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Terroir and Cultural patrimony: reflections on regional cuisines in Aquitaine

Isabelle Techoueyres

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1Today the South West of France is widely renown for its cuisine and gastronomy. This presentation aims at exploring the different ingredients which contribute to the making of the concept of Regional Cuisine. It is based on field work undertaken in Aquitaine: it involved visits to families including 2 and even 3 generations in different areas, with interviews of individuals, observation, discussions. And also interviews with producers of food-products a well as persons in charge of their promotion.

A historical construction

2According to some food historians, the notion of Regional Cuisine emerges in the wake of the French Revolution (cf.J.Csergo), amidst the question of the building of a Nation. With administrative delimitation appear local diversities in statistics and inventories. What is new is the attention given to these diversities, the consciousness people have. The Revolution modifies representations and ties which oppose Paris to the Province, the local vs. the national. Cuisine, via the recognition of regional specialities, is a remarkable component of a unified nation in its diversity. At the same time, philosophers, writers, denounce social and moral pathologies provoked by urbanisation. Rural space becomes synonymous to health and frugality becomes a model. Besides, local space is looked at as heritage, knowledge of the past. Yet, before the XIXth century, regional cuisine doesn’t have good reputation. It will really emerge within the context of regionalist feelings which develop under the 3rd Republic. It is the product of an Intelligentsia which “invented” local traditions with the aim of promoting them. In the 1850s.the Félibrige Movement in the South of France, in a neo-romantic context, helped to enhance this vision : from a poor and unattractive cuisine to a gastronomic paradise.

Representations of Tradition

3In such a context some culinary elements are perceived as “having always been there”, in delimited areas. But this perception and recognition requires the individual’s consciousness and an external look. Thus today when the anthropologist asks people what they would name as “local speciality”, answers will vary according to the informant, (age, rural or urban origin, his/her social and cultural implication). Many persons have trouble answering. Some will cite their own grand-mother’s speciality, others the ones promoted by chefs and restaurants, postcards or magazines. The persons I interviewed all tied their own idea of a “typical regional dish” to the past, somewhere in their own memory, coloured by their own affect or family peculiarities. The idea of Terroir is associated to "savoir-faire", to the culinary knowledge of some members of the family, always the oldest ones, which therefore varies from one generation to the next. Reference is made to family memories: “at my grand-mother’s” or to festive occasions; to a tradition, what everybody else did. Someone said: “a recipe doesn’t happen out of the blue!: one had to use what one had”, meaning necessity as a key to typicality.

4We therefore realise that a “typical dish”, the basis of a Regional Cuisine, is largely an image which varies according to situations and also in time. It is emotionally and symbolically affected.Jean Pouillon said: “tradition is a point of view we adopt today on what has preceded.”

What do people eat in South-West France?

5Today daily food is extremely varied. Most informants describe 2 daily main meals, composed of 3 courses each (a starter, main dish, dessert). In most families, soup is widely eaten. Starters are usually raw vegetables or pork meats (charcuterie). Meat is present generally twice a day even though some people don’t count ham or chicken as meat (…) It is accompanied by a vegetable (or potatoes, rice or pasta). Pizza is frequently eaten at young people’s homes, as well as vegetable pies. Meat cooked in sauce dishes are done rather on week-ends or vacations. Omelettes and varied salads are recurrent. Ready-made deep frozen dishes are not usual: people tend to cook frozen fish and vegetable like fresh. Cheese is regularly eaten. Dessert is often fruit, yoghurt, creams and fruit pies.

6In comparison to the previous generation, food shows much more variety. Vegetables are cooked in diverse ways, steam is often preferred. The oven is commonly used for baking pies, roasts and chicken, as well as grill. Fish is also more common and some families feel obliged to admit they should eat more of it. Meat is very common and although it still is the centre piece of most meals, it is not the object of praise (except for outdoor barbecue events around beef rib or duck magret).What has almost totally disappeared is the use of pork and duck fat while the use of olive or seed oil and margarine is widely spread. Yet one must note that most encountered families still make their own preserves every year (with own garden vegetables) and duck and pork preserved in grease (confit, foie gras, sausages and black pudding, etc.)

7Christmas meals, being designed to present close family and friends with the best foods, offer the possibility to observe what the chosen ingredients are.People tend to eat a lot on these occasions, and home-made foods play an important part. The observer can also notice that, although the different elements selected are considered by eaters to find their root in an ancient family tradition, they in fact evolve very rapidly in time (2 to 3 generations).The recurring ingredients in the Region are foie gras, oysters, saltwater crayfish, duck magret, cèpes, mushrooms.

8Foods are culturally organised on a hierarchical scale. Yet their status varies in time, according to the perception eaters have. For example, cod fish: it used to bear the image of the fish fit for fasting days, the compulsory Friday dish. People tell terrible memories about it from their childhood. Now it is the opposite: cod fish is valued and bears an image of luxury, etc. Prunes (pruneaux d’Agen): they used to be linked to a therapeutic usage, as laxatives. Now they rather evoke a pleasure food suitable for energetic snacks. It is the same with alcoholic beverages.

Regional Cuisine as an economic force

9Today one observes the sprawling of markets, fairs, events where local food products are staged. It is inseparable from the development of “Green Tourism” and eating “local foods” is like absorbing a piece of the identity of a place. For instance, in an area (Lot et Garonne), one lady dug out her grand mother’s recipe of a cake called “tourtière” which had almost disappeared to the point this lady had to have the baking dish made for her. She now sells it on open air markets and on her own farm along with her own vegetable and fruit production, and she also has school children around for afternoons at the farm, etc. Another example is the “Table d’hôte” option, with the example of geese and duck production which enable farm producers to serve whole meals to visitors.

10These adaptations to the new situation in France, the demand and offer of products which are culturally marked, are also a matter of survival, to stay and live in a rural area. It is also refusing to work under the law of large companies; it means defending a way of life.

11Terroir means roots and these roots, which are both imaginary and physical, are landmarks for eaters. Food, necessary to our survival, is yet source of anxiety. This anxiety finds some relief through the cuisine, which is a cultural filter. What matters to the eaters is the identification of what he or she absorbs, and this is why products of terroir and regional cuisine, offering a reassuring image, nourish both body and soul.

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Isabelle Techoueyres, « Terroir and Cultural patrimony: reflections on regional cuisines in Aquitaine », Anthropology of food [Online], S1 | October 2001, Online since 01 October 2001, connection on 29 April 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/1531

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Isabelle Techoueyres

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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