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Patisserie in need of protection?

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

Walking into Guy Savoy's kitchen is, for an adult, exactly what entering Charlie's Chocolate Factory must be like for a child.

An example of French haute cuisine
Haute cuisine: A lusciously-coloured pea soup with poached egg

The myriad smells are completely alluring - there's the buttery scent of shallots being braised, the sweet smell of chicken being roasted and, from the patisserie kitchen below, the tantalising aroma of tarte tatin wafting up the stairs.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is asking the UN to award French cuisine Unesco humanity heritage status.

A parliamentary fact-finding commission is currently hearing arguments from top chefs and specialists about France's candidacy for the status, but does French cuisine merit such a title?

Mr Savoy himself is busy preparing for the lunch-time rush. As he spoons Hollandaise sauce into glass egg-cups, the sous chefs stand still and stare at the master at work.

Because, with three Michelin stars to his name, this top chef knows pretty much all there is to know about food.

'Universal value'

"French food is the best," he tells me assuredly, "because it's so diverse and there's so much variety."

He begins to list the specialities of each region - the charcuterie, the bread, the wine, the cheese and then shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

Orlando Murrin picks raspberries
French cuisine is one of the most evolved cuisines in the world, unquestionably. Perhaps the most evolved
Orlando Murrin, food writer and chef

"We need to protect this heritage," he says.

Guy Savoy is one of those supporting France's candidacy for Unesco heritage status.

He believes French cooking has such outstanding universal value that it deserves official recognition and protection.

Previously successful candidates in this field have included a Belgian carnival and the royal ballet of Cambodia.

But can a coq-au-vin or a tete de veau really claim to merit more than a British steak and kidney pie or an Italian penne a l'arrabiata?

Deep in the Tarn valley, an hour-and-a-half's drive east of Toulouse, I met food writer and chef Orlando Murrin.

Lured to France by his love of Gallic cuisine, Mr Murrin was inspired to set up a hotel and restaurant here.

From the earth

He tells me he is fascinated by the way the French talk about food incessantly and the way everyone is so interested in the growing, catching and cooking of it.

Orlando Murrin's restaurant
France boasts some of the world's finest restaurants

But, while he is convinced that French cuisine has perhaps the richest heritage in the world, he does not believe it needs protecting more than any other cuisine.

"French cuisine is one of the most evolved cuisines in the world, unquestionably. Perhaps the most evolved," he told me.

"But it is not of course the only cuisine in the world.

"There is Italian cuisine, there are Asian cuisines… What about Moroccan cuisine and British cuisine indeed? There are lots of others that should be protected as well.

"If you are going to protect one, why not protect the other ones that are equally wonderful and rich and historical?"

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Orlando draws his inspiration not from the top chefs of Paris but from the simple cooking of the neighbours.

He introduces me to Monsieur and Madame Bonne, an elderly couple in their eighties who believe firmly in the culinary principle of "le terroir" - sourcing all their food from the local land and region.

Stiff competition

Monsieur Bonne gives me a tour of his vegetable plot which he still tends to himself and shows me his four remaining chickens, kept for eggs.

Over a generous slice of Madame Bonne's home-made walnut and chocolate cake she tells me how she learnt to cook all the famous French dishes at her mother's knee but fears unless French traditional cooking is protected, it will simply die out.

"They don't have time. If you're invited to dinner at a young person's house these days, you just get a sandwich."

Madame Bonne in her kitchen
Madame Bonne learnt to cook at her mother's knee

But French food critics fear that a Unesco heritage label will do more harm than good.

Attaching the word "heritage" to cooking could make it seem immediately old-fashioned and could push the national cuisine off the restaurant table and into the history books.

A few years ago, Alexandre Cammas founded a movement called Le Fooding, which aims to do away with the stuffiness of Michelin stars.

Instead, it is intent on loosening up the rigidity of French cuisine.

He finds the Unesco bid ridiculous.

"It's totally flawed," he told me. "I don't understand how you can ask for a fixed status for something like cooking which is continually growing and changing."

Throughout the month of July, the French government will continue to hear arguments from top chefs and specialists about France's candidacy for the Unesco status.

They then have a year before they have to submit their application to the Unesco heritage committee.

Competition will be strong - it is rumoured that Spain and Italy are also considering a bid to get heritage status for Mediterranean cuisine.




SEE ALSO
The culinary United Nations
29 Aug 03 |  Europe

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