Our Intangible Cultural Heritage

Food to die from for

It has been a quiet week, so, in a desperate attempt to hold your attention, I will start with some vulgarity.

For thirty years, the writer Iain Pattinson, who died last Sunday, wrote scripts for the presenters of Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His scripts, described by presenter Humphrey Lyttleton as ‘blue-chip filth’, were defended by Pattinson, who said they were perfectly clean on the page and ‘could only appear filthy to someone with a dirty mind’.

The scripts often featured anecdotes about the show’s scorer, Samantha. Here is a typical example: ‘Samantha has recently taken up beekeeping with a small hive, housing just three dozen or so. This evening she has an expert beekeeper coming round to show her a few tricks of the trade, and he says he’ll quickly have her 38 bees out and flying round his head.’

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In 2008, UNESCO established its Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the stated aim of ‘ensuring better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance’. There are now over 584 items on the lists, collected from 131 countries. You can see them all on the official UNESCO site, which I discovered last week.

At first glance, the lists seem a commendable attempt at providing a global overview of national cultural characteristics. I’d heard of Japanese Kabuki theatre and the Mexican Day of the Dead, but not of Botswana’s Seperu folk dance or the Tamboradas drumming rituals in Spain. Each entry has a couple of paragraphs of explanation, along with pictures and video clips. Going through them seems vaguely like wandering around an international theme park.

Gradually, however, I began to become confused. Italy’s ‘Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo’ turned out to be pizza-making – which, in case you didn’t know, is a ‘culinary practice comprising four different phases relating to the preparation of the dough and its baking in a wood-fired oven, involving a rotatory movement by the baker’. Fair enough, I suppose, they did invent them. But then there is ‘Beer Culture in Belgium’, from which we learn that, in Belgium, beer ‘plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions’ and that it ‘is used for cooking, including in the creation of products like beer-washed cheese and, as in the case of wine, can be paired with foods to complement flavours’. I mean, no shit, Sherlock?

Slowly a picture was forming in my mind.

It is a Friday afternoon, and we are in the offices of the French Ministère de la Culture. Bertrand Dubois, a director responsible for matters of Patrimoine (Heritage), has returned from a good lunch and is settling down to put the final touches to one of his pet projects. Since 2008 he, along with his counterparts in various other EU countries, has been involved in a (strictly unofficial) annual tournament to see who can get the most ludicrous entry into UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They each put €100 in the pot, and it’s winner take all.

M. Dubois chuckles as he remembers his last win, back in 2010 with Gastronomic Meal of the French. He and his wife Louise had composed this over a long boozy dinner in a bistro in Rue Mouffetard. He would look around and, in gushing theatrical tones, describe what he saw; she would write it down, occasionally snorting with laughter.

‘The careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes … 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.’

‘Stop, Bertrand, please, or I will wet myself!’

Still, that was ten years ago. All France’s entries in the list in the intervening years had been worthy genuine cultural entities, usually from overseas departments like Guadeloupe and Martinique. Bertrand hadn’t managed to smuggle in a single ringer since then. Mind you, everyone was finding it more difficult. There had been no winner for the past two years, so the pot was definitely worth winning. In 2018, it had been shared by Klaus in Austria and Eric in Switzerland with their clever joint entry, Avalanche Risk Management. Calling snow your heritage was a stroke of genius! Who said they had no sense of humour?

This year, Bertrand was going to have two attempts. Firstly, he was going to resubmit last year’s entry – The Grey Zinc Rooftops of Paris. This was an idea that had come to him while idly looking out of his office window one afternoon and which Louise had turned into a nice little piece about them being the inspiration of countless painters over the years. His second contender was actually Louise’s idea and was again the result of a boozy restaurant meal. While nibbling at some Camembert, she had picked up a piece of bread and said suddenly, ‘Why not do “The Baguette”? … quintessentially French, artisanal, a cornerstone of family meals … blah blah blah!’

The next day, she had turned this into a little hymn of praise to the ‘Gallic staff of life’ and Bertrand had his second entry. He had added a genuine contender about a traditional wine festival in Arbois to make the two ringers look a little less obvious when he submitted them to the Minister. Calling in a favour, he had got an old friend at France 24 to put together a film clip about the three items which he could show her. She would then select one of these to take to President Macron. He knew that the Minister had strong views about drinking, so that should knock out the wine festival. Bertrand was increasingly confident that this was going to be his year.

Getting ready to go home, he again reflected on how odd it was that the UK had never bothered to nominate anything for the Intangible Heritage Lists. That famous British reserve, no doubt. He and his wife had visited London the previous year, and it had struck him that if Clive, his English opposite number, were to enter the Ludicrous Items competition, he would win it easily. What was the name of that strange place where they had eaten the ‘all-day breakfast’ with the cold eggs and rubber sausage … Waterspoons? Wetterspoons? And that odd little boulangerie (Dreggs?) where Louise had ordered the … what was it … ah, yes … ‘the sausage, cheese and bean melt’. UNESCO would lap both of them up.

***

I close with another example of Ian Pattinson’s ‘perfectly clean scriptwriting’. Apparently, Samantha had a gentleman friend who loved cooking and was particularly renowned for his offal dishes. He would often invite her round for dinner. ‘While she’s very keen on his kidneys in red wine and his oxtail in beer,’ Pattinson wrote, ‘Samantha says it’s difficult to beat his tongue in cider.’

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