Last year, French President Sarkozy requested that French cuisine be added to the UNESCO’s heritage list. Specifically, the UNESCO’s Convention of Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This category includes oral traditions, performance art, traditional crafts and social practices. Sarkozy claims listing the French cuisine with UNESCO would preserve the best cuisine in the world, to which Le Figaro countered it was more like mummifying cassoulet. Sarkozy contends that French cuisine is under attack from fast food, foam, syringes, you name it. This argument is countered by food lovers that say the last exciting movement from French cuisine was noveau French of the 1970s.
French food is not hip in the sense that new trends and developments are coming from its chefs – no foam king like Ferran Adria of Spain or uber-creative types Wylie Dufresne of WD 50 of the United States. Who do we associate with French cuisine? My guess is that its Escoffier, and he died in 1935.
But, is that bad? With French cooking, and all its rules you know exactly what you get, and comfort can be taken with that fact. To me, French food defines quality and technique. Now, before I get way off topic, let me get back to Sarkozy’s desire to get a UNESCO classification for French food. France is not the first country, or region to request this status. Mexico and loyalist of the Mediterranean diet have gone before. Mexico was declined, and a ruling has not been made for the Mediterranean diet.
The Mexican National Council of Culture and the Arts argued that Mexican cusine was part of a culture system dating back 8,000 with strong spiritual roots. The UNESCO jury was not convinced and thought the arugument lacked evidence of symbolic and ritual importance. With Mexico, I guess that some of the intended consequences were gained despite its being declined, Mexico received an increase in culinary tourism. But in doing so, the focus may be too much on the food and not on the culture that defined it. Similar, I imagine to a visit to EPCOT Center in Disney World – a very unsatisfactory, tantalizing hint of what a culture is made of.
This approach arrives at the same result of Lucca’s foray into banning ethnic food. Who made the governing officials experts? Cuisine that typifies a country or region is not static. What makes food authentic – what is the criteria?
While the concept of regional cuisine is constantly changing, we can still identify certain foods that we associate with a region. But this solution, may also not be the best. For example, having the EU’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) limits what can be called by that name. Champagne is the obvious example. However, feta just achieved this status, so now feta can only be called feta if it hails from Greece. Other countries have been making feta style cheese for just as long and have strong connection with it, but now they have to come up with a new name. Stilton is a good example. Stilton is another example of this effort is taken to an extreme. Stilton can only be made with pasteurized milk, despite the fact that until recently Stilton was unpasteurized. What about Stilton made with unpasteurised milk? Its called Stichelton, instead. Stilton used to be made with unpasteurized milk, but a few years back, people got sick and blamed the Stilton, the cheese makers responded by switching to pasteurized milk, now what was originally Stilton cannot be claimed as such. Its very mucky, if you ask me.
Is iconicisng your food to preserve it better than letting natural progression run its course?