I can only begin by saying how heavy my heart is at the dreadful anguish suffered by those who lost their loved ones in the unspeakable atrocities of two weeks ago and how my deepest sympathy and solidarity are with the French people.
Against a background of such inhuman violence and terror, it is almost impossible to talk sensibly about matters of everyday civilization. Yet that is what I propose to do, because in the face of such awfulness it may help to be reminded of the simple and timeless human values that lie at the heart of our society. Indeed there is plenty in the writings of Maître François Rabelais himself to suggest that he placed great importance on good-natured hospitality, with friendship and sincerity seemingly at the heart of the many gastronomic and well-lubricated banquets that he took such pleasure in describing.
Rabelais, in his writings, lets on from time to time his penchant for the products of his region: andouille, the Williams pear, the diverse fish of the Loire, and of course the immortal wines of Chinon, Saumur and Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil. All 100% organic, naturally…
I cannot imagine that Rabelais would ever have compromised on the quality, or the diversity, of food, and neither should we. The distinctiveness of local cuisine is one of the most important ways we identify with the places and regions we love. Timeless values such as sustainability, cultural identity, community, health and taste – intangible things that nourish body, mind and the human spirit - are more important than pure convenience or soulless "efficiency." So, too, is the health of the soil, which underpins all human existence as much today as it did five hundred years ago.
The latest research shows that the world’s soils hold three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. As part of the momentous international discussions taking place on climate change in this city at this very moment, your Government is launching an important initiative to draw attention to this very point. They have calculated that if the quantity of carbon contained in soils could be increased by just 0.4% per year, the annual increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could be halted. The same measures would, of course, also improve soil fertility and therefore our ability to feed a growing population. So it will not surprise you to know that this seems to me to be a hugely important and timely initiative! I can only hope it will be given proper attention by policymakers.
I have spent many years, and a good deal of breath, extolling the benefits of working with Nature - harnessing positive forces through healthy soil, healthy crops and healthy animals, to provide healthy food for people; trying to encourage a more holistic approach to farming, forestry and the rich diversity of food production; battling for the survival of the small family farmer and their vital role in rural communities and local food systems both in the United Kingdom and around the world – even, back in 1992, as Patron of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association of the U.K., mounting a vigorous defence here, in Paris, of our precious specialist cheeses against the bureaucratic predations of the "hygiene and health and safety gestapo." I remember saying then that the very phrase "minimum hygiene standards" should strike terror to the hearts of any true born Frenchman and all the other people who find that life is not worth living unless you can have a choice of all the gloriously unhygienic things which mankind – especially the French portion of it! – has lovingly created out of the fruits of God's earth.
In a bacteriologically correct society, I asked, what will become of the Brie de Meaux, the Crottin de Chavignol or the Bleu d'Auvergne? In a microbe-free, progressive and genetically engineered future, what hope is there for the old-fashioned Fourme d'Ambert, the mal-formed Gruyère de Comté or the odorous Pont L'Eveque? Will this obsession for licensing, categorizing, homogenizing and pasteurizing see the emasculation of the sturdy old Roquefort, the Camembert, the Reblochon and even the ubiquitous Vacherin? It may sound silly to say so, but a very important part of the whole magnificent edifice of European civilization rests on the inherited genius and craftsmanship of the people who make such distinguished concoctions.
Ladies and gentlemen, I could not be more profoundly touched or proud to have been awarded the François Rabelais prize by your Foundation. It is an immense honour and one that I will treasure, not least when I look at the list of previous winners and the contributions they have made to French gastronomy. I note with all humility that I am in very illustrious company!
Even when accepting a prize in the name of the foremost historian and advocate for the history and culture of French and European food, I find myself unable to recommend the consumption of herons, swans or peacocks, all of which featured regularly in the feasts of Rabelais. There is, however, in the description of a banquet in Gargantua, a reference to four hundred capons from Cornwall. And so I will certainly consider proposing to the farmers of the Duchy the reintroduction of this delicate dish -- now very rare indeed -- to the honour of Maitre Francois, and to the culinary Entente Cordiale…
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am deeply grateful to you for the honour you have done me this afternoon and I can only wish you every possible success in continuing to defend the history, culture and survival of real food, without which all our lives would become utterly insufferable.