The grand Meze
From Wednesday 19 May 2021 to Sunday 31 December 2023
This exhibition takes us from the field to plate, and from traditional Mediterranean culinary skills to today's worldwide restaurant chains
The Galerie de la Méditerranée is the Mucem’s exhibition space for semi-permanent exhibitions. From 19 May 2021, its first section will host a new exhibition: “The grand Meze”.
We are all familiar with the recommendation to “eat five fruits and vegetables a day”, but who knew that it took its inspiration from the “Cretan diet”, also known as the “Mediterranea diet”? This concept, created in the 1960s by the American epidemiologist Ancel Keys, was inscribed in 2010 in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, thus promoting its recognition and globalisation.
The Mediterranean diet is the result of a construct that has always been enriched with external contributions throughout history. But how can we define and preserve geographical and cultural culinary authenticity, while sharing it with the greatest number? Moreover, how to protect a diet without preventing it from evolving? And finally, how can it remain permeable while at the same time also remaining authentic? These are the questions posed by the exhibition “The grand Meze”, which takes us from field to plate, and from traditional Mediterranean culinary know-how to globalised food standards.
The Mediterranean diet today is, in fact, synonymous with two simultaneous and antagonistic trends: on the one hand, its globalisation, and on the other hand, the necessary reappropriation in the Mediterranean of its production and cuisine. The exhibition invites us to grasp its specificities as well as how it has evolved.
It is organised into two parts:
From field to plate: some basics about food in the Mediterranean
Two agricultures coexist while concurrently being opposed to each other. On the one hand, there is the family-led, food-producing agriculture that respects the environment, but is not very profitable. On the other, there is the intensive, export-led agriculture that needs to satisfy world demand for Mediterranean products. The latter operates irrespective of seasonality or environmental considerations, with worker exploitation sometimes akin to slavery.
Their cuisines also work in opposition. On the one hand, there is the traditional or “home” cuisine that requires patience and know-how. On the other hand, there is the food industry, which frees the consumer from the constraints of cooking, reduces preparation times, but also causes a certain worldwide standardisation of tastes.
Dietetics also plays an important role in the Mediterranean diet, as do “cultural” factors such as the use of sugar and alcohol during festivities, and religious and individual dietary prescriptions due to a specific food intake or intolerance.
Between here and elsewhere: a globalised construct and the reappropriation by geographic areas
Because of its geography, the Mediterranean has been a melting pot since the Neolithic period, when food and recipes either passed through or remained. Little by little, this circulation led to a globalisation of food. However, the exhibition offers a counterpoint to this by reflecting on initiatives linked to the reappropriation of agriculture with reference to the example of France’s région Sud Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
Similarly to a great meal with varied dishes and flavours, the exhibition presents a selection of 550 heritage objects and documents from 35 museums, including the Cité de la céramique (Sèvres and Limoges), the Musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (Paris), the Musée d’Orsay (Paris), the Bibliothèque Nationale Universitaire de Strasbourg, the Musée de Tessé (Le Mans, France), the Museu Valencià d’Etnologia (Valencia, Spain), the Museo e Bosco Real di Capodimonte (Naples, Italy), the National Museum of Archaeology (Beirut, Lebanon), the Museu Marítimo (Ílhavo, Portugal), and the Slovenski etnografski muzej (Ljubljana, Slovenia). Ethnographic pieces were specially acquired by the Mucem for the exhibition from Georgia, Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Portugal. The Mucem is also producing 13 audiovisual projects and 6 new works designed especially for this exhibition by Michel Blazy, Nicolas Boulard, Laurent Derobert, Lena Durr, Laurent Fiévet and Gerald de Viviès.
Édouard de Laubrie, manager of collections and research, responsible for the “agriculture & food” theme at the Mucem
Lucas Gomez, art historian
Christine Ilex Beinemeier
Interview with Edouard de Laubrie, curator of the exhibition
In what context was the exhibition, “The grand Meze”, devised?
Édouard de Laubrie (E.L.)
Since the 1990s, food crises have multiplied throughout the world and preoccupation around food has also become a concern in wealthy nations, with food industry health dramas happening with increasing regularity (Mad Cow’s Disease, Bird Flu, the horse meat in lasagne scandal, infected milk and other infant food products, etc). An agricultural malaise is ever more prevalent and shows the
limits of an excessively industrial production system that respects neither agricultural resources
nor agricultural workers. This phenomenon is global and consumers no longer know what to eat.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the “Cretan diet” became fashionable, with an emphasis on local, mainly vegetarian products, together with its unsurpassed accompaniment: olive oil. The success of this diet became so global that in 2010 and 2013, what is now called the “Mediterranean diet” was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This was a consecration, given that it was the first time that a transnational diet of food was labelled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Moreover, it was the first case to include both a cultural and dietary dimension.
