A taste of the French gastronomic meal
Since 2010, the “Gastronomic meal of the French” has been inscribed on the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO deems this time-honoured tradition to be a treasure worth protecting, but the question remains: what makes “good eating and drinking” à la française so unique?
To understand what makes a meal “gastronomic”, let’s open a dictionary. The word gastronomy comes from the Greek word “gastros” meaning stomach, and “nomos” meaning law, so it literally means “ruling one’s stomach”. Meeting its needs, or better yet, reigning over its pleasures! Nineteenth century lawyer and gastronome Brillat-Savarin was the first to define the subject: gastronomy comprises specific food-related knowledge and practices which go beyond the simple act of eating to satisfy one’s hunger.
The ingredients of a gastronomic meal
Very well, you say, but what exactly goes into this so-called “gas-tro-no-mic” meal? In France, it is a secular tradition: a festive meal that brings people together for a special occasion to enjoy the art of “good eating” and “good drinking”. The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the relationship between human beings and nature’s bounty.
One thing is clear: for a French meal to be qualified as “gastronomic”, in the UNESCO sense of the term, it must meet certain conditions! Passed down from generation to generation, it has become a universal rite shared by French people everywhere.
What are the ingredients? First, a special menu created to celebrate togetherness at life’s milestone events (births, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc.). Then, carefully selected products, meticulously prepared to pair food and wine to perfection. Add a beautiful table setting, laid with the best china and glassware, to make the meal as pleasurable to look at as it is to eat. Finally, the rite features several courses – starter, main dish, cheese and dessert – commencing with an aperitif and ending with liqueurs. All enhanced with specific acts of sharing alongside the conversations that flavour every well-rounded feast.
As you can see, this meal is not just an ordinary repast, but an exceptional event. An integral part of French culture, it marks great occasions in a circle of family and friends, as well as strengthening social ties.
A living heritage
This living heritage has evolved over time, coloured by each passing century. Today, new social and environmental challenges have inspired the Cité to feature sustainable food and responsible gastronomy, along with a determination to transmit the undiluted pleasure of preparing and sharing a good meal to future generations.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), sustainable food is “all food-related practices which aim to feed human beings with sufficient quality and quantity, today and tomorrow, while respecting the environment, being affordably priced and providing livelihoods throughout the entire food chain.” The key: sustainable or organic agriculture enabling healthy, equitable, local production; using less packaging; and encouraging new collaborative consumer practices that benefit the entire population. With more French people becoming actively aware of these issues, what was dismissed yesterday as being utopian is becoming an increasingly viable alternative.
And sustainable gastronomy? In short, it means eating well while making conscious efforts to waste less. This starts at home, of course, but every link in the chain plays a role: the farmer (greenhouse gasses, energy and water consumption, etc.); industry (transformed foods); logistics (modes of transportation, refrigeration, etc.) and the food service sector, particularly institutional (food waste).
Raising awareness of the stakes while showcasing and defending French cuisine and arts of the table are two of the principle missions of the Cité de la gastronomie Paris-Rungis.
From the UNESCO application form
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. This very popular practice, with which all French people are familiar, has flourished in France for centuries. It is constantly changing and being transmitted.
This social practice is associated with a shared vision of eating well, rather than with specific dishes. Its homogeneity in the whole community stems from:
- the meaning that it confers, namely togetherness, consideration of others, sharing the pleasure of taste, the balance between human beings and the products of nature;
- specific rites it follows, including the search for good products, references to a repertoire of codified recipes, culinary know-how, setting a beautiful table, the order of courses, food and wine pairing, conversation about the dishes.
The gastronomic meal gives rhythm to the lives of community members. It draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties. It constitutes an important reference point for identity and gives rise to feelings of belonging and continuity.