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October 15, 2004

Globalisation and Gastronomy: News from the Front

Posted by Lincoln Allison

What impact has the current wave of globalisation had on food in Europe? Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - set out on a six week journey across France, Spain and Portugal to find out. He discovers which cuisine has fared best.

I take it that the standard introductory lecture on globalisation goes something like this: Globalisation is the increasing interdependence of people across the planet as a whole. By its nature it tends to diminish the importance of states and borders. It has several dimensions including the the economic, the demographic, the political and the cultural. However, these are essentially independent phenomena though they often tend to increase each other. An important complexity is that globalisation and the perception of it tend to set up inverse reactions, forms of localism, regionalism and nationalism. Further complexities we are warned of in the body of academic writing are that the process is by no means new and that it has been known to go into reverse. Clearly the period since 1978 (when world trade as a proportion of world production regained its 1914 level) has been "an age of globalisation", but it is not the only one and not "the age of globalisation", which was, if any time, 1878-1914.

I have given a lot of thought in the past to these elusive concepts in the context of the politics of sport [see The Changing Politics of Sport, Manchester University Press, 1993] but recently travels in Europe have made me think more about other dimensions. There are three forms of local reaction which can be observed almost anywhere. First, devolution: there are now parliaments in Cardiff, Zaragoza, Santiago da Compostella etc. In the Spanish case several of the more local states pay their politicians more than does the Spanish state itself. Second, language: you can watch television or try to read the papers in Gaelic, Basque, Galician etc. And third, food and drink: restaurants everywhere stress their regional and local authenticity with stresses on menu tipico and de notre terroir. I am going to assume for the moment that there is at least a substantial element of tokenism about the first two, but I will keep a more open mind about the last, bearing in mind the success in England of an organisation like the Campaign for Real Ale.

If there is a single image which one must analyse in dealing with this theme it is the McDonald's hamburger. It is a highly emotive image because, though they may have sold more of their product than any other company in world history they also have more anti-customers, people who would not touch their product if it were free, than any other company has ever had. On a recent cricket tour a young man from New Delhi, during a moment of shared happiness, suggested that "we all go and celebrate at McD's". He received a lip-curling, "we don't do that sort of thing" from the bitter-and-vindaloo chaps. I am inclined to say he would have embarrassed himself marginally less if he had suggested group sex.

The McD image actually blurs several different arguments about globalisation. There is the question of homogenisation, the eradication of diversity, the nightmare of a world in which we all eat the same food. But when McD's arrive in Moscow or Beijing they are actually adding to the variety available and their success in the West has coincided, in most cases and as it happens, with a growth in diversity. Then there is the lowest common denominator argument. Why are Mcdonald's products such crap? (Yes, I have tried them, both in their early days and with citizens of the former Soviet Union!) I can remember the names of the places on my first trip to the US where I had the best hamburgers: Ronnie's Steak House in Chicago, a "dollyburger" in Dolly's somewhere in Nevada (probably a whorehouse when I think about it) and Kirk's of Palo Alto. Dear Mr. Kirk would not serve french fries, insisting that they did not go with hamburgers. All of these were incomparably better than McD's, perhaps suggesting that you go global by relying on cheap, unskilled labour, learning to process low-grade ingredients etc. I try never to eat modern pizza, disliking the gooey melange which appears on top of it and going into grumpy old man mode about the sixpenny pizzas I ate as a teenage hitch-hiker in Southern Italy. And don't get me started on globalised travesties of pasta.

But we must also bear in mind that the food we normally think of as excellent is also a product of globalisation. In the eighteenth century the French gave us the concept of the restaurant, which spread throughout the world, though I should stress that whereas we had the concept in the small town I was brought up in, in the 1950s, we didn't actually have the reality. In the nineteenth century they gave us haute cuisine with its orderings of courses and food-drink combinations. And in the twentieth they gave us nouvelle cuisine, which, like its predecessors, has both pure and debased forms. A restaurant full of Indiana businessmen eating chevre chaud which I recently saw is just as much globalisation as McD's in Moscow.

The danger here is of stepping into all kinds of contradiction and cultural studies faux paradox where the inauthentic is the only truly authentic and the local becomes the true global and so on. I intend to avoid this danger by asking some genuinely simple (albeit subjective) questions and basing my answers on six weeks recent travel in three countries, France, Spain and Portugal. The questions concern whether food has become poorer and whether it has become more homogenous. I am qualified to answer them by an extreme interest in the subject and by forty years and more of travel. I go back to the time when you could ask where to find a pizza in Turin and be given a long lecture on the foolishness of innocent young foreigners straying into parts of the town where criminal elements resided. The Revenge of the South has been pretty total on that one!

