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French chew over cuisine being placed on UNESCO list

UNESCO has chosen the “gastronomic meal of the French” to feature on its list of the world’s intangible cultural treasures. But what exactly is French cuisine?


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France is the first country to have its gastronomy placed on UNESCO’s list of the world's intangible heritages. The list was set up in 2003 by UNESCO as a way to preserve global customs and traditions.

While French ministers welcomed the news with great cheer, not all of France’s cuisine experts were as taken with the honour. Restaurant critic and founder of the modern French food movement “Fooding”, Alexandre Cammas, told FRANCE 24: “I wouldn’t object to the recognition of [Brazilian dance] Samba or [Japanese theatre] Kabuki, but … meals? What does that mean?”

According to UNESCO experts, it means "a social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups". Menu composition, laying the table, matching the meal to the wine – not to mention the endless talk of food and recipes that the French indulge in – were all taken into account before UNESCO experts accepted the country’s claim to gastronomic heritage.

'Cooking is not a science'

The original definition submitted by France – “the principle of French gastronomy” – was turned down after numerous critics objected to the terminology. “It was ridiculous,” says Cammas. “Cooking is not a science.”

For Patrick Rambourg, author of “History of French gastronomy and cuisine” and a representative of France in advising the UNESCO committee, the media was to blame for the controversy. “The press cut out the details by talking only about gastronomy,” he said.

After much debate, the committee settled for “French gastronomic meals”. “We decided to talk of French rather than France, to cover the diverse population, including all the regions and migrant integration. We opted for “gastronomic meals” because that evokes the Sunday meal, when children, parents and grandparents get together. It’s an important event because we recognise the effort that’s gone into presentation with nice with a tablecloth and numerous glasses,” Rambourg explains.

Rambourg concedes that fine dining has lost its importance in French daily life and is no longer the formal affair it was some 20 years ago. “The intangible heritage list aims, first and foremost, at recognising a culture which is constantly evolving.”

Outside of France itself, French cuisine remains something of an authority in kitchens around the world. “Of course French gastronomy deserves to be listed!” exclaims New York-based chef Elisabeth Weinberg, trained in classical French cuisine.

“What a meal consists of is rather vague,” Cammas continues. It could be a Frenchman eating a sandwich at midday on the New York subway, or it could be a sit-down dinner that lasts for three hours. Besides, the gastronomic menu – it doesn’t even exist anymore. It was a creation of bourgeois cuisine; today we don’t even know what eating 'French-style' is. The question is whether you absolutely have to have eaten a baguette to know French food.”


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