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Exemplified with the cultural differences between France - Denmark - Sweden
Dr. Dominique Bouchet Professor of International Marketing Odense University Campusvej 55, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark
Fax :  6615 5129
Dominique Bouchet: "Differences in Food Culture - Traditions & Trends. Exemplified with the cultural differences between France-Denmark-Sweden."in Claus Heggun (Ed.): Quality and Risk Management. Proceedings of the 25th International Dairy Congress (21-24. September 1998, Aarhus Denmark), The Danish National Committee of the IDF, Aarhus 1999. pp. 210-216.
Abstract : It is a challenge to become acquainted with the complexity of different food cultures. By looking at the differences in the ways in which people in France, Denmark and Sweden relate to the concept of “eating”, an introduction is here given to the analysis of food cultures.
A culture shock I was born and grew up in France. Nearly 25 years ago - at the age of 25 - I moved to Denmark and had a culture shock! The first thing I noticed was the the difference in food culture. In Denmark people did not mind drinking something sweet with their food, they served few vegetables, and the bread often tasted – for me – like cardboard. It was not unusual to have to content oneself with one dish for a so-called dinner, which was usually consumed in the evening. Most meals were supposed to be eaten quickly and alone. The food was rarely a topic of conversation. It did not take much before the Danes felt that the food was - not refined - but too fine. Brown gravy – always tasting and looking the same -over-done meat, onions, and potatoes seemed to be their favourite food. When I brought French products with me home to Denmark, my guests were not very interested. In their view French sausage and French cheese looked positively disgusting. Liquor was more interesting. Without restrain they would taste everything, just like they did not refrain from eating my imported candy - which I had thought would last for months - in just one evening. Some differences are noticed straight away Different food cultures and cultural differences in general are neither easy to analyse nor to describe. Cultures are very complex systems of differences intertwined with each other, which the culture members are guided by in their choices. If you come from a different culture, it is often easier to wonder at the strange choices – and differences – you are confronted by. You do not become conscious of everything, but when it is a question of food, the confrontation is almost inevitable: you must eat even if it disturbs you to the core when you are submitted to a different food code.
on further analysis. The sensuous and the factual General cultural criteria are also making themselves felt when consumers relate to other types of products. a tendency which seems to be shared and homogenising.). luxurious. Food cultures. bitter. warm. turn out to be multiple and diverging. whereas it is the opposite for the Danes. and why. festive.are not only confronted with technological innovations but also with cultural changes. cold. sensuous criteria. whereas in France the main issue is the better taste.).). If it is a question of cheese and meat. In other words. In this connection it is observed that ecology concerning food means something different in France and in Denmark.no matter which goods they offer .as well as the way in which we eat it .. everyday-like. it is not just what you eat which is interesting. what happens in connection with innovation is far less conscious than the running of a business. Ecology as an example The increasing interest in ecology and ecological production methods is an example of such a cultural change. French consumers are less likely to let . boiled. car manufacturers wish to find out how they can benefit from new technologies. but also how. Because the taste sensation plays such a large role in France. however. are considerably more complex than brand names. And all these domains intersect: everything we eat . i. private. Yet others refer to the social ties (traditional. holy. necessary. healthy. the new product will be viewed according to the complex system of interpretation which makes up a culture.The components of food culture Among the basic differences which the multiple cultures employ in the building of their food culture. businesses . public. When an innovation occurs If a technological innovation is made which makes new products possible or if a supplier from abroad tries his luck with foreign products.. both countries are aware that such products are gentle to nature.Danish consumers the factual.. when.. The latter are even more difficult to relate to. on the other hand. With respect to production methods.g. fried. unclean. BMW marketed it as something which enabled the driver to have even more control of the vehicle.i. Thus.is influenced by all the systems of meaning at once. In addition. wheras the French rationality is dominated by aestethic .e.e. some are physiological taste experiences (sweet. When the ABS braking system was introduced.). Others refer to basic attitudes (ethos) concerning the relationship with nature and the universe (pure. spicy. But when the issue is the relation between the product and the body... salt. secular. genuine. This happens in more or less the same way as when e. emphasised that the braking system meant even more safety for the passengers. In the above example the experience seems to be more important for the French than the realisation. the priorities in the two countries differ: in Denmark it is emphasised above all that the products are healthy. with whom. French consumers emphasise the sensuous aspect .. Some have to do with preparation (raw. sour. can. Therefore.. Two different rationalities prevail: the Danish rationality is based on scientific and juricidal criteria for evaluation. Volvo. exotic. the relationship between product and nature. dry.
