MONDAY 18 APRIL 2011 • UNESCO HONOURS FRENCH GASTRONOMY
An evening at Versailles
French gastronomy has just been honoured by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as an intangible heritage of the world and of humanity, no less. This is the first time a cultural practice, rather than a particular artefact, has been singled out for the honour of being listed. This was elaborated by the UNESCO press office as including “the choice of good products, mainly rural, the assembling of dishes and wines, the decoration of the table and the gestures of smelling and tasting what has been served on the table”.
The award is wonderful, as it reconciles all the expressions of gastronomy, from the simple tomato salad that Maman Blanc might do in her home, right up to the most sophisticated 3-star Michelin meal in a celebrated Parisian palace. It acknowledges the daily meal that the French take together with the family as one of the most important mediums of a functional society. Food is elevated from an everyday and necessary human function, to its status as cultural matter connecting with all the other aspects of our culture – and at its very heart.
Obviously this needed to be marked by a celebration! So on 6 April I was honoured to take part in the Relais & Châteaux, Grandes Tables du Monde-sponsored “Le Diner Des Grands Chefs”.
First, we went to the Elysée palace, visited it, and waited for our president to say a few words; alas Président Sarkozy had to be excused. Fair enough: we all know the pressures on a chef de Cuisine; a chef d’Etat’s life must be very, very complicated!
Great chefs from far away nations were a little disappointed, but not for long, for very quickly we were transported to one of the grandest and most beautiful places in the world, Versailles.
Under the leadership of our president Jaume Tapies from Relais & Châteaux, the world’s best chefs worked together with "les Grandes Tables du Monde" to create the gastronomic event of the year, a sumptuous feast.
It was an extraordinary event in the most beautiful place, the Gallery of Battles, the very room where Louis the XIV would entertain his fellow kings, queens, ladies and noblemen way back in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The day was truly festive, convivial and with only the tiniest sound of “coco rico” just for a laugh. And there was a lot of laughter, with 700 happy guests, joyous discourse spilling through the walls of Versailles right up to the very centre of Paris.
Then, completely exhausted, we retired in the splendid Trianon Palace Hotel and woke up to an incredible breakfast - as if we were in need of it.
On reflection, perhaps the mistake we have made in Britain is to separate food from culture, from its traditions and its soil. We have industrialised food, reduced it to a mere commodity, whose only values and virtues are its cheapness its shelf-life, with little concern as to what is in it or how it was produced.
We also buy our food on looks, how good it looks from the outside, rather than how good it is on the inside. This is what is so insidious, as you actually cannot ‘see’ the chemical residues, the amount of copper or sulphur, or the goodness or otherwise of the soil in which it was grown.
It is never too late. We have at the very moment what may be our last chance to re-make our agriculture, to grow more of our own food, to re-engage our own producers, to demand proper labelling systems from our retailers, to allow traceability, to see what is in our food. And maybe, creatively, rethink our lifestyles, so that we can eat together, as a family, at least once a week.
Perhaps one day we as a nation, like France, can receive the ultimate honour from UNESCO to have developed an agriculture, a food system, which will be an “intangible part of the world’s Cultural Heritage”. I am not joking.
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Raymond Blanc's new book, Kitchen Secrets, featuring recipes from Kitchen Secrets Series 1 & 2 and many more, was published by Bloomsbury on 14 February and is available to buy online from Amazon, from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Brasserie Blanc, Maison Blanc, and from online and retail bookstores.
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