The Taste of Terroir in “The Gastronomic Meal of the French”: France’s Submission to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List
Adams, CL, The Taste of Terroir in 'The Gastronomic Meal of the French': France's Submission to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List, M - C: A Journal of Media and Culture: (Media and Culture), 17, (1) pp. 1. ISSN 1441-2616 (2014) [Refereed Article]
What French food is would seem to be an unproblematic idea. Depending on one’s taste and familiarity, a croissant, or snails, might spring to mind. Those who are a little more intimate with French cuisine might suggest the taste of a coq au vin or ratatouille, and fewer still might suggest tarte flambée or cancoillotte. Whatever the relative popularity of the dish or food, the French culinary tradition is arguably so familiar and, indeed, loved around the world that almost everyone could name one or two French culinary objects. Moreover, as the (self-proclaimed) leader of Western cuisine, the style and taste epitomised by French cuisine and the associated dining experience are also arguably some of the most attractive aspects of French gastronomy. From this perspective, where French cuisine appears to be so familiar to the non-French, seeking to define what constitutes a French meal could seem to be an inane exercise. Nonetheless, in 2010, the Mission Française du Patrimoine et des Cultures Alimentaires (not officially translated), under the aegis of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, put forward the nomination file "The Gastronomic Meal of the French" to UNESCO, defining in clear terms a particular image of French taste, in a bid to have the meal recognised as part of the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
With the number of specifically culinary elements protected by UNESCO more than doubling with the 2013 session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and with a further two in line for protection in the 2014 session, it would seem that an examination of these protected culinary traditions is in order. Rather than focusing on the problems associated with creating an intangible heritage list (Kurin; Smith and Akagawa), this article proposes an analysis of one nomination file, "The Gastronomic Meal of the French," and the ideas which structure it. More specifically, this article will investigate how the idea of taste is deployed in the document from two different yet interconnected points of view. That is, taste as the faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent, and taste in its more literal gustative sense. This study will demonstrate how these two ideas of taste are used to create a problematic notion of French culinary identity, which by focusing on the framework of local (terroir) taste seeks to define national taste. By specifically citing local food stuffs (produits du terroir) and practices as well as French Republicanism in the formation of this identity, I argue that the nomination file eschews problems of cultural difference. As a result, "non-French food" and the associated identities it embodies, inherent in contemporary multicultural societies such as France with its large immigrant population, are incorporated into a cohesive, singular, culinary identity. French taste, then, is represented as uniform and embodied by the shared love of the French "art of good eating and drinking".