RIGA - Latvians take their food very seriously. This is evident on every street corner, where traditional home cooking restaurants abound, and at every holiday, when nine-course meals are served.
While Latvians are not quite ready to divulge the secret recipe for pirags (those tasty parcels of dough-wrapped minced meat), the nation is now attempting to let the rest of the world sample its culinary treats.
Funky postcards with catchy graphics and cheeky slogans recently started spreading into the bars and cafes of neighboring countries. They are part of a revamped campaign by the Ministry of Agriculture to spread the joys of Latvian food.
The project is called Growing Green in Latvia. The idea has been around since 2003, but it is currently in the process of drastic change.
"This year we will make it completely different, last year we tried to focus on ideas, but this year we will focus on emotions," said Marcis Plume, project manager of Growing Green in Latvia. "We thought that the ideas we give are less powerful than the emotions."
Consumers are being enticed using humor, mixed with a slice of Latvian tradition. The postcards all carry the slogan "In Food We Trust," a twist on the well-recognized mantra printed on U.S. currency, "In God We Trust."
Each postcard explains the local folklore behind traditional dishes. Black bread "will make you an excellent lie detector" if eaten with milk, one postcard explains. Getting into an argument while eating cold soup means "the weather will soon turn cold," another says.
And then there's the a few risque slogans. Men who eat lamprey fish "will get hardâ€¦ fast," one postcard tells us. And counting the seeds of caraway in a slice of cheese will show "the number of times you'll be kissed this evening." Each postcard closes by explaining that even if the local traditions don't come true, "at least you'll have a good meal."
The main idea behind the project is to promote Latvian food as a brand name across Europe and the Middle East, promoting it as healthy, clean and tasty. The project aims to take some of what might be considered hindrances and turn them into positive things for the image and economy of Latvia.
This strategy is clear on the website, which contends that "â€¦although few people would argue that occupation by a variety of imperial powers is a positive experience for any country, the collection of imperial rulers of Latvia prior to World War I definitely contributed to the wealth of food variety that was grown and processed in Latvia."
Growing Green in Latvia hopes to take advantage of the fact that most of the country is not industrialized and has large tracts of lush, arable land. Latvian food is touted as being "made from ingredients grown in the most natural environment possible."
Food in Latvia is often grown by hand, the campaign explains, with more care than mass produced products. "Each apple, loaf of bread, cucumber and tomato has been touched by a human's hands, each piece of cheese has been enriched by the thoughts of a human, each berry in a fruit jam has been welcomed by the look of a human," the campaign's information sheets explain in shaky English.
"I think the best outcome is that we are recognizable in the business environment," Plume said. "At first we want them to know us. We hope that if they think about Latvian food, they think green and natural. After we achieve that, then they will do business."
After the advertising campaign has done its job, it will be up to Latvian businesses to do theirs.
"We are aiming to promote Latvian food itself. Then the companies must do their business themselves. We just do the promotion," he said.
Currently, most Latvian food exports go to Lithuania, Estonia and Russia. This is because after the break-up of the Soviet Union, these were the places with established trade links to Latvia.
Growing Green hopes to change all that by plugging food products in France, Germany, England, Poland and â€¦ "just about every other part of Europe that has a somewhat similar climate to Latvia," Plume said. "But of course, climate is not the main thing, as we are also working in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. We want to get into the global market."
The project is loosely connected to a greater campaign to improve the image of Latvia throughout Europe, and the campaign cooperates with other organizations that promote Latvia. The culinary aspect of the campaign, however, has specifically attracted the attention and patronage of President Vaira-Vike Freiberga. The President and the Minister of Agriculture act as the heads of the project's conferences and personally work to promote the project overseas. "When they go abroad they take Latvian food with them. They take information about it," Plume said.
Plume explained that their target audience is politicians and the media.
"It is not practical to work with average people because even if we succeed and they think, 'oh Latvian food is good,' then they will not be able to go to the store and buy it," Plume said.
Plume sees his work as helping Latvia improve its future economic prospects. "We work for the futureâ€¦ It is a hard job, but it definitely has good benefits," Plume said, smiling and rubbing his stomach.
For more information, head to www.ggl.lv.