In 1988, the Danish movie called “Babette’s Feast,” based on a story by Danish novelist Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), earned an Oscar for best foreign language film. We remember this much-loved movie about loss, survival and the art of French food. For those of you who are interested in IP and are going to share the New Year’s Eve dinner with the very same people you have seen around the table in the last few months, we also offer a few ideas and fun facts about intellectual property in food typically served in France for New Year’s dinner that may help to raise some new conversation topics.
Babette’s Feast depicts a woman who at the end of the 19th century has ran away from Paris and the Commune rebellion and ends up in a small Danish village run by a very strict minister. She is hired as a maid by the minister’s daughters, who cannot really afford a maid, but understand that Babette does not have any place to go. The only connection Babette has kept with France is that she plays lottery and fifteen years later, she wins the prize and decides to throw a dinner party. The invitation is received with some reluctance in that very religious community but the gorgeous food and wine will win the guests’ hearts, especially that of a general who reveals that the last time he ate such a meal, it was in a Parisian restaurant called “Le Café Anglais,” home of a famous female French cook who has since disappeared…
Certified French Starters
A traditional French New Year’s Eve dinner will usually start with oysters, which are eaten raw and alive — the best way to ensure they are fresh and won’t get you sick. There are of course people who cannot bear the idea of eating a live animal but the French are not the only ones who do it. Japan has an impressive culinary culture (even from a French point of view) and they eat live fish. At least, oysters don’t move…
In France, oysters are bred in many places on the Atlantic coast and also, to a lesser extent, on the Mediterranean coast but one of the most famous production areas is Marennes-Oléron, North of Bordeaux. Since the quality of these oysters has been renowned for a long time, producers felt the need to get some form of legal protection and Marennes-Oléron is the only geographical indication that has been registered at EU level for French oysters.
Geographical indications establish intellectual property rights for products whose qualities are specifically linked to the area of production. There are three types of geographical indications: PDO – Protected Designation of Origin (food and wine), PGI – Protected Geographical Indication (food and wine), and GI – Geographical Indication (spirit drinks and aromatised wines).
The differences between PDO and PGI are linked primarily to how much of the product’s raw materials must come from the area or how much of the production process has to take place within the specific region. GI is specific for spirit drinks and aromatised wines. If you want to check whether a particular product benefits from a EU geographical indication, you can check the Database of agricultural products and foods registered here.
“Huîtres Marennes Oléron” is a Protected Geographical Indication. To benefit from that indication, oysters must be produced and packaged within a certain area (the Oléron island and the area around Marennes) and must be bred and raised in “claires” as opposed to the open sea.
In 1970, French oysters were struck by a disease that killed all generations but the producers were able to reinitiate their activity with mother oysters that came from Japan. This means that all the Marennes-Oléron oysters we eat today are, in fact, Japanese.
The production of oysters is traditional but modern science is involved too. A large proportion of the oysters you currently find on the French market are “triploïds,” with more chromosomes than those in the natural oysters. This renders them sterile with the benefit that they grow faster and can be consumed all year long, whereas natural oysters reproduce themselves in the summer and during that period they produce a kind of “milk” that makes them unappealing to many consumers. These production processes (which are not technically genetic modifications since there is no addition of new genes) can of course be patented and the French research institute Ifremer filed patents in 1995 and 2007.
On the French New Year’s Eve table, after the oysters are eaten, you will usually get “foie gras”, i.e. duck fat liver pâté. This pâté is produced in several areas in France but the producers of the South-West managed to get a protected indication of origin. There is a detailed list of conditions that have to be met for a “foie gras” to qualify as “South-Western.” First, it has of course to be produced in a specific geographical area. The ducks must also be fathered by male ducks of only two species, green-collar and mallard, and must be force-fed over a precise period of time with corn.
Main course – Impress your guests with a French patented dish
Cooking is art and artists get copyright protection. How can chefs get IP protection? Copyright is not the most effective protection. While a cooking book can of course get copyright protection, there are many different ways to describe how to make a certain dish and the recipe itself qualifies as know-how. Some chefs therefore tried to get some patent protection. As for any patentable invention, the recipe will have to be novel and to solve a technical problem.
If you really want to impress your guess on New Year’s Eve, why not try one of the four recipes that were patented by Joël Robuchon, the chef who won the highest number of Michelin stars? You may pick up any of the following: papillotte de pigeon et foie gras au chou vert (papillote of pigeon, foie gras and green cabbage), soupe de laitue maraîchère à la crème d’oignons (cream of onion and lettuce soup), soupe chaude de foie gras à la gelée de poule (hot foie gras soup with chicken jelly) or recette à base de sandre et de saumon (recipe based on pike perk and salmon). And no need to worry about patent infringement, all four patents expired several years ago!
Do not forget French many cheeses
De Gaulle once complained that it is impossible to govern a country which has 365 different kinds of cheese. Cheese will of course also find its way to the French New Year’s Eve dinner table. Each cheese is at its best at a specific moment of the year and for New Year’s Eve, we recommend brie stuffed with truffles or Mont d’Or. Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun and Mont d’Or are geographical indications which are protected.
A glamourous finale: champagne and fireworks
Traditionally, French people will be drinking Champagne at midnight while watching fireworks. Here again, IP rights are all over the place.
The “Champagne” name is an indication of origin under French law and Champagne producers are keen to enforce it. For example, in 1993, Yves Saint-Laurent launched a new perfume named Champagne. Champagne producers did not like it and obtained a decision of the Paris court of appeal, which held that Yves Saint-Laurent was trying to take advantage of the reputation and image of the Champagne (Paris court of appeal, 15 December 1993, no. 93/25039). This perfume is still sold today under the name Yvresse (“ivresse” means dizziness).
Finally, as you are sipping Champagne and watching the fireworks, you may keep in mind that some of these fireworks are original creations that can be protected under copyright, at least under French law.
We have heard an English joke that at the end of the pandemic, half of the population will end up being alcoholic and the other half will be great cooks. Without suggesting that there is any truth to this whatsoever, we wish you a very joyful New Year’s Eve dinner and a happy New Year!