South East Europe
Meetings Industry Magazine
First, let us briefly deal with two nonsensical notions which have been the subject of conversation among people who do not know much about tourism. The first is that “The guest is king”. The guest is not a king, but a welcome newcomer from a different place, who has the same right to being treated kindly (but not humbly) as the hosts do, all the way down to the intern photocopying the presentations. The other absurdity is “To make the guest feel at home”. This is definitely not true. A guest, especially an experienced participant of international congresses who has seen the good and the bad does not wish to feel at home, but …different.
But one thing is true: the way to the heart of a congress, convention, seminar and incentive holiday is – the same as to a man’s – through the stomach. The food and the “liquid additions” are often a problem, since event organisers often overdo it, believing that participants need to be fed like piglets waiting for slaughter, or the participants simply do not know where to find some refreshments to help them get through the lectures and discussions. We are dealing with two extremes, where the middle way is truly the best.
Let us take a look at two destinations which have guaranteed themselves their spot on the map of European events with culinary delights: the Basque Region and Alsace.
The Basque Region is that wonderful green land in the corners of Spain and France which you hear about only if their freedom fighters plant a bomb. A connoisseur, however, also knows that San Sebastian (in Basque, Donostia) has almost as many Michelin star restaurants as New York. The “Cuisine nouvelle Basque” was invented about thirty years ago in male political societies called “txokos”. While they were discussing the “just fight for an independent ‘euskal herria’” they liked to have a nice meal and a shot of patxaran (characteristic Navarra liqueur made from sloe berries and wild plum) or the slightly sour txakoli wine. The more the dreams of an independent Basque Country melted away, the better the dishes tasted, such as marmitako, bacalao al pil-pil, stockfish á la Donostia, lamb from Goiherri and similar dishes, which first twist your tongue trying to pronounce them and then slowly push you into the Zen state. Karlos Arguiñano, Luis Irizal, Maurice Isabal, André Darraidou, Juan Mari Arzak and Martín Berasategui are people sleeping with Michelin stars under their pillows, and the only true fighters for Basque independence. The new Basque cuisine has actually turned into one of the key trumps of the meetings industry in the Bay of Biscay. The traditional cuisine has made room for new tricks. An invitation to a congress in San Sebastian or Bilbao will make the mouth of each John, Francois, Klaus and Janez water merely from thinking about pintxos (Spanish tapas, appetizers).
A inverse mirror image can be found in Alsace. Strasbourg is a European convention Mecca. It is no wonder that the Alsatian capital is home to the Council of Europe and also halfway to the European Parliament and some influential corporations. When a hungry person is in a small inn in one of the narrow medieval streets, he finds himself craving flammekueche (resembling a pizza, but without the tomato sauce), choucroute (pork and sauerkraut), baeckaoffe (casserole from various kinds of meat) and kougelhopf (cake with cherry brandy). Let us also mention that since 1780, Strasbourg has been the home of goose liver specially fattened by gavage (foie gras). Of course, all of this is abundantly washed down with home-made Traminer. Alsace is therefore sticking to the established dishes which have been stewed, baked or kneaded since before the time of the oldest grandmothers. Today, they serve them with a lot of protocol insomewhat smaller portions and in prestigious porcelain, but the recipes are ancient. Considering Alsace’s strategic location on the border between the Romanic and the Germanic world, the cuisine is the key to several doors and so the German French do not need to fear for their good business.
Both the innovative Basque cuisine and the Alsatians swearing by the old times are a key market advantage in the running for congresses or epicurean incentive travel. We need to be aware that the people rattling those pots and pans and their colleagues who serve the guests with smiling faces are constituent parts of the cuisine. Slovenia can learn a lot from the two examples. Especially the simple fact that the guest is neither king, nor someone looking for a home away from home. A guest is someone who wants to eat something tasty and have a sip of high quality wine in a place that is not home. This is the only way to satisfy them and only satisfied people make a congress excellent and useful.