French cuisine eyes UNESCO heritage spot

PARIS, Nov 14, 2010 (AFP) - When it comes to meal time, the French do it differently. That is the argument being put to UNESCO as it decides this week whether French cuisine deserves a spot on its intangible heritage list.

"The gastronomic meal of the French" is seen as a strong contender as the UN agency meets in Nairobi from Monday to Friday to consider new submissions for the list, set up in 2003 to safeguard cultural traditions, rituals and crafts.

France's submission to the list -- where it would join the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and Mexico's Day of the Dead festival -- centres around the ritual of the festive meal in a country where food is a key part of social life.

How wines are paired with dishes, how the table is dressed, the precise placing of glasses, for water, red and white wine, knife blade pointing in and fork tines down, are all seen as part of the rite.

Drawing up the menu -- which often involves several people -- is also key, with some families even printing up a copy for their guests.

Once seated, the French continue to talk endlessly about food, about recipes and memorable meals past and present.

And then there are the elaborate menus themselves, from aperitif to amuse-bouches, starter, one or two main dishes, cheese and dessert, rounded off with "mignardises" -- little nibbles of nougat, chocolates or candied fruits.

With of course coffee to finish...

"A meal is an experimental laboratory for a food culture, it brings together all of its quirks and customs," said Annick Vin of the French heritage and gastronomy mission (MFPCA) in charge of submitting the case.

In July, an experts' committee consulted by UNESCO came out in favour of the French bid, which would, if approved become the first gastronomic culture on the UN list.

France is vying for the honour against a quartet of countries -- Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco -- who jointly submitted the "Mediterranean diet"; and Mexico, which is defending its maize-based food traditions.

Praised for its impact on cardiac and vascular health, the mainstays of the Mediterranean diet are olive oil, fish, grains, fruit, nuts and vegetables, usually with a modest amount of red wine. Meat and dairy play a minor role.

For academics at the European food culture institute in Tours, central France, who first launched the UNESCO idea, it is a way to boost the place of gastronomy in French society.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has championed the French candidacy, but the food profession in France is divided -- unconvinced that their food culture is in danger, and as such needs protecting.

"It's not about setting things in stone," argues back Pierre Sanner, head of the MFPCA.

But his colleague Vin notes that meal times are getting inexorably shorter in France.

"We need to transmit and educate children if we don't want our food culture to be standardised," Vin argues.

Songs, dances and traditional know-how from 31 countries are up for consideration at the UNESCO meet, with 51 submissions ranging from Spanish Flamenco, to China's traditional art of Peking opera.

Four are being considered for a special list on intangible cultural heritage "in need of urgent safeguarding" -- three of which are from China.

They are the leak-proof partitions of Chinese junks, Meshrep -- a traditional gathering held by the Muslim Uighurs of China's mountainous northwest -- and the technique of printing with wooden movable type.

The fourth is the Ojkanje singing tradition of Croatia.

The remaining 47 submissions are up for a spot on the main UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list, which currently features 166 customs, practices and traditions from 77 countries.

Croatian gingerbread, the Azerbaijani carpet and the annual livestock market in Houtem Jaarmarkt in Belgium are among contenders for a spot.

And 11 countries from around the world -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Mongolia, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Syria and the United Arab Emirates -- are jointly defending the art of falconry.

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