French gastronomy: How to explain the gastronomic meal to your mom

What is French gastronomy and why the gastronomic meal of the French was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2010?

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
The gastronomic multi course meal
The gastronomic multi course meal

The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and the ancient city of Ayutthaya in Thailand are just a handful of the over 1000 cultural and natural places that the United Nations designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

These are all physical things and sites that are protected to ensure their conservation for future generations and can include landmarks, buildings, complexes, or areas viewed as important for humanity.

However, in 2010, UNESCO took a unique step by acknowledging the “Gastronomic Meal of the French” on a new list called the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which recognizes important cultural practices, traditions, and knowledge that are not physical locations or places like the UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

But what does that mean?

Let’s break down what is the tradition of the gastronomic meal of the French “Le repas gastronomique des Français” and what makes it so unique that it earned the UNESCO cultural heritage status. 

What is UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list?

shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium Unesco intangible
Shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium: A Unesco intangible

In 2008, UNESCO established a new program called the Intangible Cultural Heritage List to raise awareness and preserve cultural activities and traditions worldwide that are in danger of disappearing due to globalization.

These intangibles cannot be physically touched like a building or bridge, but they can be documented and passed down through generations, such as traditions, festivals, rituals, music, dance, storytelling, and other forms of expression that groups consider part of their cultural heritage and identity.

Examples from UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List

There are around 700 elements of intangible cultural heritage on UNESCO’s lists, but that number is continuing to grow. In addition to the gastronomic meal of the French, here are a few more examples of intangibles that UNESCO has included in its intangible program that you may not be aware of.

  • Performing Arts: Muay Thai from Thailand and JULTAGI tightrope walking from Korea.
  • Social Practices: Shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, camel racing practices.
  • Rituals and Festive Events: Traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
  • Oral Traditions: Storytelling in Native American cultures, passing down folklore in African communities.
  • Traditional Craftsmanship: Neapolitan art of pizza making, the tradition of making Kimchee in Korea.
  • Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe: Astronomy knowledge in ancient Mayan culture.

What is the Gastronomic Meal of the French?

UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list

When people from France want to celebrate and share a happy, important life event such as a birthday, wedding, Christmas, New Year, anniversary, achievement, or reunion, they organize a gastronomic meal to share together.

According to a survey conducted in 2009, 95.2% of French people viewed the gastronomic meal as a crucial aspect of their cultural heritage and identity. And almost 99% of people surveyed expressed their desire to preserve and pass this gastronomic meal of the French on to future generations.

So what is the gastronomic meal about?

This festive meal is about the rituals, traditions, and social practices behind France’s multi-course meal that brings together groups of friends, family, and even entire villages to enjoy a shared time of pleasure and eating well. 

It can take place at home or in a public place such as a restaurant or community centre.

It doesn’t matter if the meal is fancy or a leisurely multi-course meal. What matters most is the communal and social aspect of sharing a meal together and enjoying the art of good eating and drinking around a thoughtfully set table for special moments and social events.

French gastronomy meaning:

UNESCO defines ‘gastronomic’ as a French term that refers to the popular cultural tradition of enjoying good food and drink as part of France’s cultural identity. Other names commonly used to describe such a meal, which celebrates the art of good eating, include a festive meal, feast, banquet, gourmet meal and, less formally, ‘blow-out,’ as the younger generations would call it.

What are some key elements of the French gastronomic meal traditions?

French gastronomy traditions surrounding the gastronomic meal of the French: Beautiful fancy dinner place setting

The Gastronomic meal of the French that has been passed down for generations is a cultural tradition that involves more than just eating.

It’s a festive way of enjoying food and sharing it with others in a specific order according to French tradition.

Here are the key elements and traditions associated with it:

  1. Togetherness: Sharing the meal with family and friends to create bonds and lasting memories.
  2. Conversation and Rituals: Engaging in meaningful conversations and certain customs or rituals, such as making a toast and the clinking of glasses.
  3. Gastronomic Discourse: Conversing about the meal to express appreciation.
  4. High-Quality Ingredients: Sourcing high-quality products, preferably fresh, local and seasonal ingredients whose flavours go well together.
  5. Table Setting and Presentation (Art de la Table): Creating an aesthetically pleasing table arrangement, including tablecloths, napkins, tableware, glassware, and decorations, often following the classic French style of symmetry from the centre.
  6. Multiple Courses: Serving several courses, starting with a pre-dinner drink (apéritif) and ending with a digestif. There are at least four courses in between: A starter, a main dish (fish/meat with vegetables), cheese, and dessert. The number of courses can go up depending on the event and circumstances.
  7. Slow and Relaxed Dining: Enjoy each course at a leisurely pace to allow for conversation and connection.
  8. Wine Pairing: Selecting wines to complement each course and enhance flavours.
  9. Serving Tableside: Symbolically sharing by cutting and serving large items like meat, cake, casseroles and stews at the table.

Additional elements you might find during the gastronomic French meal

  • After dessert, everyone typically stays at the table to keep this communication going.
  • Sometimes, the meal includes singing, creating a lively and communal dining experience.
  • Everyone eats together at the table, and you wait until everyone is served to start.
  • Everyone waits until everyone has finished before getting up.
  • To pass on the gastronomic traditions, everyone gets involved in the preparations, and parents pass their savoir-faire down to the children. 

Regional Variations in French Gastronomy Traditions

gastronomic meal of the French-based on region. Coq au vin
Coq au vin Credit: Salt & Lavender

All French people are familiar with French gastronomy, whose customs and traditions are passed down from generation to generation as part of the French identity from an early age.

Within each region, there are also variations in gastronomic traditions, cooking methods, and dining rituals among different families.

Here are a few examples of regional traditions surrounding the gastronomic meal of the French based on the region.

  • Normandie: Le trou Normand (la Norman hole)  A pause between dishes in a multi-course meal to eat an apple sorbet doused with a splash of Calvados brandy.
  • Brittany: Known for its seafood dishes such as ‘moules marinières‘ (mussels in white wine) and galettes (buckwheat crepes).
  • Alsace: Influenced by German cuisine, with dishes like ‘choucroute garnie‘ (sauerkraut with sausages) and tarte flambée (thin pizza-like tart).
  • The big supper and the 13 desserts of Christmas in Provence.

Wrapping up French gastronomy traditions

The French Gastronomic Meal is not just a culinary tradition; it’s also a cultural experience that brings people together.

Its recognition by UNESCO is a testament to that and ensures that it will continue to be celebrated and preserved for generations to come.

Watch this video made by Unesco about the gastronomic meal of the French. 

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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