How to explain the French gastronomic meal to your mom

What and why the gastronomic meal of the French was added to the UNESCO Intangible cultural heritage list in 2013?

The gastronomic multi course meal
The gastronomic multi course meal

What makes The gastronomic meal of the French so special that it was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO? Let’s take a short tour of French gastronomy traditions known as “Le repas gastronomique des Français,” (The gastronomic meal of the French.)

In 2010, when UNESCO designated “the gastronomic meal of the French” as an intangible cultural heritage, I was both surprised and confused. 

How can you designate a type of food? 

Chances are, you might have wondered the same thing. 

Now after living in France for over a decade I get it. 

It’s not French food that was designated. It’s the traditions behind the meal and way of eating in France.

What is UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list?

The Taj Mahal, Mont St. Michel, Palace of Versaille and the Egyptian Pyramids.

These are just a handful of places you know as UNESCO world heritage sites. Outstanding cultural and natural places of such universal value that the United Nations recognizes them. 

But, how do you recognize intangible cultural traditions and practices such as shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium or Formal French meal traditions in France?

UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list to the rescue. 

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

UNESCO started its intangibles program in 2008 to spread awareness, and preserve cultural activities and traditions from around the world in the face of globalization.

These intangibles include the knowledge, practices, related objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces that groups consider part of their cultural heritage and identity.

They are forms of culture that can’t physically be touched like a building or bridge but can be recorded.

Examples of intangible heritage categories

  • Oral traditions
  • Performing aArts
  • Local knowledge
  • Traditional skills.
  • Songs
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Drama
  • Cuisine
  • Crafts
  • Festivals

UNESCO’s efforts are working because their intangible cultural heritage list includes some amazing cultural traditions and customs that most of us have probably never heard of, such as:

  • JULTAGI tightrope walking from Korea
  • NAQQĀLI storytelling in Iran
  • Shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium
  • Camel racing practices.

There are  nearly 700 intangible cultural heritage on UNESCO’S list but the list is growing.

Here’s an amazing interactive graphic of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. 

Intangible Foods and culinary traditions

Washoku Traditional Japanese-meal

The category on UNESCO’s intangible list that surprised me the most was food.

Examples of intangible foods and culinary traditions at risk that are on the list include:

  • The tradition of making Kimchee from Korea
  • The Mediterranean diet
  • Traditional Mexican cuisine
  • Neapolitan art of pizza making

These intangibles are at risk?

It isn’t the food itself that’s in danger but the ritual surrounding it.

It’s the rituals, the social practices based on a set of skills, knowledge, symbols and traditions behind these food intangibles. 

For example, in 2013, UNESCO added Japanese cuisine to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. I’m not talking about tempura brought to Japan by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the 16th century, or ramen, which came from China. 

Those are all relatively new Japanese foods. 

UNESCO added a traditional Japanese cuisine called Washoku  和食, which means “harmony of food” or “Japanese food.”

  •  WA “和” is frequently used as a prefix in compound kanji words to mean “Japanese,” “Japanese style,” but also “harmony.”
  • SHOKU “食” means “food” or to “eat.”

Washoku is not just about the harmonious nature of the dishes or eating seasonally available ingredients to prepare well-balanced meals.

Japanese Washoku traditions (especially for the New Year tradition) involve preparations to welcome the gods of the new year, pounding rice cakes and preparing special meals in beautifully decorated dishes using fresh ingredients, each of which has symbolic meaning.

It’s also about the social bonds it creates around the table, how to relish the dishes and transmitting the customs and preparation from generation to generation. 

Washoku style is vast, but it typically consists of four elements. 

  1. Rice ( usually steamed ) is the staple dish.
  2. A soup
  3. Up to 3 side dishes served as small portions
  4. And tsukemono (Japanese pickles). 

Small bites are taken of each dish, then rice, maybe a sip of soup, always returning to the rice. 

Gastronomic Meal of the French

UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list

Like the Japanese culinary traditions of “Washoku,” UNESCO also designated “The Gastronomic Meal of the French”  to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. 

What makes the French gastronomical meal so unique that UNESCO gave it this coveted status in 2013?

Let’s take a short tour around the elements of the gastronomic meal of the French.

First of all, what is French gastronomy?

potatoes at a French outdoor market

For most, when you hear the term “French gastronomy,” fancy food and a lavish multi-course dinner in an expensive French restaurant comes to mind. 

Gastronomy is the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food including the history and how and why different cultures eat what they eat. 

The French gastronomic meal goes beyond eating fancy full-course meals and satisfying hunger.

It’s the social practice that surrounds it. 

French gastronomy traditions (especially for special occasions or festive occasions) are multi-course meals that bring friends and family together to enjoy the art of “good eating and good drinking.” A birthday, a wedding, Christmas, reunions, anniversaries, a funeral or achievements.

The emphasis is on togetherness, taking the time to savour the food, and the bonds created by choosing local and seasonal ingredients. It’s also about preparing the meal together and sitting around a thoughtfully set table.

The meal can be fancy, or it can be a leisurely, multi-course meal.

Different families, regions, and towns also have their unique terroir traditions:

Coq au vin
Coq au vin Credit: Salt & Lavender
  • Le trou Normand (literally, “a Norman hole”) in Normandie: A pause between dishes in a multi-course meal to eat an apple sorbet doused with a splash of Calvados brandy.
  • Alsacian Choucroute (Saurkrout)
  • Provencalle Bouillabaise
  • Boeuf bourgignon of Burgandy
  • The big supper and the 13 desserts of Christmas in Provence.

All French people are familiar with the gastronomic meal, and its customs are passed down from generation to generation as part of the French identity from an early age. 

Elements of a French gastronomic meal

Beautiful fancy dinner place setting

A French gastronomic meal, in the UNESCO sense, must have certain elements, including:

  • Carefully selecting the dishes to prepare
  • Purchasing good quality products to cook, whose flavours go well together. 
  • Pairing food with wine. Cheese is usually present.
  • Setting a beautiful table.
  • The meal is served over several courses, starting with a predinner drink (apéritif), at least four courses (a starter, a main dish, cheese, and dessert) and ending with a digestif. 

Everyone eats together at the table, and you wait until everyone is served to start and everyone has finished before getting up. 

What makes the gastronomic meal of the French a “French cultural treasure” are the customs, the set of codes, and the rituals behind the meal. 

Watch this video made by Unesco if you’re interested in learning more. 

The gastronomic meal of the French

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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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