Thus. Thereby. hygienic arguments. and thereby more powerful and appetising. roughly the same food ideal is shared across social groups. and there are fewer occasions for eating together.are practically the same for all sections of the population.the food ideal . and Danish-like popular food ideals in another. not very much in both countries distinguishes the food ideals of the various social groups. the food rituals are less imposing. The mastery of the shades of the French language and the appreciation of the principles of the French kitchen are the key to the integration in a community in which one both feels welcome and has the possibility to move up independent of occupation as well as social status.themselves be influenced by e. It is acceptable to eat alone and hurriedly on a frequent basis. people in Catholic countries are fond of rhetoric and pomp and gladly make use of culture and staging for seduction. Food and language are not employed to the same degree in order to show off an expertise. These types of consumer behaviour are deeply rooted in different ways of relating to the animalistic . one finds that there are different perceptions of the distinction between the human and the animalistic which support the experience of the consumer in their respective cultures. In France everybody has to confirm their state of membership and secure their place by showing a commitment as well as a knowledge of taste and aesthetics. whereas the associations in Denmark and Germany are more in the direction of death and morbidity. everybody is accepted irrespective of individual taste.to life and death. In the Nordic countries people talk more about nature in man than about culture versus nature. boiling. The animalistic aspect is seen as something positive in France and Spain. the animalistic is transformed into something different: the proteins it consists of. just like many people try to behave naturally. the food rituals function differently. the Swedish food culture is less homogenous. because they share a code in which both food and language play an important role. In Denmark one is included in the community without necessarily taking an interest in food. But. which is a source of wonder for many Scandinavians. as mentioned. the Swedish and French food cultures share the demand for a confirmation of a person’s affiliation. Digging a little deeper into this issue. It refers less to the national community and has a higher degree of complexity from local and group-specific codes.. and therefore it is desirable to kill each and every trace of what is disgusting in a process of frying. Swedish multiplicity Matters stand differently in Sweden where the French aristocratic food ideal rules in one part of the population. In general. whereas in France exactly red meat is perceived as being more alive. Compared to the situation in France and Denmark. that ideal does not have the same content or significance as in France. or pasteurising. Fresh oysters and red meat are seldom appreciated in Denmark. Thus. The food cultures in France and Denmark The French use food more intensively as a means of communication. But only in few groups do taste and sensuousness play a central role.g. Contrary to that. and even fewer for exquisite meals. The reaction is one of disgust. the nutritional and the natural aspects take up the most central place . The references . However. In Denmark too. In Denmark a pronounced sense of the matter of course and indifference rules.
made extensive comparisons to previous food experiences. The perception of service The differences in food cultures are also expressed in other ways. they are also intricately connected like a hologramme. Quality. The Swedes deplored the fact that the food was too exquisite. Three minutes later the waitress comes to their table where. The American stops in front of the table where the waitress is preparing omelets. “I’ll just have a hard-boiled egg. primarily notices the the falseness rather than the lacking consideration of the social aspect of the meal. Planet system or commode A great deal of the categories which are used more or less consciously for an evaluation of the quality of food and meals are not objective.” But the waitress does not register this. a Frenchman and an American met for breakfast in a Stockholm hotel. which Danes seek in a meal is often a relaxed atmosphere. The authenticity. As a summary. The Swedish waitress does not appear to react. . All dimensions are not only closely connected. however. on the other hand. While the American is expressing his surprise and disappointment through his body language. Accordingly. set up independently of each other in a commodelike chart where the familiarity forms. She does not answer but turns her back and walks off to make a new omelet. and the taste are taken out of context. She seems to be lost in her own thoughts. the Dane comments on the lacking qualifications of the waitress. discretely and without any comment. formalism. he says in a firm and irritated voice. While the three colleagues are filling their plates from the buffet. The French participants. which can be illustrated as follows: A Dane.across all groups of identification. He tells her that he is