In March 2019, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia submitted a joint application for couscous, a culinary speciality of North Africa, to be inscribed on the World Heritage List. In June 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned of the loss of cultural, social, environmental and heritage value in relation to the erosion of sustainable diets, particularly the Mediterranean diet.
For the United Nations, the decade 2019-2028 is the decade of family farming, which needs to relocate and re-humanise agricultural production — and equally so in the Mediterranean. Given how topical the subject is, the Mucem had to address the issue of food in the Mediterranean, which, as we can see, goes far beyond this geographical area. Despite the immensity of the subject, the exhibition offers some keys to understanding over time the fundamentals of this diet, its constant evolution, and some of its very contemporary issues.
The notion of a “Mediterranean diet” is at the heart of the subject: can you clarify this
Beginning in the 1950s, increasing numbers of Americans were dying of cardiovascular disease, the causes of which were not understood. The epidemiologist Ancel Keys (1904-2004) noted that Mediterranean populations were remarkable for their longevity and good health.
For Keys, this was explained by their diet, which was mostly vegetarian, based on the consumption of cereals and legumes, fruits and vegetables, a limited amount of fish, dairy products and meat, enriched with many condiments and spices, and sprinkled with water, wine and herbal teas. Olive oil as opposed to animal fat was the main vehicle for this good health.
For Keys, the culprit that caused cardiovascular disease was cholesterol. To demonstrate the validity of his argument, he carried out the “Seven Country” study in which he established a link between traditional Mediterranean eating habits and a significant drop in the incidence of mortality due to coronary heart disease. Even if the methodology and results of Keys’ studies were questioned by part of the scientific community, he synthesised Mediterranean dietary patterns and established the concept of the “Mediterranean diet”. As early as the 1970s, Keys published books for the general public on the subject, which were a worldwide success and which made the Mediterranean diet a global food model.
Is there really a dietary form common to all the populations of the Mediterranean?
In fact, Mediterranean dietary habits are not homogeneous; there is no single Mediterranean diet, but rather a number of Mediterranean diets that gather around an extremely varied range of products. It is also necessary to go beyond nationalistic perspectives of cuisines, which is a creation of identity (with cuisines that are Greek, Lebanese, Moroccan, etc), in favour of determining wider geographical areas.
The environments of the Mediterranean area are, first of all, extremely diverse. Moreover, during its history, this geographical area has been dominated by a succession of invading forces, which have each contributed to the enrichment of its cultures, foodstuffs and cuisines: the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Ottomans, Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, etc. Religions have also shaped food traditions by favouring certain foods while forbidding others.
Lastly, social and economic factors also need to be taken into account in societies that remain very compartmentalised. Generally speaking, the composition of diets differs from country to country. In southern countries, it is essentially made up of vegetables with cereals supplemented by legumes as a source of protein and a small amount of meat products. Conversely, in northern countries, animal products make up a much larger proportion of diets, and even in Italy, for instance, the consumption of cereals, fruits and vegetables is higher in the south of the country than in the north. Finally, in Balkan countries, the composition of diets is somewhere in-between: richer in animal products compared to southern countries, but with more cereals and legumes compared to northern ones.
Since the 1990s, the Mediterranean diet has become a worldwide phenomenon... for better or for worse?
In order to visualise and disseminate this Mediterranean food model more widely, a pyramid was created in 1992 by the United States Department of Agriculture: foods placed at the base of the pyramid were those to be consumed more frequently and in greater quantities, while those at the top were to be consumed in smaller quantities.
In 2011, a new pyramid of the Mediterranean diet was created, which integrated not only food but also lifestyle (from the Greek diaita), ie physical activities and social contacts during meals taken collectively.
From November 2010, then in 2013, with the increase in the number of countries it touched and its recognition by UNESCO, the Mediterranean diet acquired worldwide cultural recognition far beyond the simple dietetic perspective on which it was founded.
At the same time, in the context of world population growth and the urgent need to set up sustainable agricultural systems, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has been promoting the Mediterranean diet as a nutritional, health, economic, environmental and social food model. World demand for Mediterranean products is growing exponentially: olive oil, tomatoes, strawberries, etc. And so, their cultivation must be extremely intensive to satisfy the “world demand for the Mediterranean”. This is one of the paradoxes of the agro-food industry which, through over-cultivation, is destroying agricultural land and freshwater resources in many Mediterranean regions, particularly in Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. In addition, farmworkers who work on these farms experience deplorable living conditions and the products grown are of mediocre quality.
