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Gastronomy is the essential ingredient for tourism in Wallonia in 2017

02:00 10/06/2017

Following 2016’s successful focus on bike tourism, Wallonia is now shining a light on the region’s rich and diverse gastronomy. In choosing food and drink as this year’s tourism theme, the region aims to boost local producers and businesses. From beer tastings to culinary conferences, the calendar is jam-packed with gourmet events.

And it’s not just the big cities getting involved. “For a tourism theme to be a success, it must encompass everything,” says René Collin, the Wallonia minister for tourism and agriculture. “From Mouscron to Virton, markets and festivals are celebrating local gastronomic traditions, and culinary activities will be organised throughout the year.”

Food festivities are already under way, such as a night-time market selling its wares in Gesves, outside Namur, and a charcuterie workshop in Viroinval, in the Ardennes. In June, beer is in the spotlight at the Mons festival Bière en Fête, with representatives from 23 breweries across the country offering tastings of more than 80 brews. In August, scenic Harzé castle in Liège province is hosting the annual cheese festival Fête du Fromage. Visitors can sample some of Wallonia’s 500 cheeses in historic surroundings, serenaded by brass bands.

The highlight of a busy year is likely to be the W food festival at Namur’s citadel, a new three-day event at the start of July. It’s organised by chef collective Generation W, an ambitious group of gastronomic chefs from fine dining establishments across Wallonia.

Their aim is to promote the myriad producers who supply their restaurants, publicise the region’s cooking abroad and foster budding chefs. The long-awaited festival embodies the collective’s mission statement and is its flagship event this year. Visitors will have the chance to mingle with local and international Michelin-starred chefs, enjoy tastings and meet producers.

The first two days are aimed at the general public, part of an attempt to make gastronomy accessible to all. In its quest to attract as many people as possible, the organisers have chosen beer, “a true Belgian emblem”, as the focus of the festival’s inaugural year. The final day will welcome students keen to kickstart a career in catering and professionals looking to sharpen their skills.

Local authorities are co-ordinating various industries, particularly those in the agricultural, tourism and catering sectors. Collin says he hopes the range of events will combine tradition, authenticity and innovation.

And he believes it’s a fitting theme for the region. “Wallonia is known for its sense of welcome and conviviality as well as the quality of its products,” he says. He hopes the celebrations will cement Wallonia’s reputation as the land of wellbeing, and get people thinking of the region as “an obvious destination for food lovers”.

For Collin, tourism was a natural follow-on to its predecessor, cycling, and while attention turns to the table in 2017, last year’s focus has not been forgotten. “We won’t be putting away our bikes, and work will continue to cement Wallonia as a destination for cycling,” he says. On the agenda are a number of events that combine cycling trips with local tastings. The new website promotes regular cycling tours around the Namur region, which include a meal at a local restaurant.

The summer will see a return of RAVeL BBQ, a mini festival with guided walks and cycle trails with food provided by local producers. Last year, that meant skewers of blood sausages, raisins and figs, plates of smoked trout and ham from the local butcher, all washed down with elderberry wine, made just outside Bièvre.

As part of last year’s tourism theme, 117 projects were granted a share of an investment scheme, La Wallonie à vélo, worth more than €1 million, providing more cycling activities in the years to come. With provisional studies showing an increase of 3% in overnight stays in 2016 compared to the previous year, tourism authorities are expecting to see a similar boost from the gastronomy theme. For locals and visitors alike, it’s proving a tasty year to explore Wallonia.

Written by Mari Eccles