allergic to dairy products and asks if that particular omelet contains milk. authenticity refer to widely different culture-specific combinations. The Dane. the social aspect. in Table 1 I have tried to illustrate some of the intra-cultural interactions mentioned in this article. How is everything?” The Swedish informal form of service pleases the Frenchman who perceives the American formalism in that area as an interruption of the intimity and intensity of the meal where the intrusion of the waiter breaks the spell. for instance. they would have preferred a sliced tomato and a grilled fish. sir. who also perceives the waiter’s smile as being false. Unlike Denmark. Their meanings are connected in a culture-specific structure which has more in common with a mobile planet system than with a well-organised commode consisting of well-separated drawers. he sees a different table with hard-boiled eggs. and the taste preferences refer less to personal than to natural and simple aspects. the Danish participants critisised the uniformity of the food with reference to people’s individual taste. it ought to be clear that it does not suffice to make superficial analyses of individual dimensions. whereas Swedes will primarily seek something of that sort in purely natural products. she serves the American a milk-free omelet. The Frenchman remarks that he prefers this kind of discrete service to what he has experienced in the United States where the staff with a stiff plastic smile would inelegantly interrupt the meal at any given time with an importunate and agressive “Good day. they are moving away from having common references and are going in the direction of natural rather than practical characteristics. My name is Peter. At a seminar where the food was prepared by a proud French cook. “Never mind”.
Sensous experience Social interaction Cultural characteristics Taste High aesthetic priority • More important than hygiene • Social bond • Sensous Carrier of social bonds Cultural code expressed through speech National conformism Differentiation by means of refinement Seen as archaism Very extensive Wordy Already while shopping Even more at the table Demand Questions Taste experiences Food experiences • Being able to distinguish the good taste • Being able to express slight distinctions Seeing. “terroirs”) DENMARK Nutrition Physiological necessity Individual pause Nutrients Personal pleasure Practical characteristics Low aesthetic priority • Secondary to hygiene • Individual choice • Nutritional Personal pleasure Cultural code very seldom expressed Simple and tolerant code The legitimacy of simple taste Very widespread Weak Laconic Very rarely while shopping Rarely at the table Supply Brochures Safety and health Individual taste • Corresponding to a person’s individual taste • No explanations Perhaps read about it Physiological Hygiene Service Usually rational Seldom injurious to health • Distribution of norms for security • Shortening of preparation time • Easy-to-use SWEDEN Nutrition Natural necessity Individual pause Nutrients Personal pleasure Natural characteristics Medium aesthetic priority • Secondary to hygiene • Naturally rooted • Natural Dependent on social group Cultural code occasionally expressed Simple and tolerant code The legitimacy of natural taste Relative differentiation Very widespread Weak Laconic Rarely while shopping Rarely at the table Supply Brochures The natural and health Individual taste • Natural. levelling of products • Loss of cultural identity (upbringing. smelling Commensal (community based on food) The art of food The social aspect Damages taste • Loss of taste • Banalising. corresponding to a person’s individual taste • No explanations Perhaps read about it Physiological Hygiene The social aspect Mostly rational At times injurious to health • Distribution of norms for security • Shortening of preparation time • Distortion of the natural Taste/the social bond Sourish or mixed taste Food talk Food talk .who talks the most? Food talk . touching.when? Food talk ..what about? The decisive aspect of the relation to taste When buying food The rhythm of meals Restaurant Industrialisation of food production .Table 1: How priorities differ in the three countries: TOPICS OF FOCUS/ CULTURES Food Meal The most important aspect of the meal Food formalism Taste preferences FRANCE Taste Possible social tie Taste sensation.
Ecological products For taste reasons Terroir Life Red meat because of its powerfulness Alive Room temperature Gourmet Tasted with wine and bread Development of the product National taste classification system Culture Aristocratic For health reasons Pollution Death Well-done for safety reasons Pasteurised Chilled Standardised Rigid norms Unvarying taste No reference to a shared classification system Nature Peasantry Meat Preparation of meat Cheese Eating cheese For health reasons and because of the natural aspect Pollution Death Well-done for safety reasons Pasteurised Chilled Standardised Rigid norms Unvarying taste No reference to a shared classification system Nature Different sources: Aristocracy or peasantry and/or the working classes Food code Main reference Historical influence .
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