Historical Origins of French Cuisine

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

The history of French ascendency in the culinary arts can be traced to the Italians. As the 15th century dawned, the highest of Renaissance culture flourished at Florence. Prosperity that reached beyond the very small royal population lent itself to dining as entertainment, in which common foods were decorated and flavored not for the purpose of hiding food which was turning bad, but for emphasizing those flavors allowed by improved storage techniques and new discoveries in food preparation.

Mushrooms, truffles, garlic, and otherwise infrequently used vegetables appeared - some of them carved artistically - while pasta creations became filled and layered (lasagne, ravioli, manicotti, etc), all of it accompanied, among the wealthy, with an expensive show of table finery, Venetian glassware, porcelain, and precious metals. An incredible assortment of pastries and sweet things would then follow these visual feasts.

But the French were largely ignorant of these things, until Catherine de Medici ("MED-a-chee"), daughter of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, arrived in France in the 1540's to become the bride of the future King Henri II. (She would, incredibly, produce three additional kings of France.) In her entourage were cooks skilled in the ways of Florence. She brought with her also the expectation that ladies would be in regular attendance at sumptious feasts, and would dress in fashionable (and revealing) attire when doing so. Dinner, in France, was to become Theater. Not only did she bring fine cuisine - she brought the Italian banking system, theatrical comedy, and ballet. Quite a lot, from a woman which history would ultimately view as ambitious and duplicitous.

The result of the culinary explosion was to produce, in 1652, a book entitled "Le Cuisine François", written by France's premier chef, La Varenne. Detailed instructions appeared in this book, the recipes listed alphabetically, with the introduction of new techniques, such as the use of the roux as a sauce thickener rather than the common use of bread for the purpose.

With the ascent of Louis XIV, the meaning of sumptuous dining took another leap in extravagance at his palace at Versailles. The "fork" began a regular appearance, and instead of all the food appearing all at once (much of which would become cold), Louis introduced the idea of dining in a series of steps, or courses. Cooks became specialized, and strange looking containers and instruments appeared to better prepare individual things.

With the Revolution, such culinary talent was no longer restricted to royalty (royalty having disappeared one way or another) and the better chefs began the practice of setting up "restaurants" which went well beyond common taverns and inns, to which all had access.

During this period the greatest of French chefs appeared - Marie-Antoine Carême. A frustrated student of architecture, he would put architectural methods into food and its presentation: bridges made of confection, pastry fashioned into Greek temples, etc., and much of it done on a grand scale. The appreciation for his talent - great food with a sensational presentation - carried him to many courts, including that of the Russian Tsar, where the notion of serving each guest individually ("Russian service") first appeared.

From the 20th century, two French chefs stand out: Montagné and Escoffier. Montagné composed the excellent "Larousse Gastronomique" in 1938, the basic encyclopaedia of French gastronomy. His contribution was to turn French cuisine away from "architectural" presentations toward simplified decoration and shortened menus, and he adopted "Russian" service. The cookbook title (a coincidence) echoed this theme: Larousse can mean "the Russian". Escoffier then polished the edges of what we know as the grande cuisine of France - the only structured and organized system of gastronomy in the world. Says the Britannica in this regard:

"Many dishes are interrelated, and their names contain clues as to their ingredients. For example, soups are broken down into consommés (clear soups), potages (thick soups), crèmes (cream soups), and veloutés (made with a white sauce). Within each of these categories there are sub-categories, depending upon the base used, the thickening agent, the garniture, the flavouring spice, herb, or alcohol, and other considerations. "

In the late 1950s young French chefs led by Boçuse, Guérard, and Chapel invented a lighter and more free style which would be called "nouvelle cuisine" (1). This style replaced traditional heavy sauces with reductions of stocks and cooking liquids, the presentation of small portions, and visual artistry on over-large plates. French cuisine today is a combination of traditional and nouvelle, to the great delight of everyone around the world who appreciates what French cuisine has become since its origin by an Italian female with the name of Medici.

(1) Some would attribute this culinary form to Fernand Point, who had Paul Boçuse as an apprentice. More on Point HERE.

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