Gastronomic Culinary Heritage through Slow Food and the Ark of Taste in Estonia

Theme: Heritage Preservation and Rural Communities

by Ms. Nichole Michelle Weimer
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Hawaii, USA and lives in Tartu, Estonia
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. candidate in Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies Program, Tartu University

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Introduction

Food holds a special place: on the table, in our stomachs and our individual and collective memories but more specifically, within the realm of our heritage. This article focuses on the concept of heritage preservation and the role of rural communities within gastronomic cultural heritage. Later, an analysis of the Slow Food movement within Estonia will be introduced to further conceptualize how rural cuisine and its gastronomic cultural heritage are being recognized and safeguarded by this particular regions community members through the Slow Food project, the Ark of Taste.

Food as a Form of Heritage

Heritage is understood to be situated with and within tradition (Bessière, 2013), however, heritage is not a static concept or framework but rather, a concept that is in perpetual negotiation with its community members, as stated by Jacinthe Bessière, in their article ‘ Local Development and Heritage: Traditional Food and Cuisine as Tourist Attractions in Rural Areas ’ (Bessière, 1998). Heritage, therefore, is not fossilized and rendered stagnant or fixed within a community. What is considered to be a community’s heritage is transacted by its members continuously by what is considered to be relevant to the members current perception of their identities (Bessière, 1998, 2013). Consequently, because of the need for relevance for heritage application, heritage becomes a subjective model in which requires “real social selection” (Bessière, 1998, 2013) and interaction that is actively engaged and selected according to its significance to the communities collective memories and perceptions of their identity (Bessière, 1998). This definition of cultural heritage is also agreed upon by the multiple authors of ‘ The Knowledge of Food Heritage Identity in Klang Valley, Malaysia ’, as a complicated and tricky concept to “…preserve and measure as it [is] associated with values, beliefs, behaviors and rules of the society” (Ramila, Zahari, Halim, & Aris, 2017). What is most fitting to the concept of heritage is what elements are specifically selected to be preserved and the aspects that no longer serve or subscribe to the community’s desired image of self, is consequently lost. The “beauty of death” (Bessière, 1998), a concept that was first generated by Fabre, is quoted by Jacinthe Bessière to help further the conceptualization of what heritage entails when it selects and relinquishes certain components. Simply, the concept articulates how particular tangible or intangible elements are latched onto in the wake of its near disappearance and “their beauty is measured through the shock generated by emotion and memory” (Bessière, 1998).

Food heritage is no different to other aspects of a culture’s heritage. Ramila et al., drew on a statement from Prof. Datuk Zuraina Majid, the former Commissioner of Heritage, who postulated that food heritage appears in two distinct classifications. The first recognizes daily and common foods or meals that are present in our everyday lives as food heritage while the second category recognizes endling foods; foods that are near extinction from a select cultural community, that “were once part of our culture but are slowly dying out” (Ramila et al., 2017).

In the past few decades, rural environments and lifestyles have been gaining more attention and traction within the tourism industry, ergo the redesigned the perception of rural. What was once an image deemed to be “negative if not derogatory” (Bessière, 1998) is now being romanticized and thus a promoted ideal (Bessière, 1998). As Jacinthe Bessière expressed, the rural space and ruralites have preserved and safeguarded the “roots” of our identities and heritage from which are borne from the ruralscape. This has drawn urbanites to rediscover “the good old days” (Bessière, 1998) through the form of tourism. Rural has become synonymous in current times with the concept of traditional food. With the consumption of these traditional and or natural foods, urbanites ingest the multitude of aspects interwoven in the traditional food that allows the consumer to connect with the “nature, culture and identity of an area” (Bessière, 1998).

The Slow Food Movement

The Slow Food movement was born in 1986 at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome as a protest against the construction of a new McDonalds (Dumitru, Lema-Blanco, Kunze, & Garcia-Mira, 2016). This was inspired and led by Carlo Petrini (Dumitru et al., 2016). Since then, it has evolved into a revolutionary rebellion and counter movement against the industrial mass food production complex, poor agricultural practices, the erasure of small farms and their farmers as well as the fast food industry. It has engulfed the world’s attention, motivating different countries across the world to join the revolutionary act and awareness raising. Over 160 countries are now members (Dumitru et al., 2016). Slow food’s philosophy on food has been declared to food that is good, clean and fair (Boyd, 2016).

