THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Vincennes | Rendezvous with Rousseau-5 — Elemental and Ornamental

The woodland of Vincennes © Marie de Paris

Around the same time that Cammas (and Gopnik) were re-focusing French food, the Festival of French Gastronomy was launched to promote ‘gourmet food, produce, and expertise’. French Food Minister Frédéric Lefebvre said it was ‘so ubiquitous that we had forgotten to celebrate it,’ and once again the focus was aimed at haute cuisine and the celebrity chefs who championed decaying aristocratic cuisines when it should have been directed toward the commodification of food and the hegemony of the fast food industry.

What Lefebvre missed are the salient facts that gourmet chefs design fast food products for the corporate food industry and that most fast food has its origins in traditional food, for example kebabs, pizzas and the very Parisian pommes de terre Pont Neuf (aka chips or frites). Expertise has nothing to do with it! Knowledge has everything to do with it! Ignorance was absolute!

Back in the 1990s the arrival of Slow Food appeared to suggest that a movement dedicated to the promotion of sustainable food production and consumption would alert the world to the plight of traditional food cultures.

By the end of the decade Mara Miele was confident. ‘Because, in the Italian context, traditional eateries retain a close connection to local food production systems, Slow Food argued that their protection requires the general promotion of local food cultures. Thus, Slow Food was established on the basis of a local structure, coordinated by a central headquarters in Bra (which now employs around 100 people). The local branches effectively engage in a range of activities aimed at strengthening local cuisines. These branches were initially established in all the Italian regions (and were called condotte) but soon began to spread to other European countries and then further afield (where they are called convivia).’

Slow Food is now a global entity, with convivia in many countries. Whether it has succeeded in its aims is a debate for another day. What is clear is that there are competing sensibilities, which are determined by personal economic and lifestyle factors. Slow Food attracted people who could afford to visit restaurants specialising in locally sourced food and buy artisanal products at food fairs and festivals, street markets and specialist shops.

This activity might be aesthetically pleasurable but none of it could be described as a tenet of sustainable food security, because like most food activity in our modern world it is not part of an integrated holistic system designed to produce that security. What might be different is a realisation that it must be communal, centred on self-sufficiency and focused on sustainability. Food that is produced locally, that is not imported, produce that is indigenous, products that are practical and activity that is not exploitative. There is scant evidence despite the efforts of many around the world that anything will change anytime soon.

Ironically, and we are sure minister Lefebvre has noticed, it is the French with their Ici.C.Local (Here it’s Local) programme who have identified a practical model for fresh produce and local products. In this moment it would appear Ici.C.Local is economically and politically sustainable.

Can we now hope for the demystification of food preparation?

All this philosophising is mentally exhausting so we are going to amble back to Saint-Germain via the most direct route from a map of Paris and its surrounds by César-François Cassini de Thury, an 18th century cartographer. In the mid-1700s this was via the Avenue of Vincennes along to the Bastille, down to the island of Saint-Louis and across to the Latin Quarter. Plane trees of the type that line most Parisian streets give ambiance and shade to Avenue de Paris.

As we approach Porte de Vincennes, the oval road bridge over Paris’ arterial ring-road, we notice a clump of south-facing trees on the opposite side of the wide avenue. We decide to investigate, because these might be mature oaks. Standing tall and strong they look healthy in their restricted low-walled plots. When we reach the other side of the bridge, on Cours de Vincennes, plane trees punctuate the pavements at interviews while chestnut trees grow out of soil portals between the hedgerows. We are not surprised to see beech, chestnut, lilac, oak and plane trees in the round reservation of the Place de la Nation. We are surprised to find a string of walnut trees among the plane trees on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine.

As we approach Place du Bastille it is all plane trees although there is a suggestion that some of the smaller, thinner trees are cherry and pear. On Rue du Rivoli we finally notice a proliferation of the trees that once lined Parisian boulevards — the elm. On the island of Saint-Louis the flowering paulownia trees we saw along the route add colour to the expanse. They were not in Paris during the time of Diderot and Rousseau. Across in Saint-Germain a few cedars and dogwoods add contrast to the plane trees. The walk has taken us more than two hours.

So did Rousseau really collapse under a grand old oak tree to experience an epiphany on the road to Vincennes? As a man who studied nature it is hard to believe he would not have known the difference between the large elms that dominated the boulevards of Paris and the oaks of Vincennes. When we first looked at the orientation of Vincennes we made the assumption that Rousseau had arrived in the park along what is now the Avenue di Daumesnil, the grounds of Paris Zoo and the landscaped area around Lake Daumesnil north of the ancient village of Bercy. In the mid-1700s this area became the residencies of 13 nobles whose terraced gardens fell toward the river Seine. The boulevards that separated these estates would have been planted with oaks.

Rousseau was known to be fanciful yet we cannot believe he believed he managed to walk from the centre of Paris to the park of Vincennes in 60 minutes.

The oak story?

That we do believe. Whether you believe us as well is another story, but there you go and here we go. We are going to start with a legendary classic of the traditional food canon – flamiche! Food simplicity!

The theme of this first section in The Great European Food Adventure is also the subject of the introduction to volume one of the Traditional Tastes of Europe series.