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Research on Place and Food

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Lessons Learned from Spain's Capital of Gastronomy Programme 


I’ve got into the habit of setting a spring vacation date early January, to help break the academic year up.  This year is dissertation year so time management is key!


As a place making, food consultant I have been following Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy scheme ‘in real life’ when I can.  Each Capital has gone about things in a very localised way, using their infrastructure, culture and food chains to meet the needs of visitors but very much involving local residents and Spanish weekenders in the programme.


In Almeria last year, this localisation was made more obvious in the scarcity of marketing materials, hard copies and web-based, in languages other than Spanish.  In a city where Google translate is a must and we met only a handful of English speakers, it was interesting to see how their event programme as a national capital was firmly a reflection of their regional heritage. 


Almeria was the last city in Andalucía to surrender to the Francoists and their Alcazaba is the second largest after the Alhambra.  With a very active port and the largest Muslim population of any Spanish city, the local economy is still highly agricultural and over 70% of the fruit and vegetables are exported.  While the local markets were well stocked with fruit and vegetables (at fabulous prices), many of the tapas bars offered unexpectedly little in the way of salads or vegetarian options to balance the fresh fish and occasional meat.  The bars tend to display prepared items – skate wings, small fillets etc. – which meant it was impossible to guess what they were and the names on display were colloquial which didn’t help.  I spent the week playing point and eat, which was exciting but it meant that I couldn’t hope to duplicate the end results myself. 


I was particularly taken with the fact that almost everything was either very simply cooked on a plancha or tossed in flour and deep fried. With food this fresh, anything else would have been a showcase for the cook, not the ingredients.  Travelling in April, visitor numbers were low and many of the local bars managed with one or two staff to serve drinks, cook and clear up.  It put the efficiency of some of our local cafes under the microscope – but then in Spain they don’t seem to have the food safety paperwork burden that our establishments have to adhere to.  What our local authorities would make of a bar at the main market where you could bring food purchased from any stall and have it cooked for you, I can only guess!


Almeria’s gastronomy showcases were a prominent, central location for a cookery school/cookery demonstration/ tasting events space and a well-signposted tapas trail, that focussed on the ‘old town’ heritage area and the sea wall.  Some bars had a special trail menu, some single dishes.  As it is not unusual to have one glass and move on, this afforded visitors a mix of the free tapas that most bars gave as standard as well as showcase items.  For foodies, this approach brought endless and affordable opportunities to try something new.


This contrasted with the approach taken by Caceres in 2015.  Caceres is a wealthy, walled city with large numbers of foreign tourists.  When we visited, in the walled city they were setting up for Game of Thrones and filming Still Star Crossed – which was a bit disorientating when bits of buildings were disguised overnight.  With cutting edge restaurants and upmarket tapas bars, the offer was very different to Almeria and the famous, local paprika featured heavily.  Many of the restaurants had a menu del dia branded for the event at €10.  A variation on the menú regional, keeping a set price across the city enabled everybody to eat well even if they couldn’t afford the €120+ tasting menu at the amazing Atrio.  Being more internationally inclined, the marketing materials available at the airport and locally, were in a variety of languages and appeared to be seasonal.


Murcia is the seventh largest city in Spain, with ~10% foreign nationals, a large Muslim community and a growing Jewish community.  They are the ninth manifestation of the capital and as yet, the website isn’t translated into English other than by Google.  However, one of the strands is called 1001 Flavours, so I am looking forward to that one and also picking up more ideas for attractive, sustainable high streets, well-connected to their local food chains.   These ideas will then feed into two food projects in High Peak and possibly the IPM-led work for Future High Streets.

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A discussion by the Project for Public Spaces

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