This new series is on France’s contribution to the UNESCO World Heritage list, a distinguished catalogue of French places and cultural traditions as classified by UNESCO as being of “outstanding value to humanity”. In episode one, I’ll be discussing a slightly unusual but absolutely spot-on addition to UNESCO’s list.
If you were told to imagine France, what would be one of the first words you would think of? Baguettes? Cheese? Frog’s legs? Almost certainly, what would pop into your head would be something to do with food! France’s sensual love affair with food is no secret – clocks are practically set by when you sit down to eat! And good food in France is a treasure not to be rushed or taken lightly.
The words for food in French even make it sound so much more delicious than anywhere else: beef stew or boeuf bourguignon? Fish fingers or poisson pané? Ham and cheese toastie or Croque Monsieur? The English version sounds a bit factory-in-Slough while the French version conjures up a moustachioed Frenchman in a farmhouse kitchen, massaging a steak with his bare hands before flamboyantly pan-frying it in home-made brandy, while a table is being beautifully laid outside in the shade of an old oak tree. OK, I’m getting slightly carried away and admittedly, for a vegetarian, the chef sounds tastier than the steak, but those images aren’t just in my head are they?
Clearly not. In 2010, enthusiastic foodies from the UN cultural organisation decided that the French gastronomic meal fulfilled all the necessary requirements for its inclusion on the world intangible heritage list. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. Intangible heritage is also sometimes called living cultural heritage and is to celebrate and encourage those more abstract ideas of what makes up certain rituals in society – a shout out to day-to-day activities such as eating a beautifully prepared meal to one of the most recent additions to the French list, the art of dry stone walling.
The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage says, and I quote word-for-word as I’m not sure I could untangle the wording into a neat précis:
Intangible Cultural Heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.
But anyway, back to the food. The French need almost zero excuse to sit down with family and friends and enjoy a long leisurely meal and this ideal just in itself makes up a strong part of a key element required for its UNESCO status. It is a bringing together of people in a social environment. It might be for a special occasion like a birthday or a reunion or it might be a regular Sunday lunch-type affair. But it most definitely ISN’T eating beans-on-toast on your lap in front of the telly with Great-Aunt Marjorie!
Another key element to what makes up a gastronomic meal is a certain structure which needs to be followed. For those who have moved to France, this is VERY obvious when you go to dinner at French friends’ houses. You start with an apéritif such as a local fizz or maybe a chilled pineau de charente. If etiquette is to be followed properly, all guests need to have arrived and be present when the apéritifs are served. Given the French propensity for being late, British expats I know (including myself) find this rule quite hard! You end up with a mouth like Ghandi’s flip-flop waiting for that first glass. If I am playing host, I like a little sip of something as I’m preparing dinner so I sometimes stash my glass of wine behind the toaster when everyone turns up so they don’t think I’m rude for having got stuck in early!
Apéritifs are not to be rushed and there is often lengthy discussion on which vineyard the wine comes from and where to buy the best foie gras and hasn’t the price of broccoli gone up? This again makes up another element of the ‘intangibleness’ – the relationship between people and the food they eat. The importance of a home-grown tomato versus a supermarket one, how you made the vinaigrette and so on. I’ve noticed that here in France – and I so totally love the French even more than I do already for this – if you say something is home-made, it brings a smile of delight and pleasure worth 10 times more than the two hours it took trying to figure out how to make home-made mayonnaise! I think their reaction is partly that you have gone to so much effort for your guests and partly that what they are eating is more….natural somehow for not having been churned out of a factory. A throw-back maybe, to when you did have to make everything yourself at home and when no child on the planet thought that chocolate milk came from brown cows!
The table should be prettily laid with forks facing down and glasses for red and white wine, and water. You can see the care taken in this table-laying ritual even at motorway service stations when people stop for a picnic. Little tables and chairs are set up, sometimes even with a table cloth, and all the necessary kit is laid out for….a simple picnic. I love all the effort put in!
Great thought needs to be given to the menu for a French gastronomic meal, from buying locally which is pretty standard anyway in my part of France, to matching wine to the dishes you prepare. A weird one I haven’t yet figured out – and do I really care anyway – is having champagne or sparkling wine with pudding. Maybe the fizziness at course three of the usual four at a gastronomic meal perhaps slightly brings you out of your semi-comatose state from all that food currently being digested?
Of course, cheese comes before pudding here in France and if a pudding fan, you really need to learn to be a good judge of your own food capacity so you can enjoy this last course. Another little observation is that quite often, a dressed green salad is served with the cheese course. Does the vinegar in the vinaigrette counter-balance the fat in the cheese? It keeps your five-a-day levels up if nothing else. A new and complementary wine is served with each course and as with every dish, the wine is smelt and savoured and discussed. It is a true appreciation of each item being consumed.
For those who would like, there are usually digestifs – or liqueurs – offered at the very end of the meal. After nearly killing us with kindness with the amazing food he served up one lunchtime, a French friend convinced us that a brandy was absolutely necessary after a big meal to burn all the grease we had just eaten. Any excuse! Joking aside, eating a meal at a French table is sometimes like a gastronomic chemistry lesson.
Children are very much included in the whole event, including the preparation. To be fair, most parents won’t actually give their kids cognac but very many French children are allowed half a glass of wine with their meal – it is seen as a part of the whole gastronomic experience and French children learn early on what that is all about. A passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, whether in eating Uncle Pierre’s home-made fritons de canard or remembering long sunny days round the table with their families. Intangible? Yes. But very, very real. UNESCO picked up on something very special with France’s gastronomic love affair.