Within ‘the heritage sector’ we compartmentalise its different aspects. Museums, libraries, archives as guardians and interpreters of collections. The historic environment sector as recorders of the built environment and historic landscapes. Archaeologists who excavate, record and analyse material remains. Then there’s natural heritage, everything about our world that isn’t human made. The subject divisions proliferate the idea of heritage further, science heritage, art heritage, industrial heritage etc; as does scale: family, house, community, society, region, country, and the ever increasing interest in global heritage.
This bowl of stew was just as powerful as some exhibitions are in evoking a sense of place and its culture.
So what has all this to do with a bowl of stew? Cornish Fabada is a gastronomic pun or perhaps homage to the better known Fabada Asturiana, a simple but delicious stew made in the Asturias, the most westerly region in Spain, indeed Spain’s Cornwall perhaps. Yet another ‘Celtic fringe’. I was emailed a couple of weeks ago about a video project that seeks to showcase the best of Asturian culture and heritage called Where is Asturias. So far seven videos on Vimeo immerse you in carnivals, dramatic landscapes and food.
The two food videos about Tapas and Pinchos and Fabada Asturiana (white beans, pimentón or paprika, olive oil, mineral water, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo and belly pork slow cooked to a rich heavenly stew–with variations depending on recipe) immediately stood out. Their stories immediately drew me into Asturian culture and heritage. Regional food traditions are a living heritage. They encapsulate and nurture a region or nation’s distinctiveness just as much as their material culture, language, rituals and festivals. But food is not often thought of as heritage, nor is it used as a gateway to interpreting a region’s character, at least not in Britain. Many of the values of good local produce and good cooking are shared by those engaged in promoting and safeguarding other aspects of the heritage of place: sustaining tradition, sharing it, communicating distinctiveness, making comparisons. But we don’t really use food as a vehicle for communication.
Restaurants, cafes and chefs often promote the historic setting of the diner, not least here in Cornwall, but this is all about the building, not about the food, which often comprises ingredients and techniques that have grown up in a region over time and are as much part of the fabric of the place as the old abbey or bakehouse or flour mill or whichever beautifully restored dramatic old building you find yourself in. I’d quite like a line or two on my menu about my John Dory or Skate and how long people have been fishing them and how they do it (and why)–not just that it was sustainably and locally caught.
It seems to me that the instinct of the Where is Asturias team to use food in videos promoting their region was right. This isn’t just about promoting travel and tourism to the area (where good food and ingredients are often used to lure in the lustful traveller) but about appreciating food as an integral part of a living heritage of a region, both tangible and intangible–two concepts that have aroused a lot of debate since UNESCO began to record non-material or intangible heritage on the World Heritage list.
So well done to Where is Asturias. These videos inspired me to cook up my own version with ingredients I could get hold of. Okay, hardly authentic but I remained true to the cooking method which was something I hadn’t tried before, like a slow confit in olive oil, water and spicy smoked pimentón). I speciously called it Cornish Fabada but the point is that by cooking this up I gained an understanding of ingredients and cooking methods that are enshrined in the cultural DNA of the Asturias and so I feel as though I have gained a feeling for this region’s heritage, and more importantly it has persuaded me to want to know more. This bowl of stew was just as powerful as some exhibitions are in evoking a sense of place and its culture, in some ways perhaps more so.