Let me start by writing off Portugal. I am in agreement with whoever made the observation that the four semi-finalists in Euro '04, the Czech Republic, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal represent the four worst cuisines in Europe (and yes, I am prepared to defend English food against any of that lot). My attitude to bacalhau, the salt cod which permeates much Portuguese cuisine, is strictly Johnsonian: I don't care how it's done because I can't see why it's done at all. Historically, it has to do with glut and drought for the fishing fleet, but that is no excuse: we gave up on salt beef years ago. In avoiding bacalhau I always seem to end up with a large piece of tasteless meat flanked by rice and potatoes.

And so to the big one: I am seriously worried about French cooking. Time was when you could stroll into any French town and eat and drink cheaply and in a distinctively French fashion. Escargots, cuisses de grenouille, coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, civet de lievre were all widely available as were local options. These were dishes based on good, fresh local ingredients and cooked by people for whom they were part of a heritage. Now in many places – though not everywhere – if you are looking for an ordinary meal you are likely to find forms of pizza and pasta, backed up by varieties of salade composee and steak au sauce from a bottle, all pretty similar to what you'd find in England or the USA and requiring no particular culinary skill. My wife did find a curious form of localised delocalisation (as the French would put it) in the form of pizza Arriegeoise which has at least two local cheeses and a good deal of duck on it.

There is, of course, still haute cuisine, now almost entirely in its nouvelle or minceur mode. To complete the range of our experience we did have dinner at Michel Guerard's restaurant in Eugenie les Bains (the little town with the big prices) in Les Landes, arguably the most influential restaurant of the twentieth century. It took exquisiteness, gastro-gravitas and a kind of friendly flunkeyness to their ultimate limits. All the food was very good, obviously, and the signature dish of morilles and asparagus in a light creamy sauce was very special. But I've had food pretty much as good as that for a quarter of the price. And the wine caused me to have an acute bout of scepticism. The white – a local Tursan – was better than we usually drink, but the red – a Cahors at €80 a bottle – was not something I would have preferred to most of the wines I have had plonked down in front of me in a jug in cheap Spanish restaurants. But I always had a depraved palate as my late father used to put it and I used to love vin ordinaire before grade inflation appeared to abolish it. (I vaguely and resentfully blame the Australians for all of this, but I haven't got an argument.) The cost of dinner for two, since you ask, was just over €350, helping to make this the most expensively researched essay I have ever written.

What has happened is that a great chain of being which linked the village inn with the finest restaurants in the land – a chain which did exist in France, though never in England - has been irreparably broken and the two ends have gone off in different directions. Haute cuisine is too refined to be imitated in ordinary eating, it's chefs not trained for ordinary cooking. There are real staff shortages; in a booming September we several times saw one young waiter or waitress running themselves into the ground to keep a restaurant going. French labour law – including the 35-hour week – may be playing its part. French youth culture seems to have no more place for good food than it's English equivalent: a beer, a fag, a pizza and some rap will do very nicely.

Cross the Pyrenees and everything changes. In Santiago you can walk into any restaurant in the Old Town and eat beautiful, fresh Galician food. Ditto Andalucian food in Cordoba and Castilian in Burgos. You can often eat spectacularly for €12 and the local wine is included in the price. It is plonked on the table, as honest and strong as a young peasant (if there still is such a thing) with no need to be formally introduced to it or to know its name or date of birth. Restaurants survive on high turnover and the sheer normality of eating out. Spanish cooking seems never to have "delocalised". The whole business of eating at 4pm and then again at 11pm, the contempt for unnecessary distinctions which allows you to eat any combination of dishes in any order and in any one of three sizes – all this seems to go with a culture in which anarchism, regionalism and traditionalism all have large parts to play.

Thus after forty days of eating out my fantasy meal would be entirely Spanish, owing only its forms to the traditions of French haute cuisine:
Starters (all Galician):

Empanada de pulpo (Octopus pie with sweet onions)
Pimentos al Padron (Mixed peppers fried in olive oil and sea salt. They look alike, but some are sweet, some more bitter and some red hot, so the dish has been likened to Russian Roulette).
Chippilleros fritados (Crisp fried baby squid)
Gambas al ajillo (Prawns in lots of garlic).

Main course:

A quarter of a sucking pig and a quarter of a milk lamb, roasted to perfection and combined with garlic sautéed potatoes – as served in a restaurant overhanging the gorge in Cuenca, Castile.

A fairly classy Galician Ribeiro with the starters because you have to be a bit careful with white wines, but with the main course any decent Castilian red from the barrel will do.

You must be joking.

In other words, Spanish food seems to retain all the virtues which social change related to globalisation has eroded elsewhere. Unlike French and Italian food it has not itself been globalised, but it does depend on a form of globalisation in that tourists are helping to keep it alive: I was in at least two full restaurants in Deepest Spain where there was hardly a Spanish customer. This was a bit like the bullfight I went to where 20% of the crowd were English-speaking and 10% Japanese. So I retain a slightly paradoxical faith that global tourism – at least in some instances – can serve to preserve local traditions.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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Great article. I just got back from a trip to the Basque Country and had a super-positive gastronomic experience.

Posted by: Nikolaos Moropoulos at November 18, 2004 06:02 AM
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