On a recent trip to the southwest of France exploring the culinary delights of foie gras, truffles, duck and walnuts, a question kept occurring to me: what can be described as “authentic”? Is a truffle farm authentic because its owners hunt for its precious fungi in a traditional way passed on for generations and does it lose that authenticity if science and technology allow a more efficient cultivation for commercial ends? Is a walnut oil mill’s authenticity in question if the owners establish a restaurant to accommodate visitors curious about the mill’s production process and anxious to sample some dishes the walnut flavors so delicately?
In Merrion Webster’s, the definition of authentic is genuine, bona fide. In other words, what is described as authentic is actually and exactly what it claims to be. The designation of “authentic” implies the subject is fully trustworthy and presents itself truthfully. Authenticity means the actual character of something is not counterfeited, imitated, or adulterated in any way.
So when one imagines an authentic farm, is one that belongs to the 21st century with all its technological advantages less authentic than one that has lingered in the 20th century? Both are representing themselves truthfully, and are not counterfeits of the farm concept. With a successful restaurant added to its services, has our romantic image of a walnut oil mill been tainted, leaving us doubting its authenticity? By definition, only if the farm or mill pretend to be something they are not do they lack authenticity.
I believe that, as we travel, we yearn for the nostalgia of yesteryear and the romance of simpler times. When we encounter a magical place that meets these romantic expectations, we are thrilled and feel we have come in contact with authentic culture. And sometimes we have. Yet, it is when the image in our mind’s eye is challenged by modern reality that we truly learn about the world, about its diversity of culture, about what the future may hold.
I welcome a dialogue on this subject, as ATA’s commitment to cultural, educational travel is tied to our ability to seek out and explore authentic experiences—whether they conform to travelers’ established preconceptions or not. We want to share the world as it is, not as we expect it or imagine it to be.