Swimming with mermaids

“It was the best Greek food I’ve ever tasted and I didn’t want to leave!” Amelia is just one of the countless food bloggers that have been ensnared by the taste of Thessaloniki. She serves up a rich platter of words to describe the food at local restaurants and market stalls: it is “incredible,” “fantastic,” “simply delicious,” “fresh,” and “wholesome.” Of the local Tzatziki, a dish of thick Greek yoghurt mixed with refreshing cucumber shavings, she confines, “I honestly could have eaten it all night long.”

Tzatziki

Even before UNESCO picked out Thessaloniki as Greece’s first food destination, the city knew that it had a lot to offer those following their tastebuds abroad. “If you haven’t visited, I tell you to visit and eat here,” Stella Psarropoulou of Thessaloniki’s Urban Resilience Observatory states bluntly. For this reason, she recalls, the city’s interest in food began with tourism, drawing people in from all over the country and the world for events like the annual food festival.

No piece of cake

However, the policy team in the city soon realised that, when dealing with food, they had more than gastronomy on their plate. “They realised that it’s not just about tourism; we need to go further,” Psarropoulou explains. Going further meant diving into the way that food relates to health, sustainability, resilience, the local economy and social cohesion.

Expanding the local scope was far from being a piece of cake. “When we started talking about resilience and sustainable development five years ago, it was like we were speaking a foreign language,” she laughs. And though a lot has changed, this way of thinking still presents challenges. “It’s not easy. I would say it’s difficult,” Psarropoulou admits.

She and officers and politicians from the municipality travel to cities all over Europe through the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact or European projects like Food Trails and see what is happening in other cities, and when they hit on a good idea, they try to translate it into their own context. “Sometimes we need to talk about notions that are quite new,” she explains.

A mermaid is born

It was on one such trip that a mermaid was born. “Officers from the Department of Urban Greening  were on a trip to a French city and they saw an urban vineyard,” recounts Psarropoulou, “They said ‘Yes, we can do that!’” Actually making it happen involved a conspiracy of fortunate circumstances and the political engagement of the deputy mayor at the time, who is now the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Konstantinos Zervas. Academics from local university and a prominent local winemaker joined forces with the municipality to make it happen.

With the grapes and process in place, all that was needed was a name. The shores of Thessaloniki are said to be home to a mermaid, the half-sister of Alexander the Great, who gave the city her name. She had gained immortality by drinking an elixir of life, and so came the decision to name the wine, which was bringing a new vitality to the neighbourhood, after her: Gorgona, Greek for ‘mermaid.’ The same mermaid is the ambassador of the Thessaloniki Food Festival.

The wine is reserved for two purposes: the primary one is to raise money for philanthropic causes. For example, it is served at dinners and events to raise money for social services. The secondary one is to give as a gift to mayors of other cities, hopefully inspiring them to embrace new food policy ideas. Every year, the wine harvesting is a big celebration in the neighbourhood. Year round, the locals love the vineyard as one of the few local green spaces in which they can go and socialise, or just sit and enjoy fresh air.

With this mermaid has come a new kind of collaboration around food: it has brought the municipality, the university and the local people together. It also demonstrated that food could be the locus for policy with economic, social and environmental dimensions.

Haven’t tried Greek wine? Amelia was among the many food bloggers to be pleasantly surprised. “As a bit of a wine buff back home I hadn’t come across many Greek grapes before,” she writes, “but both the reds and whites we sampled were incredibly quaffable with soft flavours on the nose and palate.”

Vegging out

If you’re drinking wine, then it’s important to eat too, so the city got thinking about a natural compliment to this first foray, one that would capitalise on the collaboration and horizontal approach that had worked so well with the urban vineyard. The next project would be an urban garden.

Thessaloniki got to try this out briefly during the large influx of migrants displaced by war in the Middle East. Some European funding for migrant integration was used for a vegetable garden where newly arrived people could volunteer, be engaged in something concrete and therapeutic, and strengthen social ties. However, unfortunately, when the EU funding stopped, the city wasn’t able to find a way to continue the garden.

