gastronomical cities. 61 at last count according to UNESCO itself, although the other sources I found seemed rather more confused - 48 and 65 were both numbers bandied around as being current at this point in time. I think I will go with UNESCO's 61. I suspect that the 65 was an earlier number which dropped to 48 and has now rebounded to 61. I wonder whether the cities who are no longer on the list dropped out voluntarily or simply did not fulfil their obligations?

UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy are a subset of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) which was created in 2004:

"to promote cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. The 246 cities which currently make up this network work together towards a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international level. ...

UNESCO Creative Cities are indeed key partners to UNESCO for the local implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ...

Stimulating collective and creative intelligence is one of the founding missions of the UNESCO Creative Cities Programme and its Network, which work to promote, demonstrate and reinforce the role of creativity as a catalyst for building more sustainable, resilient and inclusive cities."

If you want to know more you can read the Mission statement or the Creative Cities Sustainable Development Goals. It's all very laudable Mission statement kind of speak. And to be fair I think it stems from a recognition that the majority of the world's population lives in cities, and that this is where change can happen as part of the larger UNESCO organisation's Sustainability 2030 goals. And we may deride all of this as Woke political correctness, or worthy idealism, as my somewhat cynical husband would say. But at least they have some goals.

Under the Creative Cities banner there are 7 categories: Literature - Melbourne is one of these; Design - Geelong is one of these; Crafts and Folk Art - Ballarat is one of these; Film - Sydney; Music - Adelaide; Media Arts - we don't, so far, have one of those and last but not least - Gastronomy for which we now have two - Bendigo and Launceston.

And the answer to my original question of why these particular cities is that, of course, they have applied to be one. UNESCO doesn't cruise the world and pick out the best food cities. Mind you it's quite a rigorous process and to become a City of Gastronomy:

"cities need to meet a number of criteria set by UNESCO:

  • Well-developed gastronomy that is characteristic of the urban centre and/or region;

  • Vibrant gastronomy community with numerous traditional restaurants and/or chefs;

  • Indigenous ingredients used in traditional cooking;

  • Local know-how, traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial/technological advancement;

  • Traditional food markets and traditional food industry;

  • Tradition of hosting gastronomic festivals, awards, contests and other broadly-targeted means of recognition;

  • Respect for the environment and promotion of sustainable local products;

  • Nurturing of public appreciation, promotion of nutrition in educational institutions and inclusion of biodiversity conservation programmes in cooking schools curricula.

Cities submit bids to UNESCO to be designated. The designations are monitored and reviewed every four years"

Which might explain those fuzzy numbers. Maybe some have been dropped or have withdrawn themselves. After all they do have to produce evidence that they have been doing things to keep the badge.

Because that's what it's all about really isn't it? Making your city known so that it will attract developers, tourists, industry and so on - or as the Chairman of the Launceston bid, Andrew Pitt put it:

"For cities our size, there's really only one or two things usually that you can go for, and you really need to lean into what your regional strengths are — for us it was obviously food."

The Launceston bid was proposed by a group of locals who called themselves Launceston Gastronomy. And it should be noted that the bid included Northern Tasmania as well as Launceston itself. And, of course, Tasmania does indeed have an excellent reputation when it comes to the production of food, not just meals in restaurants, but also actual production - truffles, wine, cheese - the list goes on. So when you start to look at the UNESCO criteria you can see how you might make a bid although with a bit of creativity with respect to longevity of tradition, and native ingredients. Although of course there is an Aboriginal component to it all. Andrew Pitt expanded on that original idea:

"For some time, we have been lacking a cohesive, accessible and intuitive identity for our city. Now we have one. The activities and projects that underpin the bid will de-silo our food system from paddock to plate, adding value, providing jobs and careers, improving social outcomes, and helping to implement the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. It’s all about local action with global collaboration.” Andrew Pitt, Chairman Creative Cities Steering Group, Launceston

As yet there is no official logo for Launceston's status as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy but I'm guessing it will be based on the Launceston Gastronomy one.

And what about Bendigo? Also a regional bid rather than just a pure city one. The link will take you to their glossy official website too. They state their aims to be to:

  • "Celebrate and elevate First Nations’ culture, creativity and knowledge

  • Recognise our creativity, cultural diversity and innovation

  • Improve health and wellbeing particularly through healthy eating

  • Prioritise environmental sustainability, sustainable agriculture and food production as we tackle climate change (and now recovery from COVID19)"

I guess this UNESCO initiative is easily mocked by the cynical, as something for highly paid bureaucrats to do. But actually food (and water) are going to be the vital needs of future generations, and also perhaps major employers. There are so many aspects of it from producing the food in the first place - and all that that entails - right through to what is on your plate for dinner tonight - gnocchi in our case, and where you might go for a weekend or more away.

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” Anthony Bourdain

Both Bendigo and Launceston, somewhere in their verbiage about the whole thing, mentioned that they were very much looking forward to collaboration with and learning from other cities in the group. And indeed if you read the UNESCO blurb collaboration, innovation, research and development are key components of the programme.

So I wonder if any other cities or regional centres in Australia will apply. Surely some of those Northern centres are well situated for a punt at it. It will be interesting to see if either Bendigo or Launceston can point to their memberships of this élite fraternity of cities as helping the town to prosper. Because, let's face it, that's what they are in it for is it not? And well done them I say. Self-interest, can often lead to help for all.


Our dinner last night - Ottolenghi's Sticky sweet and sour plums and sausages were definitely worth the experiment. I have been given approval to make them again. Perhaps not quite so many potatoes was David's comment - but he's not a potato lover, and besides you can always just pick how many you want. More sour than sweet I think and none the worse for that. Tangy is a better description. A different, but utterly delicious dish. And so easy to make. Very little time needed putting it together and attending to it, but a longish time cooking. Probably around 2 hours for the whole process but about 20 minutes in terms of actual work.

Have a go.

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