When the French talk about gastronomy, it is worth listening. They speak with an authority you can’t ignore, like the English when it comes to democratic rules or the Germans for organization and punctuality. And if they hold forth in Tours, home town of François Rabelais, with an audience of teachers, cooks, students, university academics and researchers, you can be sure that discussions won’t be unsophisticated or predictable.
The third forum of the European Institute for the History and Culture of Food (IEHCA) started with an all too straightforward title: ‘Le ‘bon produit’ existe-t-il? – Does the ‘good product’ exist?’. And non-French speakers come up against the first difficulty: how do you properly translate ‘bon produit’. It’s not simply a question of defining the concept of good, it presupposes a concrete physical essence of a food product, whether a crude raw material or refined culinary preparation.
A ‘bon produit’ evokes the idea of genuine wholesomeness, authenticity, tradition… words now abused in the language of marketing, where it is hard to find real objective meaning. Simply translating it by ‘quality product’ is like removing the poetry, the aroma of warm and welcoming food, the sense of pleasure in the good and the beautiful which prompted Guy de Maupassant to say ‘One is a gourmand as one is an artist, as one is learned, as one is a poet’.
Yet this was the topic of the discussion: does it exist? Or perhaps more accurately, does it still exist? Because, as Maurice Sartre, President of the IEHCA observed in his introduction, the notion of good varies according to the time and the place, but nowadays our great concern is about processes, health, human manipulation and adulteration.
In fact, what was at one time good often no longer is today. Tastes change, and so do dietary prescriptions. There’s a restaurant in New York which offers a caviar pizza at a price of 1000 dollars, the most expensive in the world: but does that mean it’s the best? And then, are good ingredients enough to ensure good cuisine? Can you also come up with something good using mediocre raw materials? How much does individual savoir-faire matter?
In the past quality was measured in class terms: there was a food product that was ‘good’ for the upper classes and one that was ‘vulgar’ for ordinary people. Anchovies, for example, which at one time would have horrified a high-class table, are now appreciated. Does food therefore have the opportunity for social emancipation and a democratic mission?
Then there are particular cases, such as Roquefort cheese, where historically the concept of good is linked to aging in local caves and an ability to keep, even after a long sea voyage to the markets of London or New York.
So the idea of good can vary according to the preferences of the public. There is therefore an objective, but variable, definition of good, and a subjective element which paradoxically seems to be constant: the sensory characteristics of taste which are exercised physiologically through the sense organs.
If we consider fruit and vegetables, it is easy: taste can easily guide us to a definition of quality, because fruit is good if it is picked when ripe, vegetables are good if the time between the field and the table is short. Our ability to decipher sensory experience enables us to make choices and to be free. Taste is free, it can be cultivated and educated, it enables us to say no. With practice you will find pleasure.
Pleasure: this is the supreme indicator of good; and if it gives pleasure, it is also good for your health. Because tasting can also mean recovering an ability to listen to your body and nature. It can mean following your biorhythms and the rhythms of the seasons.
But the proliferation of brands and quality marks doesn’t help. According to recent research, official trademarks which define origin or production characteristics, are an immediate identifying signal for only 5% of consumers; the lion’s share is taken by commercial brands, the labels belonging to large companies known through their publicity. And confirming this picture of obvious confusion, a poll has shown a very significant fall in the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables by young French people between 18 and 27 years, who only spend €55 per year on this category of goods, an indication of not particularly healthy food habits.
The Forum discussion did not even spare the crowning concept of French food and wine culture: the terroir. According to academics Laurence Bérard and Philippe Marchenay, this concept has now become difficult to manage, because it gets reduced to the idea of ‘origin’. The only way to define the produits de terroir is to study them case by case and to compile an inventory, defining them through the multiplicity of traditional forms of knowledge they involve and their links with modifications to the land.
They are a product-system, a historical testament based on a local area, whose preparation revives a series of family and social connections. What is more, they help to preserve a particular biodiversity, domestic biodiversity, because human and social factors interact with living matter, from bacteria to more complex forms of life. Historical depth and shared savoir faire are the two elements characterizing a local product .
Proceedings were concluded with examples of healthy pragmatism which made up for two days of complicated discussions. There was the case of the cook Valadier who served 800 meals a day in his canteen using fresh, local, organic raw materials at a net cost of two euros per meal; the experience of the Association for the Preservation of Local Small-Scale Agriculture, based on a direct relationship between consumers and producers, where farm produce was bought in advance; the training work carried out by the garden project for maladjusted young people who cultivate 95 gardens and supply food baskets to 13,000 member families; the use of new technologies by Panier paysan, a group of producers who sell to local customers using the internet.
These are every day examples which work and they are the most significant sign of renewal in the home of great gastronomy.
The material in the article is based on contributions to discussions by:
Jean Bardet, cook
Laurence Bérard, ethnologist, CNRS ressources des terroirs
Madeleine Ferrières, historian, University of Avignon
Philippe Marchenay, ethnologist, CNRS ressources des terroirs
Raphaël Martinez, agro-economic consultant
Jacques Maximin, cook
Pascal Ory, historian, Panthéon- Sorbonne University
Jacques Rousseau, responsible for the department ‘Grapes and Wines’ of the Institut coopératif du vin
Sylvie Vabre, historian, Toulouse – Le Mirail University
Paola Nano, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office
Adapted by Ronnie Richards