Valeria Klitsounova, Belarusian Association «Country Escape»
Belarus has never been gastronomic destination with clear image. It has been associated mainly with potato dish (potato pancakes “draniki”). Even local people don’t have clear idea about Belarusian cuisine.
Belarus used to be a country with rich gastronomic heritage which combined local rustic and aristocratic cuisine with elements of Polish, Lithuanian, Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian cuisine. Unfortunately during last century because of revolutions, wars, socialism period our gastronomic heritage was lost.
Together with students of Belarusian State University we conducted a survey among young people (150 students). One of the questions was – “Which Belarusian dish do you know?” 90% of them have managed to recall only “draniki”. The same has happened with the audience of adult population. It is not surprising because most of restaurants in Belarusian cities are Italian, Japanese, Chinese, etc. We are loosing the national identity and people perceive Belarus as “Dranikland”. But situation is changing very fast now.
According to National Statistical Committee there are 13371 catering facilities in Belarus including 3643 in rural area (2018). They are divided in the following proportion: 9,3% – bars, 33,7% – canteens, 3,8% – restaurants, 33,4% – cafes, 19,8% fast food places. 166 facilities are specialized in Belarusian cuisine, including 28 luxury restaurants and 26 restaurants.
There are several obstacles that slow down gastronomic tourism development:
Lack of specialization of cafes and restaurants
In the beginning of 2000-s there was the tendency in Belarusian restaurant business to combine in one restaurant cuisine of different countries. It was made to attract more visitors or because of the desire to give preference to quantity rather than quality. Thus, in a restaurant menu it was possible to find Italian, Belarusian, Japanese dishesand etc. They were rather expensive, not attractive and quality was not good.
In 2016-2017, the situation in the restaurant business has begun to change. Specialized restaurants have appeared in Minsk and became popular among the population because they have a higher quality of service and cuisine.
Lack of knowledge about national cuisine among Belarusian population.
There is a problem of stereotypical perception of national cuisine by the population. It is important to rise awareness of population about Belarusian cuisine. To achieve that it is necessary to use the culinary potential of rural regions because each region has its own interesting dishes with a unique history.
Cafes and restaurants with Belarusian cuisine are not so popular.
Now public culinary workshops, regional cuisine festivals, unusual gastronomic projects, markets, thematic weeks started to contribute to the popularization of national cuisine.
Low marketing level in gastronomic tourism.
For centuries Belarusians life was associated with the Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews. Each period of the Belarusian history influenced people lifestyle, their habits, products and Belarusian cuisine. Its interpretation in modern cuisine could be interesting for many tourists.
Also a significant part of Belarusian history relates to the USSR period. Restaurants in USSR style with well -composed menus attract both Belarusians and foreign tourists who are always looking for new emotions. Soviet architecture in the country and atmosphere also contribute to this. Thus, one of the possibilities for interpreting Belarusian cuisine may be its connection with the Soviet past.
There is a tendency now to form a brand of “modern Belarusian cuisine”. Belarusian cuisine in the 21st century is characterized by a search for something unique that could distinguish Belarusian cuisine from neighbors. It focuses on the value of using local products.
Minsk plays a significant role in the development of gastronomic tourism in Belarus. Many interesting festivals and farmer markets with local food have appeared last year. People now are trying to follow modern trends. And trends to buy local product work very well in Minsk.
In rural areas gastronomic tourism is becoming the unique product . And there are some aspects that contribute to this process. Firstly heritage preservation in a village is much stronger than in big cities. Old recipes, traditions and tastes are passing down from old generation to youth. Also special culinary clubs were created, where women can gather together, organize local events with tasting, etc.
Secondly, the popularity of agroecotourism is growing very fast, and each farmstead is trying to attract tourists
by something special, including Belarusian dishes. Some farmsteads even have gastronomic specialization.
Thirdly, every year new regional festivals connected with local products or dishes are organized. Good examples could be Motol Delicacies Festival, Cherry Festival, Savior of the Apple Fest Day, Crain and Crainberries Festival.
We expect soon Renaissance of Belarusian cuisine in rural area based on local food and traditions which let people to feel culinary taste of place – “Culina loci”.
“Gastronomy map “Gastinia” case
“Country Escape” is national nongovernmental organization which has been developing rural tourism since 2002, including gastronomic. We have now in Belarus 2263 homestays and farms provided hospitality service and different kind of entertainment and educational programs based on Belarusian heritage. Gastronomy has always been an important component in these kind of activities and point of special interest for visitors. “Country Escape” has a big database of traditional recipes which have been collected during these years and a list of contacts outstanding “local chefs” – homestays owners. They possess a unique gastronomy knowledge and skills; they are willing to share their experience with visitors.
At the same time, we have a lot of people in the city (sort of foodies) including youth who is interested in eating out but don’t know too much about Belarusian cuisine.
The project “Gastronomy map “Gastinia” that combined local recipes and information about places and its hosts would help to connect visitors/tourists and food experiences providers.
The goals of the project are:
- to rise awareness about Belarusian gastronomy heritage;
- to revive Belarusian gastronomy heritage and provide safeguarding of unique knowledge in this field;
- to involve youth in heritage-based innovation;
- to contribute to national Belarusian people identity development.
For brainstorming we have used a mind mapping – a technique used to map creative thinking around a central idea.
We tried to provide our audience visitors/tourists with unique, entertaining, educational activities that make it possible for them to have a personal connection with gastronomy heritage of Belarus, its people and local culture.
Gastronomy heritage comprises food, recipes, stories, legends, rites, customs, festivals, culinary books, people who know and cook traditional food (bearers of local traditions), etc.
A strong knowledge of resources is essential to present an effective and credible interpretive program/product that is meaningful to visitors. That’s why we used a lot of experts in this sphere.
The map has been published already. It contains 200 recipes, contacts of 100 homestays and some stories about the most interesting recipes. It inspires visitors to travel and create their own stories and unforgettable experiences.
We have developed different kind of promotion tools for this map. Together with students we have organized flash mob in social networks VK (VKontakte) and Instagram under the hashtag #gastinia when young people first have to cook Belarusian dish, then put short video and pass the button their followers and friends. There were few hundreds videos and a lot of interest from the side of young generation.
Another productive idea come from students as well – to take part on prestigious competition Hack4Tourism sponsored by UNDP in Minsk. Our young team became a winner and we have got some money for creation of electronic version of our map – web site gastinia.by with a lot of interactive activities. This site is already working but will be upgraded within one international project “Preservation and promotion of culinary heritage and traditional craft skills”. There are a lot of stories, recipes, interviews, videos, articles, links, etc. on this web site.
We have got a very good media coverage – TV cooking shows, interviews, articles in magazines, in newspapers, on internet resources. Our young volunteers are taking active part in this process and became celebrities.
Also a group of young IT specialists have contacted us with idea to create apps for Gastinia map available on iOS and Android on a voluntary basis. It supposed to be ready in summer 2020. We consider this project as rather successful.
We hope that in one decade we will see kind of gastronomic renaissance in Belarus and turn our country in destination with rich local traditional food and gastronomic events. The project supposed to enrich and diverse European culinary heritage.