When it comes to meal time, the French do it differently. That is the argument being put to UNESCO as it decides this week whether French cuisine deserves a spot on its intangible heritage list.
“The gastronomic meal of the French” is seen as a strong contender as the UN agency meets in Nairobi from Monday to Friday to consider new submissions for the list, set up in 2003 to safeguard cultural traditions, rituals and crafts.
France’s submission to the list centres around the ritual of the festive meal in a country where food is a key part of social life.
How wines are paired with dishes, how the table is dressed, the precise placing of glasses, for water, red and white wine, knife blade pointing in and fork tines down, are all seen as part of the rite.
Drawing up the menu — which often involves several people — is also key, with some families even printing up a copy for their guests.
Once seated, the French continue to talk endlessly about food, about recipes and memorable meals past and present.
And then there are the elaborate menus themselves, from aperitif to amuse-bouches, starter, one or two main dishes, cheese and dessert, rounded off with “mignardises” — little nibbles of nougat, chocolates or candied fruits.
With of course coffee to finish…
“A meal is an experimental laboratory for a food culture, it brings together all of its quirks and customs,” said Annick Vin of the French heritage and gastronomy mission (MFPCA) in charge of submitting the case.
In July, an experts’ committee consulted by UNESCO came out in favour of the French bid, which would, if approved become the first gastronomic culture on the UN list.
France is vying for the honour against a quartet of countries — Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco — who jointly submitted the “Mediterranean diet”; and Mexico, which is defending its maize-based food traditions.
Praised for its impact on cardiac and vascular health, the mainstays of the Mediterranean diet are olive oil, fish, grains, fruit, nuts and vegetables, usually with a modest amount of red wine. Meat and dairy play a minor role.
For academics at the European food culture institute in Tours, central France, who first launched the UNESCO idea, it is a way to boost the place of gastronomy in French society.