A taste of terroir?
French food as cultural heritage and the role of locality
French food as cultural heritage and the role of locality
The cultural connection between heritage and food has gradually gained visibility over the last decades and holds an especially interesting place in today’s expanding view of cultural heritage.
The link between food and heritage has been increasingly recognised both within contemporary culture and in academia, where food studies programs have gained traction. From TV programs focused on chefs and their personal narratives to documentary series highlighting the culinary traditions of specific communities and the ingredients they use, to the enormous success of regional cookbooks and culinary blogs, we can see an emphasis leading us back to the well-known phrase: you are what you eat.
Taking France as an example, the country’s widely-celebrated cuisine has set an enduring global standard for gastronomic excellence.
While geography and a unique blend of social and economic circumstances can be partially thanked for this prestige, a special concept remains central to the success of French cuisine: the notion of terroir. Broadly put, terroir implies a connection between taste and place, resulting in a distinct local product, such as cheese or wine.
Interestingly, the traditional production practices of people in particular regions are often seen as equally important in giving a particular quality to a product. Today, the word terroir is applied to numerous products and is often used in marketing strategies and safeguarding measures for culinary heritage alike. But how did the mythology surrounding terroir become so pervasive?
Through examining a wealth of posters, advertisements, and photographs, considered alongside publications like tourism guides and maps, we can trace a visual link between locations and specific culinary products in France. Focusing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we can see influencing factors such as war, the rise of train and automobile transport and tourism, and the further expansion of urban life and commercial activity, all coming together to reinforce the allure of nature and rural life.
Simultaneously, the development of certification labels protecting product origins, such as the appellation d’origine controlée (AOC) for wines, juridically reinforced the sanctity of place-product relationships. This has a significant impact both culturally and economically for regional products. Even before the AOC system was officially established in 1935, we can see the importance of locality highlighted.
For instance, take the early 20th century poster for 'Fine Champagne' above, a type of cognac blend. In small red print, the advertisement assures that the local mayor of Saint-Même has certified that the vines used to produce this beverage are owned and situated within the commune. An image rich for analysis, we also see a finely-dressed woman gesturing not only to the name of the eau-de-vie, but also to the scene beyond, comprised of a vineyard, labourers calmly tending to the vines, and the owner’s chateau situated amongst the rolling hills in the background. Here we see a rural idyll, suggesting harmony between man and nature, resulting in a unique, location-bound product.
The mythical qualities surrounding regional products also involve the land and the people who work it. For instance, the vigneron, or winemaker, is often seen as a sort of translator or medium between the land and the product.
In advertisements, photographs, and culinary festivities, historic garments or equipment may be used to convey an air of tradition and authenticity. In connection with terroir, local products are thought to reflect a typical quality or typicité of a region. This association can encompass the inhabitants of a place as well.
Here we see a woman serving samples in a traditional bonnet and apron for a wine festival in Dijon, part of Burgundy’s Côte-d'Or. While the outfits may serve as a marketing device, they also allow locals to perpetuate a sense of cultural continuity. Living elements of intangible heritage are often maintained through festivals and celebrations. This photo is particularly interesting because, since 2015, parts of the wine region of Burgundy surrounding Dijon were granted UNESCO heritage status.
Echoing literary trends, the wake of industrialisation and booming urban development of the 19th century left citizens of the French capital longing for the countryside and simpler times.
Food advertisements often seized upon this new pastoralism, featuring the land, scenes of romanticised rural life, and gendered labour. For instance, this poster for olive oil from Nice (1890) displays two illustrative vignettes, enticing consumers with an idealised narrative of oil production in southern France. Above, we see an olive grove, the terrain appearing hardly cultivated, suggesting a symbiotic unity between the people and the land. Women stoop to peacefully gather olives which a young boy has shaken loose from the trees above. Behind them we see their village, with distant rocky hills, perhaps approaching the coast. Below, we are shown the production process; two men are casually working the oil press, barefoot.
Importantly, this poster was printed and distributed in Paris, hinting at the target consumers who are being sold the myth of rural Southern France, tempting them to buy a product which can figuratively transport them to another part of the country, the local 'exotic'.
The tendency to emphasise, even caricaturise a rural ideal of both people and traditions creates a complex tension in marketing and safeguarding ‘products of terroir’. While traditional garments, practices, and festivals may all be important aspects of a local culture associated with a culinary product (such as wine harvest festivals), the use of these motifs in advertising can add a reductive connotation to rural lifestyles and foodways.
Thus, imagery of celebrated food products, which may be emblematic for certain regions of France, often rely on essentialising both the food and the artisan. Some associations, like oysters with Northern France, pretzels from Alsace, or mustard from Dijon are almost reflexive for modern consumers.
The land (or the sea in the case of 'Gaufrettes Normandes' and 'La Boulonnaise') plays a prominent role in communicating the link between product and place. Before the arrival of widespread automobile tourism, these products were intended to be preserved and transported, bringing the taste of terroir directly to the market stall or kitchen table.
Many of these images play upon the idea of transportability. In the market photograph, we see the regions of the oysters clearly marked, and the words 'livraison à domicile'. The advertisement for shipping crates offers to deliver fresh oysters across Europe. Set along the seaside, a well-dressed couple samples huîtres (oysters) directly from the vendor, continuing to underline locality. We also see that the workers, servers or sellers are used to suggest authenticity or local flavour, adding appeal to the cosmopolitan consumer.
The urban food market offers an interesting reversal of the concept of locality, as it provides a gathering place where all regional products can be found together. This marketing of the specific locations as ‘exotic’ is still present in the promotion of regional products today, where terroir remains as a powerful association with heritage and quality. The example of France allows us to notice similar motifs among late 19th and early 20th century European food and drink marketing, and to see how the return of the local appears today in both food advertisements and culinary heritage initiatives.
Jenny L. Herman is a FWO Doctoral Fellow in Fundamental Research, Literary Theory & Cultural Studies at KU Leuven in Belgium.
This blog is part of WEAVE – Widen European Access to cultural communities Via Europeana, a project aimed at developing a framework to link the tangible and intangible heritage of cultural communities.