Food plays a fundamental role in our everyday lives from nutritional value and biological sustenance to the tapestry of our heritage, culture and identities. It symbolizes who we are as individuals and community members, both as producers as well as consumers. The Slow Food movement state of affairs acknowledges and validates this belief as well as the multitude of factions and modes that materialize within the spheres of political and environmental concerns to preservation of cultural heritage and identity. The intentions of the movement is to rediscover the pleasure of growing, selling and consuming food including the relationships that are constructed and sustained within the local context. It therefore calls upon the myriad of diverse actors within the web of food-ways with responsibility and duty to “protect the heritage of food, traditions and culture that makes [this] pleasure possible (Dumitru et al., 2016). It must be made clear that the founder of Slow Food and its leaders do not have goals to radically alter current urban civilization, such as the idea that societal members pick up and leave their office jobs to toil the land again, but rather, to maximize what is naturally available, what is local and what is very much so intrinsic to the heritage of that specific area (Dumitru et al., 2016).

Slow Food’s creed promotes the aims and intentions of supporting these local networks that have existed before the centralized global market (Dumitru et al. 2016). At the Slow Food conference held on November 8th-11th of 2007 in Puebla, Mexico, the international statute was drafted. In article three, the statute lists the definition and various aims the movement intends to promote and foster. Such examples are as follows: reconnecting and supporting the common interest of local regions, the culinary heritage of food and its production as a way to safeguard the land and socio-cultural identities of a given area, uphold high quality food that fulfill the “three absolutely fundamental elements: sensory goodness; ecological sustainability of the production, distribution and consumption processes; respect for social justice and dignity for all the people involved in the food production chain” (Slow Food International Statute, 2007). Through such enactment, communities can have the autonomy and choice to disengage with big corporations and the industrial food giants with intentions to preserve and promote local cultural heritage foods.

In article 3, point 2.B, the International Statute aims in the effort to“promoting or supporting initiatives that aim to preserve and add value to the historical and cultural identity of a specific geographical area” (Slow Food International Statute, 2007). The movement has created various projects to educate, foster and sustain as well as promote good, clean and fair food. The project I’d like to focus on in this article is the ‘Ark of Taste.’

The Ark of Taste

Aptly named, the Ark of Taste is a project paired with an online database that operates similarly to UNESCO’s framework in the operation of nominating heritage foods and traditional practices that are under threat by industrialization and factory processing throughout the world. In Estonia, there are two successful nominated heritage foods: Kaeraküpsis (oat biscuits) and lest , the dried and smoked flounder (Ark of Taste: Products in Estonia, n.d).

Saarema’s nominated foods represent the Estonian heritage and recognition of the importance of local food-ways because “before the food is agriculture…it is the cook’s duty to support local agriculture and small farmers. The future is in the fields and dignity. Life is not just consuming and producing,” it is also about the relationships between community and members to the land, the food that is consumed and thereby, our identities and heritage (Dumitru et al., 2016).

Kaeraküpsis: Oat Biscuits

Kaeraküpsis is a rustic and humble biscuit comprised of four ingredients: oat flour, butter, sugar and eggs. The oat flour is sourced locally from the fields on Saaremaa island and processed at the local mill (Ark of Taste Products in Estonia: Saaremaa Oat Biscuits, n.d). The threat of extinction to this local heritage food is the shift from in-home made biscuits to a more mechanical and factory based production. As the nomination states on the web-page, “…there are very few local bakeries that produce the traditional [biscuits], keeping to the original recipe, without adding additional ingredients” (Ark of Taste Products in Estonia: Saaremaa Oat Biscuits, n.d). Locally produced Kaeraküpsis proves to be an expensive and time consuming endeavor from the manual labor to the high cost of ingredients sourced directly from the local region. The biscuits no longer represents flavors of remembrance when it is being forced out of the local heritage by its cheaper opponent, the factory made Kaeraküpsis.

