Today, the global community is more connected than ever before. Foods from different cultures cross boundaries and introduce new audiences to an array of unknown experiences and tastes. Whether it’s McDonald’s in China or Yo Sushi in Europe, food has become one of the most effective means of creating closer international relationships. But, even in this era of global food franchises, some of our recipes are under threat. All over the planet, many traditional means of cooking are being lost, as younger generations turn away from the kitchen. Techniques that have been perfected over hundreds of years are not being passed down, and ancient culinary arts are slowly being forgotten. Before too long, some truly great cooking may be tragically lost forever.
The prospect of this bleak scenario becoming a reality is one of the motivations behind a remarkable international food campaign. A union of over 50 countries, spanning across the globe, the Ark of Taste is one of the most heartwarming and inspirational food-focused projects in the world today. A repository of over 4,500 ingredients, recipes and techniques from across the earth, the organisation acts as a means to help endangered traditions survive in the modern world. Dedicated to the preservation of these traditional approaches to cooking, the Ark of Taste is a unique collection of foods that are under threat from environmental and social pressures.
Given how much more connected we all are today, it might seem strange that any food could be under threat. While the globalisation of food and resources has brought the world community closer together, it has also inadvertently caused a loss of diversification. Big brands and food businesses have been able to spread to every continent, meaning that many of us are using the same ingredients in all of our cooking, wherever we may be. The result is the homogenisation of our palates. Since one of the defining features of exciting cookery is an explosion of contrasting and unfamiliar flavours, this loss of diversity is bad news for all of us. This is why the creation of a living, breathing library of knowledge, techniques and taste is vitally important.
Beyond the unintended social consequences of modern integration, many specialist foods are under threat from ecological issues. With an ever-growing population, vulnerable food is at risk of overexploitation by hungry mouths. Furthermore, the changing nature of the environment thanks to climate change, deforestation and urbanisation threatens the often delicate ecosystems in which rare species thrive. Particularly in rural areas, animals and plants can find themselves unable to adapt to rapid change. This, in turn, threatens the more unusual foods that isolated communities can create.
By recording these threatened dishes for posterity, the Ark of Taste is ensuring that the world food map does not lose the colour and flavour that helps make our foodscape such a vibrant patchwork. The project as we know it today is the result of decades of collation and collaboration. Born in 1996 during the inaugural Salone del Gusto in Turin, the Ark has grown to become an integral part of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. As a global, grassroots organisation dedicated to the preservation of traditional food cultures, the Slow Food Foundation is arguably the leading voice in food conservation. Their mission is to “prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat”.
To gain a place in the Ark is not simply a matter of writing to the foundation and sitting back. There are strict rules in place to ensure that every food that gets accepted is deserving of such recognition. First, select foods receive a written nomination, either by individuals or local groups for preservation in the Ark. It is not enough that a food is simply a community favourite - rather, it needs to have a distinctive and traceable history and mythology.
In total, there are five criteria that products must meet. Foods must either be derived from domestic or wild species of plants or animals, or be “processed products”. Nominees must be of “distinctive quality in terms of taste” and must be “produced in limited quantities”. Products must be “linked to a specific area, to the memory and identity of a group and to local traditional knowledge” and, finally, need to be “at risk of extinction”. Only once these requisites have been satisfied will a National Ark Commission either accept or deny a product entry to the catalogue.
The length and strenuous nature of the application may seem excessive. However, there are legitimate reasons for the rigour of the process. The most significant is the second part of the Ark’s function. The project is not simply a library, but also an activist hub, where real action is taken to preserve the foods the project records. Once a product has been accepted, individual task forces are set-up and co-ordinated to help defend it. Given the limited resources of the relatively small organisation, the need for expedience when it comes to acceptance becomes clear.
Over the years, this approach has helped the Ark of Taste write some incredible success stories. Countless species of plants and animals, from the American Bronze Turkey to the Zavetnuy Almond, have been saved from certain oblivion. Thousands of recipes and traditions have been kept alive for the future. In many ways, even making it into the Ark is a win, as it allows an international community to become aware of wonders that they did not even know existed. Ultimately, the way that the project is able to harness globalisation to benefit food rather than threaten it is perhaps its greatest success of all.
Today, the Ark is working in countries across the world, raising awareness and running community projects dedicated to the preservation and promotion of unique cultural touchstones. The project has the support of international bodies like the UN and the Vatican and has been promoted by global figures like Michelle Obama. The work that the Ark is doing is ensuring that generations to come can remain in touch with their heritage. In an age where it is often easier to look to the future than the past, the value of this service should not go unnoticed.