French cuisine and national identity

I read in this week’s French equivalent to Time magazine Le Point an interview of gourmet critique Christian Millau, creator of the famous restaurant guide of the best restaurants, that ‘French cuisine does not exist.’

Actually, it is a point of view I came up with long ago after a few thoughts based on my travels, on numerous requests from friends abroad that I cook ‘something French.’ Inevitably I would think about a regional dish to illustrate something ‘French’: a ‘tartiflette’ from Savoie, pancakes from Bretagne, ‘Boeuf bourguignon’ from Bourgogne, ‘ratatouille’ from Provence, and so on.

I have always been wondering about this paradox that the French revolution and the national unification that ensued under the name ‘jacobinism’ did not manage to create such sense of national identity in culinary creations. I guess all in all some tastes cannot be reconciled. Butter cuisine from Bretagne and Normandy in North-West France would never meet olive oil based dishes from the Mediterranean region. Perhaps, after all, regional cultures and identity managed to survive this jacobinism despite the republican discourse presenting ‘regional particularism’ as archaic expressions of separatism while national unity represented ‘modernity’–this old fear of ‘communautarism’ in the French discourse about identity–thanks to regional cuisine and the impossibility to develop a national one.

It is very interesting to think about identity questions in terms of culinary traditions, of taste and food. Some fusions are always possible and new creations endless from a vast variety of products. However, they always need a solid basis in traditional and regional products, unchanged. At some point nevertheless, this fusion encounters limits. Everyone is free to accommodate ‘traditional’ recipes or products with one another, endlessly and without rules. As long as it tastes good.

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About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
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