Urban farming got a new life some years later, when a group of students proposed a project for a community garden. Here, local people would be able to grow vegetables and keep the food for themselves. The city greeted the idea enthusiastically, and helped the students to establish the plots.

Again, immediate positive impacts were evident, with social ties becoming stronger in the neighbourhood. To start out with, some people were incredulous about the idea of a garden so close to the city centre. “They said, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to have vegetables from here? When the air is so polluted,’” Psarropoulou recalls.

The results quickly counteracted any scepticism, however. “Actually, the earth is quite good,” says Psarropoulou, “and, after measurement, we can see that the garden has positive effects on air quality and on the micro-climate of the whole area.”

Cultivating cultivation

Now, through the EU-funded Food Trails project, the city is working to multiply the quantity of urban agriculture, and policy-makers have their eye on school grounds as the ideal sites. As wine making may not be an appropriate skill for school-aged children, the city is sticking to the vegetable garden model for this experiment.

View of Thessaloniki from above
View of Thessaloniki from above

In one school, the work is already under way, with students, teachers and parents all chipping in. “They are giving all their energy to it,” Psarropoulou remarks, “so we would like to help them and promote them.” The municipality has jurisdiction over its schools’ grounds, so setting aside land is no problem, but for green shoots to grow, the city must inspire teachers and students to embrace the idea.

“Children don’t know how we cultivate the raw material, how we bring tomatoes to the plate,” complains Psarropoulou, “our mission is to develop a curriculum in schools around food: healthy food and nutrition, but not only that, because we can use the urban gardens as green infrastructure as well.”

Breaking bread

From the very first foray into horizontal food policy, when some locals were resistant to the project, Thessaloniki came to understand the necessity of getting all those concerned to collaborate around their food ambitions. “We learned that we always need to have a participatory approach,” Psarropoulou insists, “We cannot just go by ourselves as a municipality.”

This means local people, but also sellers, restaurants, farmers, clubs, academic institutions and social organisations all breaking bread. To manage this more effectively, the city wants to use the Food Trails project to start a food council.

The municipal team is eager to nail down a comprehensive local food strategy, and Psarropoulou sounds out a volley of questions on their minds: “How can we establish that? How can we launch a strategy on food policies? How can we engage more food stakeholders? What would be the issues or themes to promote?”

There are already some foundations in place that the city can build upon. It signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in 2018, which outlines principles and best practices that cities can take up. There is also a local resilience strategy, Thessaloniki 2030, that sets out the need to work with diverse members of the society and with civil society organisations and across municipal teams. The European Farm to Fork strategy also serves as a guide for the city to lay out local policy, especially in connecting city centres to rural areas.

Nourishing development

Just as a visit many years ago inspired the urban vineyard, city visits through Food Trails are also important nourishment for local development. “We have to learn from other cities,” Psarropoulou insists, “like Grenoble and Bordeaux, who are steps ahead.”

The city wants to see a strategy in place that treats food policy as an integral part of its sustainability and resilience to climate change. However, as things stand, Greek cities have no specific jurisdiction over food policy, and there is no legislative framework for changing the food system. Thus, Thessaloniki is lobbying the national government to build a food framework in cooperation with its cities.

 

Food market in Thessaloniki

All of this work has been badly delayed due to a double whammy of Covid-19 and a malicious online attack on the municipal computer systems that left employees to start almost from scratch after spending months off the network. However, workers are now well inoculated against both types of virus and pushing hard to dish out their new ideas.

Moving forward from these setbacks is guaranteed, just as the resilience of Thessaloniki’s people, both within and outside the local administration, is beyond doubt. And food is a natural part of that picture. Even food blogger Amelia is struck by the contrast between the enormous strain that Greece has suffered since the financial crisis.

“I was blown away,” Amelia writes, “at just how friendly the residents of Thessaloniki were and how proud they are of their city.” And of course it is in the food market that this resilience is most evident to her: “Business as usual with the streets full of eager shoppers and delectable fresh treats from the sellers stands. With the market buzzing I couldn’t help but smile!”

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