Saimaa region in Finland has been officially awarded the title of European Region of Gastronomy 2024 by the International Institute of Gastronomy, Culture, Arts and Tourism (IGCAT) for their commitment to sustainably protect and promote local food and cultural uniqueness.
The award ceremony was celebrated on 12 January 2023 at the TeaHouse of Wehmais, in Juva, and saw the participation of the local stakeholders involved in the European Region of Gastronomy programme, as well as representation from IGCAT.
The event opened with a musical performance by Musical Theatre Collective Waulinko, followed by the welcome of Project Director of the Saimaa European Region of Gastronomy Management Project 2022-2023, Sari Kaasinen, who stated: “The wild beauty of our nature, the captivating silence, the smell of fresh air. The taste of the purest food in the world and the touch the grounding soil and cleansing waters lets you connect with the mysteries of Saimaa. The six senses of Saimaa and our way of life - for us all this is normal… But for our visitors this is a miracle.”
The importance of collaboration in gastronomy tourism was highlighted by the representatives of the three main territories that comprise the Saimaa region: Pentti Mäkinen, County Governor, Regional Council of South Savo; Markus Hirvonen, Regional Mayor, Regional Council of North Karelia; and Jami Holtari, Executive Director of Regional Vitality, Regional Council of South Karelia.
“We started collaborating between the three regions of Saimaa for the title a bit over a year ago. We really want to thank everyone who have worked to get the European Region of Gastronomy award here – but this really is only where the work starts. Now we need to find new sources to boost the economy. The Russian border is closed and that’s why we need to look towards Europe especially in the tourism sector,” affirmed Pentti Mäkinen.
“Food and international collaboration – maybe the two most important things right now for our region. Saimaa European Region of Gastronomy title gives us new views for the future. In the last two years the world has changed permanently. As the situation in the world has gotten worse, we need things that unite us. And what is the thing that brings us together? Food. Food to travel for, food to talk about. Food tells our story - about our own history and culture. We can learn from each other and the world through the European Region of Gastronomy title,” highlighted Markus Hirvonen.
“Thank you IGCAT for trusting us with this title. I assure you that we will live up to your expectations. We need new tourists and products – and we are going to do this by leaning into our strengths – nature and our great entrepreneurs. We have already started projects to realize the goals. I think we should focus on the quality of the food rather than quantity. This can promote our health, quality of life and local businesses. Beyond a trophy, I see this is a process for committing to a sustainable way of life,” remarked Jami Holtari.
President of IGCAT, Diane Dodd PhD officially presented the award certificate to the regional stakeholders. She applauded the region's ability to put such a high-quality application together in record time and noted this was possible because of all the background work already completed by the Saimaa Phenomenon team, the fabulous food producers in the region and the aspirations of so many working in hospitality that have created beautiful slow tourism and unique food experiences across the three regions. Everyone should be exceptionally proud.
She highlighted the strength of the Saimaa brand as a uniting factor and the most visually impacting factor to initially attract international visitors. She added that “It is certainly thanks to the regions' willingness to unite that you are already seeing this Saimaa Phenomenon emerge in the form of this Award.” She also noted that when one door closes another one opens and with the Award, not only will Saimaa attract new visitors from Europe but the three regions will have the opportunity to make a clear decision as to the type of visitor they want to attract.
She strongly recommended that Saimaa aim to attract slow tourism, nature, culture and food loving young people. She noted that Saimaas's strength is in its sustainability message and should focus on resuscitating and safeguarding its unique natural, food and cultural assets. “The new generation of visitors,” she said “are looking for unique experiences, local and quality food and are willing to support responsible sustainable regions. Saimaa has all the ingredients!”
Saimaa is the 16th region to be awarded the coveted European Region of Gastronomy title.
The award ceremony was followed by a seminar on Food Culture in Eastern Finland - What is it and what could it be? including several interventions on how to sustainably and creatively promote Saimaa region’s food and cultural heritage:
All speakers joined then a panel discussion on Saimaa 2024 and beyond – Visions for the future of gastronomy, culture, arts and tourism, together with Director of Tourism at Mikkeli Development Miksei Ltd, Maisa Häkkinen.
The event concluded with a Saimaa Gastronomic Dinner hosted by tea sommelier and entrepreneur at TeaHouse of Wehmais, Anna Grotenfelt-Paunonen. Based on delicious local and seasonal ingredients, the dinner’s menu was accompanied with TeaHouse of Wehmais’ Tea Package.
After reviewing the bid book Saimaa - Tables Crossing Borders submitted on 31 December 2021, an international jury of IGCAT experts visited the region (19-23 June 2022) with the aim to meet local stakeholders and assess Saimaa’s readiness to host the European Region of Gastronomy title in 2024.
The jury was particularly impressed by the region’s sustainable approach to life based on a unique combination of nature, culture and wellness, and recognised that the strong connection between food, nature, culture, and hospitality made Saimaa’s application exceptional.
On this basis, the jury recommended Saimaa for the title European Region of Gastronomy 2024 and suggested that they passed to the final phase of the application process.
After assessing that the region successfully integrated the jury’s recommendations in their action plan, the IGCAT Board officially approved Saimaa to be awarded the European Region of Gastronomy 2024 title.
The Saimaa, European Region of Gastronomy 2024 candidacy and programme have been created by a cross-sectoral consortium including stakeholders from the public, private, third and knowledge sectors. Founding stakeholders include: City of Joensuu; City of Mikkeli; City of Savonlinna; City of Lappeenranta; City of Imatra; City of Kitee; South Savo Regional Council; South Karelia Regional Council; North Karelia Regional Council; South Karelia Chamber of Commerce; South Savo Chamber of Commerce; North Karelia Chamber of Commerce; Lake Saimaa ry; and South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences.
Read more about Saimaa as a gastronomic region:
About the World and European Regions of Gastronomy
Candidate and awarded World/European Regions of Gastronomy, guided by IGCAT, are working together to strengthen food security through the celebration of distinctive food cultures; create employment by stimulating creativity and gastronomic innovation; nourish children and adults through culinary and cultural education; driving environmental sustainability in tourism, hospitality and agricultural sectors; supporting balance and sustainable tourism practices; highlighting and supporting expertise from within rural and urban communities, creating connections and sharing good practices; and contributing to community health and well-being.
IGCAT aims to empower local communities by raising awareness of the importance of protecting and promoting distinct regional food, culture, arts and natural assets as part of sustainable and balanced tourism and development strategies. This is essential to safeguarding our planet, health, wellness and local economies.
IGCAT is a non-profit institute established in 2012, working with regional stakeholder consortiums in the fields of gastronomy, culture, arts and tourism. It counts on the expertise of a worldwide network of experts and works in partnership with specialised intergovernmental organisations.
IGCAT founded the World/European Region of Gastronomy Award and is the official secretariat for the World/European Regions of Gastronomy Platforms. Furthermore, the Institute has developed the European Young Chef Award, the World Food Gift Challenge, the Top Websites for Foodie Travelers Award and the international Food Film Menu.
For more information:
Image: Anna-Katri Hänninen
From left to right: Markus Hirvonen, Jami Holtari, Anu-Anette Varho, Sari Kaasinen, Diane Dodd, Pentti Mäkinen and Eevamari Lahtinen