The perfect way to celebrate tomorrow’s Europe Day is to eat a centuries-old Portuguese delicacy that has an unsuspecting link with a foundational moment of the EU’s integration process.
Let’s start with a fact. There’s no reputable celebration without some kind of food to celebrate with.
As the agrifood editor of this media outlet, it might seem I’m a bit biased on this, I know. However, it is true that food brings people together and that sharing food is an act which comes almost automatically with most celebrations.
What would Christmas be without the traditional sweets – different in every region of Europe – or Easter without chocolate eggs?
And yet, after more than 70 years of European integration, we still lack some authentic EU food traditions, for two main reasons.
The first problem is the huge European food heritage. Most of the food in Europe has very deep national – if not regional – roots.
Even the EU’s policy for promoting quality food highlights the strong links to a specific regional or national tradition or way to do things.
‘United in diversity’, as they say.
The other issue is that any attempt at creating a common set of European traditions stopped with the failure of the Treaty of Nice, also known as the European Constitution, which specifically aimed to set up EU symbols.
After being rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, the European constitution was downgraded to an update of both the Maastricht Treaty signed in 1992 and the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
In this merger of the two treaties, signed in 2007, the reference to EU symbols was scrapped in the official text, relegated to just a non-binding declaration by 16 member states supporting this idea.
Strangely enough, the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon is both a milestone and a backward step in the integration process, where the Union’s ambition was adjusted downwards to avoid the development of a European culture that could one day rival the national ones.
However, you don’t need habits born in the mists of time or treaties to create a tradition – particularly when food is involved. You just need the practice of that tradition.
Tomorrow (9 May) is Europe Day, marking the anniversary of the historic Schuman declaration, in which the EU’s founding father Robert Schuman set out his idea for a new form of political cooperation in Europe, leading to the creation of the European Coal and Steal Community in 1951.
It’s the only celebration of Europe we have and, as previously stated, I don’t see why we should not celebrate it with food.
My proposal is provocatively related to the setback of the EU’s integration process – which was the Treaty of Lisbon.
Not many know that the treaty wasn’t actually signed in the city of Lisbon but in a very prestigious venue nearby in the parish of Belém: the Jerónimos monastery.
This beautiful UNESCO world heritage site holds a special place in Portugal’s history as it used to be the burial place of the Portuguese royal dynasty and was also erected near the launch point of Vasco da Gama’s first journey.
But there’s another reason why this monastery is so famous.
Centuries before, in the same halls where the Treaty of Lisbon was signed, Hieronymites monks perfected the recipe of the world-famous tart pastry called ‘pastel de nata’.
Pasteis de nata are tiny egg custard tarts normally served with a bit of cinnamon and bica, the strong espresso coffee that the Portuguese love.
While it is impossible to find some food linked to a still non-existent EU tradition, I have not found another foodstuff with such a solid link to a milestone in the EU’s integration process.
It might be bold to ‘propose’ setting up a food tradition from scratch. But as historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in his seminal work on traditional cultural practices, many traditions that “appear or claimed to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented”.
With that in mind, no one should prevent us from enjoying, from now on, a good pastel de nata on Europe Day to celebrate in the sweetest way possible a process which, warts and all, has brought peace and prosperity to a previously fragmented, war-torn continent.
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Look out for….
- European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg, Monday-Thursday.
- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses the plenary on Tuesday.
- Commissioner Ylva Johansson participates in virtual ministerial forum with member states of Schengen area with external land borders on Tuesday.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Nathalie Weatherald]