Another paradox is that the Mediterranean diet has left the Mediterranean and that cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes have now largely conquered its populations, eager for the food models of wealthy nations, which give pride of place to industrially made foods, ones that are
rapidly prepared and consumed, and those that are rich in fat, salt and sugar.
In this context of globalisation, the exhibition raises the question of a necessary reappropriation
of diet in the Mediterranean...
Although numerous scientific studies confirm that the Mediterranean diet represents a healthy dietary model in terms of nutrition and health, it is paradoxically becoming less widespread in Mediterranean countries where problems of under-nutrition, especially in the south, coexist with being overweight, obesity and chronic diseases caused by the consumption of particular foods that are common to the whole Mediterranean area.
Poor dietary behaviours are due, among other things, to a high intake of saturated fats and refined carbohydrates found, for instance, in industrial foods and beverages, a low intake of fibre, and a propensity to be sedentary. Thus, the dietary diversity that characterises the Mediterranean diet is greatly diminishing.
The reasons for the disappearance of the Mediterranean diet are multiple and go beyond what is strictly related to food: loss of biodiversity, degradation of natural resources, contamination by pesticides, climate change, high energy and water consumption, heavy dependence on imports, urban pressure, poverty, the vulnerability of many rural and urban communities, etc.
Scientists are now proposing the concept of a “sustainable diet” that takes into consideration all criteria — from landscape to plate, ie a model of agriculture and food consumption with integrated, agro-ecological production systems and a consumption pattern that is richer in plant foods than
in animal products.
In this way, is the région Sud Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is an exemplary case?
The région Sud Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur benefits from a diversity of terroirs, with specialities such as market gardening in the Bouches-du-Rhône, viticulture in the Var and Vaucluse, fruit production in the Durance valley, perfume and aromatic plants in Haute-Provence and the Pays de Grasse, and livestock farming, especially sheep, in mountain areas.
The region is the cradle of the AMAP (Association for the Maintenance of Peasant Agriculture), the first of which was created in Aubagne in April 2001. The objective of an AMAP is to preserve the existence and continuity of local farms based on a socially equitable, ecologically sound, peasant agriculture, which directly connects producers to consumers.
In October 2014, the law on the future of Agriculture, Food and Forestry insisted on the notion of “territorial food projects” with the aim of producing healthier, more sustainable food, which was produced nearer to where it was consumed. Its action plan was founded on three priorities linked to land heritage, overall agricultural dynamism and meeting the population’s food needs.
Then, in October 2018, the Agriculture and Food Law was passed by the French General Assembly on Food and brought together consumers, food manufacturers, retailers and public authorities. This law aimed to restore the balance in commercial relations between producers and supermarkets and to make healthy and sustainable food accessible to all consumers.
The région Sud Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is the leading region in France in terms of the proportion of agricultural land cultivated organically (over 29% of its usable surface area) and over 20% of its agricultural labour force works on organic farms. Short, local circuits (collective sales outlets, markets, farm sales, AMAP type baskets) involve over 160 stakeholders, who organise some 350 circuits. Over a third of farms market products through short circuits, mainly to urban consumers.
From producers to consumers and including distributors and regional institutions (municipalities, départments and the région Sud Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), the food system is becoming more local thanks to numerous initiatives. These include local food governance network RéGAL, set up by the Pays
de Haute Provence in 2009, the label “Pays Gourmand” which brings together 58 restaurateurs, and the Luberon regional natural park, which encourages the cultivation of food products of the Mediterranean diet. Thus, in the region, agricultural and food issues make up an articulation between the rural space
and the urban space, given that most of the population is urban. This also concerns, for instance, eating habits outside of the home, such as new culinary purchasing and preparation practices of school canteens.
Through this theme, this section of the exhibition addresses a vast chronological period — from the Neolithic era to the present day. What are its objectives?
The aim of this section of the exhibition is to show that, due to its geographical position in the world and the successive civilizations that have come to make it up, the Mediterranean is an exceptional agricultural and culinary melting pot. Since Neolithic times, this area has been a crossroads where plants, animals, men and know-how have converged. Due to its geography, climate, and trade routes by land and sea, it has never ceased to be a zone of acclimatisation and transit, despite geopolitical tensions.
The inclusion of the Mediterranean diet on the UNESCO list could, like any form of heritage conservation, freeze this food treasure to a moment in time. Moreover, the phenomenon of globalisation is abusively reducing the Mediterranean diet to a few emblematic products. In fact, the opposite is true, as the Mediterranean continues the enrichment of its diet as it has done since the 16th century with products from the Americas and as it does today with foods and cuisines from the Far East. Conversely, Mediterranean cuisine has also been exported around the world with local adaptations, some of which may surprise.
Les gestes de transformation du blé—Installation de Christine Coulange