Lest: Dried and Salted Flounder

Estonia’s geographical location and climate is far north enough to require different methods for the locals to have access to healthy foods during the long and cold winter seasons. Fish has played a congenital role in the local cuisine as well as fermentation, smoking and drying techniques and practices. Lest is a local Saaremaa staple of dried and smoked flounder. The flounder is fished for in the two glacial water bodies that surround the island of Saaremaa, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga, during the months of June to September. Size was important; the flounder needed to be “as big as the palm of the hand, to ensure there is enough meat once dried” (Ark of Taste Products in Estonia: Artisanal Salted and Dried Flounder, n.d).

The process was technical and skilled based, requiring multiple steps as well as time to produce. As the web-page informs, the flounder was gutted and its head was detached. Salting the fish required four hours followed by a wash and hung up on lines by its tail. The drying period lasted from two to six days, weather dependent. The fish was consumed either as is or along with other components such as leib , a dark rye bread, or boiled with potatoes (Ark of Taste Products in Estonia: Artisanal Salted and Dried Flounder, n.d). Lest faced possible extinction as it was not sold in shops due to its naturally low production as well as the shift into factory production. In the lest ’s nomination, it faces “a loss of authenticity and identity. New lifestyles are leading to traditional houses being abandoned, making it hard to find a place with the right characteristic for drying the fish, so fewer people are making this typical product” (Ark of Taste Products in Estonia: Artisanal Salted and Dried Flounder, n.d).

Conclusion

What the Ark of Taste offers is a strategy to recognize, protect and encourage the awareness of heritage foods in the wake of globalization and industrialized production. These rural spaces, communities and identities act as a collective memory with roots deeply embedded with cultural heritage while nurturing a sensation of kinship to a specific region, charging it with merit (Bessière, 1998). The distinct culinary techniques, processes and knowledge, situated within an explicit locality therefore is recognized as “an integral part of an individual, collective and territorial identity construction. Promoting a specific gastronomic product by conserving skills and techniques leads to re-enacting history, re-approaching what has been lost and also helping to create, innovate and accept change” (Bessière, 1998). It is within these rural communities, that culinary heritage can facilitate a deeper sense of belonging to a unique geographical locality and peoples but more notably, the longevity of our heritage.

References

  • Bessiere, J. (1998). Local Development and Heritage: Traditional Food and Cuisine as Tourist Attractions in Rural Areas. Sociologia Ruralis 38 (1), 21–34.
  • Bessière, J. (2013). ‘Heritagisation’, a Challenge for Tourism Promotion and Regional Development: an Example of Food Heritage. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 8 (4), 275–291.
  • Boyd, S. W. (2015). Reflections on Slow Food: from ‘Movement’ to an Emergent Research Field. In Heritage Cuisines: Traditions, Identities and Tourism (pp. 166–179). New York , NY: Routledge.
  • Dumitru, A. & Lema-Blanco, I. & Kunze, I. & Garcia-Mira, R. (2016) Transformative Social Innovation : Slow Food Movement : a Summary of the Case Study Report on the Slow Food Movement . TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.
  • Ramli, A.M., Zahari, M.S., Halim, N.A., & Aris, M.H. (2016). The Knowledge of Food Heritage Identity in Klang Valley, Malaysia .
  • Slow Food International Statute. Retrieved from https://n4v5s9s7.stackpathcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/SLOW_FOOD_STRATUTE_2017_EN.pdf (accessed November 15, 2019).
  • The Ark of Taste. Retrieved from www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/what-we-do/the-ark-of-taste/ (accessed November 12, 2019).
  • The Ark of Taste: Estonia: Artisanal Salted and Dried Flounder. Retrieved from www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/artisanal-salted-and-dried-flounder/ (accessed November 12, 2019).
  • The Ark of Taste: Estonia: Saaremaa Oat Biscuits. Retrieved from www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/oat-biscuits/ (accessed November 12, 2019)

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