What in the world are you eating?

Mediterranean diet makes UNESCO list

22 November 2010 | 22:56 - By Phil Lees

Just over two years ago, I mentioned that Spain and France had been doing their utmost to have their national cuisines added to UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage.

That day has come.

After their meeting in Nairobi last week, UNESCO has approved 47 new items to be added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, their inventory of traditions and cultural practices deserving of preservation for future generations. The Mediterranean diet, as vague as it may be, was chosen, and defined as the:

...set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions ranging from the landscape to the table, including the crops, harvesting, fishing, conservation, processing, preparation and, particularly, consumption of food. The Mediterranean diet is characterised by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community.

Where the earlier submission came from Spain alone, the later definition roped in the diets of Greece, Italy and Morocco as well. Communal meals were seen as the cornerstone that supported the whole edifice – and, so, the practice of eating the meal was seen as important as its ambiguous content. France’s rejoinder, The gastronomic meal of the French was also added:

The gastronomic meal of the French is a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and reunions. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. The gastronomic meal emphasises togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include: the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local, products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table.

The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes, who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory, watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations. The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.

It is hard not to wonder, in an age where this particular French practice of gastronomy has such a global reach, whether it needs protecting in a purely French national context. Mexico too managed to get its cuisine listed, although much more narrowly defined as the traditions stemming from the central Mexican state of Michoacán, and included both the traditional agricultural methods and food-processing techniques; traditions much harder to replicate outside its place of origin.

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About this Blog

A blog about what the world eats, when and where it eats it, and why it matters to us all. Only much less ambitious than that sounds and with more excruciating puns.

Phil Lees grew up in rural Victoria, the first generation in his family to not have lived on the farm and thereby not slaughter their own meat.

In 2005 he moved to Cambodia and started the nation’s first food blog,, named after the best pun that he has ever made. It turns out that Cambodian food is delicious and unlike the warnings in most guidebooks, is not likely to kill you with any immediacy. Gridskipper called him a “national treasure”. Lonely Planet’s Greater Mekong guide called him “the unofficial pimp of Cambodian cuisine”. The New York Times laughed at a funny hotdog he saw.

Phil makes a mean sausage, a hoppy pale ale, a modest laksa. He owns three barbecues and is in the market for a fourth.