Sunday, July 17, 2011

Gastrodiplomacy Wonderland

So I managed to finagle tickets into the Fancy Food Show last week.  I got there, changed my name tag to read "Gastrodiplomacy" and walked into Willy Wonka-like world of food.  Mountains of cheese, rivers of olive oil, streams of vino.  Heart be still, tummy be full. I stumbled upon a gastrodiplomacy mecca.

It was a whole exhibition center with two convention hall of distributors, trade commissions, trade reps and whole sale food merchants. Stalls upon stalls of delicacies. A veritable UN of cheeses from Cyprus houlmi and Swiss galore to cranberry cottswald cheese. Taste upon taste as far as the taste bud can stretch. Snacks and sweets; teas and coffees. Chock full of chocolates. Smoked salmons and legs of puerco iberico.

On the first day, I hit up the upper hall.  Canada had a huge display of Canadian products and a Canadian chef demonstrating “Canadian recipes.”  Mexico had a huge display center with a giant Toltec statue standing sentinel.  There was stalls of moles, salsas and some ridic mezcal punch.

Austria also had a nice section ("Advantage Austria") with a Frau in lederhosen giving out pungent aged mountain goat cheese covered in herbs and glasses of riesling to wash it down.  Also some smoked apricots and peppers stuffed with soft cow's milk cheese.  Made me want to yodel, it was soo good.

There was also a bit of region branding, with a booth for Flanders and Sicily hawking their wares.

It was all a bit overwhelming, I grew overfull of Kiwi windsor blue cheese, and English and Irish cheddars,  washed down with some Kentucky bourbon ale (beer casked in bourbon barrels).  So much so that I didn't eat anything for dinner.

I returned the following day to scope out the second room.  This was even more vast.  I went methodically down the everflowing aisles.  There was a rather bland Argentine exhibit, followed by a small Indonesian section that featured Kopi Luwak (Cat sh-t coffee).  Next aisle hosted a good Korea section.  The Korea section had a small restaurant that looked fun.  I sampled some Korean roasted black garlic that was fascinating.  It was sweet, soft like roasted garlic and pungent.  There was also great Jinro booth where I sampled soju and Hite beer as I chatted about Korean gastrodiplo.  My enthusiasm for kimchi earned me a few drinkboxes of soju to take home.

Greek fetas and yogurts passed into an enormous Italian section.   Sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission, the section had some great posters branding Italians cheese, wines and other products as "Often Imitated, Never Duplicated."  There were pasta demonstrations and row after row of cheese, olive oil and wine.

Turkey had a similarly large section with tons of figs and Turkish Delight for tastings.  Meanwhile, had a phenomenal section.  Probably the best I saw that incorporated the Chilean nationbrand with gastrodiplomacy.  The Chilean section was bright and colorful with pictures of places and products, and highlighted that it was carbon neutral.  It had a huge cooking demonstration for Chilean lamb, and had section of Chilean wines, including what is their signature Carmenere (think Chilean malbec, just underbranded).

This leads me to my point that while most highlighted at the convention, I would say was more gastro-PR, Chile did some real gastrodiplomacy.  There is a difference.  Gastro-PR is trade rep biz that focuses on simply selling a product, whereas gastrodiplomacy is a more holistic attempt at communicating national culture through food.  Gastrodiplomacy offers tanglible tastes as cultural diplomacy while gastro-PR simply tries to increase trade of products.

There is also a bit of a difference between who need to do gastrodiplomacy and the target of focus of national vs. regional.  Gastrodiplomacy is really more for countries trying to differentiate their underrecognized nationbrand from the rest of the pack.  People know Italy and have an idea of Italian food, or France and French food, so they don't need to conduct gastrodiplomacy in the same way that same Chile or Korea might need to.  For known quantities like Italy or France, gastrodiplomacy is better served with regional branding and trying to highlight lesser known sides of culture and cuisine; for lesser known places like Chile or Korea, the focus is more on increasing nation brand awareness and what the overall cuisine and culture entails before delving deeper. I will come back to this later in more detail.

Anyway, there were a number of states that were engaged in a little state culinary branding.  Mass, New York, Virginia and Vermont all had their own sections, and this notion I will also address more in a later piece on American gastrodiplomacy.

There was a nice section for Palestine, which I liked.  I am all about marginalized and underrepresented states conducting gastrodiplomacy, and wish that the Kurds had a section too.  I also like iconclastic pitches, like the Moroccan wine industry, and pointing out that yes, even Muslim countries can have wine industries.

Brazil had a good section that I would call a bit of gastrodiplomacy.  Everything was branded under "One Country, Many Tastes" and the booths reflected it.  Ecuador had a good section too with lots of people in signature hats.  There was even a food truck in the middle of the hall.  One other surprise was how much kosher food branding there was.  Places that had kosher wares had blue signs noting such.  The best was an Egyptian booth was a kosher seal.  Luv it.

I was surprised by a few missing gastrodiplomacy all-stars.  I didn't find Taiwan or Malaysia there.  Perhaps they were and I just missed them in all the commotion.  Also, I was surprised I didn't find Israel at the gastro-party.

Again, I left place stuffed and unable to eat dinner later.  On the whole, it was a great bit of fun.  It gave me a nice platform to network and sell my ideas.  Many people were very receptive to the notion of foodie foreign policy and all the fun therein.  I also got a lot of ideas to work with and work out (Gastrodiplomacy vs. Gastro-PR).  All of this will be addressed in the Gastrodiplomacy Institute (GDI)'s first newsletter: The Gastrodiplomacy Digest.

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