Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I'll Take a Loaf of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Please

Traditional bread baking is in trouble in Germany, according to an article in the New York Times. There has been a sharp decline of bakeries and the number of people training to become bakers. More people are going to the supermarket for breads that are produced on the industrial scale. Even a traditional baker is engaging in mass production, after all. Fritz Trefzger, a baker interviewed for the article is undoubtably making more bread in a day than gets made in a year in my house (and we bake; we rarely buy bread anymore).

In an effort to stem the decline, the German Bakers' Association has applied to UNESCO to have German bread baking added to the UNESCO list of cultural heritages that should be preserved. The article mentions that French gastronomy made the list, so I looked up UNESCO's statement on it.
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 emphasizes 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.
As much as I love French cooking, this is bullshit. After all, French haute cuisine is so endangered that there are only a few thousand restaurants where one can experience this cultural expression. It's rarity is such that one can find only a few thousand more places where this ritual is performed outside of its native France. These places are often so ill-attended that one may gain entry by humbly requesting admittance mere days or weeks, and only rarely a month, in advance.

There are items on the UNESCO heritage list that I think are in actual danger of vanishing and work should be done to preserve them. French gastronomy is actually not on this list, but instead is on the "representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity."

The problem with any of these is preserving a market. French gastronomy (sorry, I'm still on that, even though this is supposed to be about bread) has the enthusiastic support of wealthy people (and even some who aren't so wealthy). Mr. Trefzger bakes bread for ordinary people, turning out 200 to 300 traditional Sunday rolls each week. He just needs someone to buy those brötshcen. And future bakers to bake them. He has three trainees who are learning how to make traditional German bread.

Mr. Trefzger has an uphill battle. The article ends with a quotation from a Berlin resident who calls the bread from his local supermarket as "the best bread that I have ever had." Caspar Oehlschlägel said that
Just because it is industrial- made bread doesn't mean that it is bad. Making bread by hand is fine, but it is really something for romantics.
Well then, count me in with the romantics.
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