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The gastronomic meal of the French, Unesco recognition

November 29, 2011

 November 2010

French gastronomy recognised by UN culture body

 Unesco said France’s gastronomic meal with its rites fulfilled the conditions to make it on the list

UN cultural organisation Unesco has added France’s traditional gastronomic meal to the world’s intangible heritage list at a committee meeting in Kenya.

This is the first time that gastronomy has made it on to the list.

The gastronomic meal of the French is a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and reunions. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations. The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.

 

The gastronomic meal is a customary social practice to which the French are very attached

They regard it as part of their heritage. In 2009, the annual survey on the eating habits of the
French revealed that 95.2% of French people considered the gastronomic meal to be an element
of their cultural heritage and identity, 98.7% of them wishing to safeguard it and transmit it to
future generations. France has included the gastronomic meal in its Inventory of Intangible
Cultural Heritage.
When the French want to celebrate and to share together a happy, important life event such as a
birth, wedding, birthday, anniversary, achievement or reunion, they organize a gastronomic
meal.
It is a festive meal that brings together a group of family, friends, association members or even
an entire village for a time of shared pleasure. The meal takes place at home or sometimes in a
public place such as a restaurant or community centre.
The gastronomic meal is associated with a shared vision of eating well, rather than with specific
dishes. It refers to the very popular gastronomic tradition, which is familiar to all French people,
long handed down from generation to generation and constantly renewed, for example, through
the contributions of new knowledge and know-how. The gastronomic meal, deeply rooted in
French intangible cultural heritage, gives rise to feelings of identity and belonging.
Such feelings are also reinforced by the view of foreigners, who see the gastronomic meal as a
marker of French identity.
The gastronomic meal is a homogeneous social practice in the whole community. This
homogeneity stems from:
1) its meaning and social function, namely its strong cultural functions and its expression of the
balance between human beings and the products of nature, conviviality, togetherness, the desire
to share the pleasure of taste, all of which draws circles of family and friends closer and
strengthens social ties;
2) its rites necessitating knowledge and know-how, for example, its preparation requiring
planning and its making and consumption taking longer than an everyday meal. Such attention is
intended to honour others to the utmost. The gastronomic meal is open to the diversity of
traditions, food and cuisines, which is the reason for its constant renewal.
It always takes place according to the same rites:
a) the establishment beforehand of an unusual menu taken from a constantly growing repertoire
of recipes;
b) the purchase of good products whose flavours will go well together;
c) the pairing of food with wine;
d) the respect for the same structure, beginning with the apéritif (drinks before the meal) and
ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter,
fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert, the courses possibly numbering five or six
depending on the occasion;
e) the setting of a beautiful table according to classic French taste, based on symmetry that fans
out from the centre and including a tablecloth, artistically folded napkins, objects whose shapes
are appropriate for each course and designed to enhance tastes; and, depending on the
circumstance, between two and five glasses, several plates and utensils, and sometimes a
written menu; the seating arrangement may reflect status in terms of hierarchy or gender;
f) specific actions during consumption, such as smelling, tasting, cutting large items like meat or
cake at the table in accordance with codified gestures that symbolize sharing within the group
unit, using expressions to speak at the table about what one is eating and drinking and to show
by means of specific vocabulary that one is enjoying the meal. What the community calls
“gastronomic discourse” is a component of the social function of the element. So as not to break
such communication, the guests remain at the table following dessert. Sometimes, the meal is
accompanied by singing.
The gastronomic meal is deeply rooted in the community’s way of life. It combines folk and
savant traditions, transcends local customs, generations, social class and opinions, and adapts
to religious and philosophical beliefs. Its values take in diversity and strengthen feelings of
belonging for participants in the gastronomic meal.
It is rooted within the community by means of two processes.
1) Individual transmission.
The French are participants in and keepers of this heritage handed down informally to family and
friends from generation to generation and constantly renewed. Knowledge, know-how and rituals
pertaining to the gastronomic meal are kept in an informal way by certain members of the
community, such as parents, grandparents, aunts and friends, who possess deep knowledge of
the tradition and preserve its memory. Such people, called gastronomes, watch over the living
practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to
younger generations. Children helping with preparations aurally acquire, for example, ways of
doing, acting, being and speaking. Their presence at the table constitutes an initiation rite
inasmuch as the codes are assimilated through observation. This is the basis for renewal.
Transmission also occurs through school, literature, cinema, the media and associations. In
France, more than 2,000 associations, some very old, preserve this practice in social settings
outside the family.
2) Transmission in the continuum of history.
The French recognize that their current practice is steeped in meaning inherited through their
shared history and that it carries the values on which French culture is based, namely
attachment to the agricultural world, an important part of the French imaginary that explains the
attention paid to finding good products; the eating of meals together; elegant manners;
conversation, insofar as the high-society meal, transmitted through revolutionary France,
inspired working-class practices; the ideal of happiness for all, a legacy of eighteenth-century
philosophy; and the popular model of festive opulence. The gastronomic meal reminds the
LR10 – No. 00437 – page 5
French of their history and thus gives them a feeling of continuity.
Through the positive value of conviviality, the gastronomic meal is a time of pacification, sharing,
inclusion and generosity. It is in no way contrary to human rights. It opens the door to knowledge
of others, intercultural dialogue and friendship among peoples. It can contribute to social
integration and intergenerational exchange. Some associations develop ties among generations
and cultures around gastronomic meals, helping disadvantaged people through the culinary arts
to make meals for the most beautiful days of their lives, such as weddings and baptisms.
Preferably, local food products available at markets are used for the gastronomic meal since
they have a high cultural value. For the French, such products symbolize non-standardization
and quality in terms of taste, nutrition and food safety, the outcome of humans’ intelligent
interaction with the environment. The recognition of the element would contribute to maintaining
and strengthening respect for the harmonious management of the environment, biodiversity and
landscapes, as well as reinforcing the social fabric, all of which constitute the building blocks of
sustainable development.

UNESCO official decision:

Decision – 6.14

The Committee (…) decides that [this element] satisfies the criteria for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as follows:

R.1: The gastronomic meal of the French plays an active social role within its community and is transmitted from generation to generation as part of its identity;
R.2: Its inscription on the Representative List could contribute to greater visibility for intangible cultural heritage, as a catalyst for mutual respect and intercultural dialogue;
R.3: Safeguarding measures reflect the commitments of the community, the French authorities and NGOs to reinforce its transmission, particularly through the education system, while encouraging research and promotion;
R.4: The nomination has been submitted following active and broad participation of communities throughout the country in meetings, debates and surveys, and many institutions and associations gave their free, prior and informed consent;
R.5: The gastronomic meal of the French is inscribed in the inventory of intangible cultural heritage of France, established by the Mission of Ethnology of the Ministry of Culture.

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