Food and Cuisine in France

views updated

Food and Cuisine in France

In 1826 a famous French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, wrote among other things: "Animals feed, humans eat, but only those with refined taste dine," and "The creation of a new dish brings more happiness to humanity than the discovery of a new star." These two aphorisms are fundamental to an understanding of French attitudes toward food. On the one hand, food is not simply a source of nourishment, nor is it something everyone "naturally" appreciates. Only by cultivating discrimination (being attentive to tastes, colors, and textures) will food leave the realm of biological necessity and attain sensual heights. Secondly, creation is both essential and beneficial to society. It is the chef's duty to create, to advance the art of cookery and in so doing, provide pleasures that surpass those associated with more abstract achievements.

We will return to the importance of these two concepts later, since they are directly related to the prominent place French cuisine occupies in the world today. Before doing so, however, a look backward will help place French cuisine in a greater context and allow us to address several sensitive issues concerning its "birth" and evolution.

The Italian Controversy

An oft-repeated story maintains that French cuisine emerged from the "dark ages" of primitive eating only when Catherine de' Medici brought her Italian cooks to France in the mid-sixteenth century, for her marriage to Henry II in 1533. The French being more than apt students, the story goes, not only learned their lessons, but quickly surpassed their Italian masters in the art of fine cookery and . . . Voilà ! French cuisine was born.

This legend has been repeated in popular histories of cooking for centuries, even in France. It was first evoked in 1739 in the preface to an innovative cookbook attributed to François Marin, Les dons de comus, where it is stated: "The Italians civilized all of Europe and it is they, without a doubt, who taught us how to eat. . . . For more than two centuries the French have enjoyed good cooking, but rest assured, dishes have never been as delicate, as expertly prepared, or better tasting, than they are today." A similar point of view is expressed by Le Chevalier de Jaucourt who authored the article on cuisine in Denis Diderot's famous Encyclopédie published in the 1750s:

The Italians inherited the art of cookery from the Romans; it was they who introduced fine food to the French. . . . During the reign of Henry II, cooks from beyond the Alps came and settled in France, and we are eternally indebted to this motley band that served at Catherine de Medici's court. . . . The French, finely attuned to the flavors that should dominate in each dish, quickly surpassed their masters who were soon forgotten. From that moment on, as if they had successfully met the challenge of stressing what was important, they could pride themselves in the knowledge that the taste of their cuisine had surpassed that of all others and reigned supreme in opulent kingdoms from North to South.

Thus, the simple cooking of ages past, having become more complex and refined from century to century, has today become a subject of study, a complex science about which numerous treatises constantly appear under titles such as Le Cuisinier françois, Le Cuisinier royal, Le Cuisinier moderne, Les Dons de comus, L'école des officiers de bouche, and many others, each one teaching a different method, which proves how futile it is to attempt to reduce to an established order what human beings, with their whims and changes of taste, search, invent, and imagine in the preparation of their food.

We will treat these points separately, starting with the reference to Catherine de' Medici and the Italian influence on French cuisine. Both of these eighteenth-century authors agree that the French have enjoyed good cooking "for more than two centuries," that is, since the sixteenth century. In fact, long before the young queen arrived in 1533, numerous sources bear witness to the sophistication of French cuisine.

Starting in the early fourteenth century, manuscript cookbooks were being written in France, one of which became extremely popular. This book, simply known as the Viandier (the term viande [meat] at that time referred to all eatables, hence a viandier was simply a cookbook) was said to be the work of one Taillevent, a chef in the royal kitchens of Charles V. The recipes we find in the Viandier are as rich and varied as those in contemporary Italian, English, Germany, or Spanish cookery manuscripts. This said, French cooks do not appear to have had a greater reputation than those in other European countries. They served dishes common to an "international repertoire" as well as some specific to France.

The situation seems to change in the sixteenth century but not it the way our two eighteenth-century authors suggest. Although a new generation of French cooks did rejuvenate cooking in France, the dishes they propose owe little or nothing to the Italian cuisine of the time, the style of which was radically different. Indeed, the earliest published cookbooks are German and French, not Italian, and barring an Italian dietetic work by Platina published in the 1470s that included some recipes from some fifty years earlier, not one Italian culinary treatise is translated into French. At a time when Catherine de' Medici was still a baby, travelers, including Italians visiting France, claim that French cooks are the best in Europe, and Rabelais, the most gourmand of writers, clearly prefers French dishes to those of any other nation since he frequently mentions those specific to the national repertoire in his gargantuan menus. In fact, there is no proof that Catherine de' Medici even brought her cooks with her to France!

No author living in the sixteenth century mentions the supposed superiority of Italian cookery, although Montaigne does marvel at the eloquence and precision of an Italian maitre d'hôtel describing the art of banqueting, and the expertise of Italian gardeners, confectioners, and carvers is not only recognized, but admired and copied. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the esteem in which Italians are held in the accessory arts of serving and confectionery, it is not until two centuries later that any hint of the so-called Italian influence on French cuisine per se appears in print. Be that as it may, French cooks do not achieve a clear dominance in the kitchens of Europe until the mid-seventeenth century.

The Beginnings of French Hegemony

Neither Marin nor Le Chevalier de Jaucourt gives a specific date for the rise of French cuisine. The latter does indicate that the French had "surpassed their masters" in the seventeenth century by including three seventeenth-century cookbooks (Le Cuisinier françois, Le Cuisinier royal and L'école des officiers de bouche ) in his list of treatises devoted to the culinary arts. One of these books, Le Cuisinier françois of La Varenne, is the first to document the radical changes French cooking had undergone since the end of the Renaissance. Published for the first time in 1651, La Varenne's book would be translated into several languages and remain in print for over one hundred years. In the preface to the English translation of 1653 we read, "Of all the cooks in the world, the French are esteemed the best," and from that time forward French predominance in the kitchen will continue its almost uninterrupted ascendancy.

A partial explanation for the influence of French cuisine lies in its vitality. The best professional chefs feel a duty to improve on the work of their predecessors in order to "advance" the art of cookery. Not only do they create new dishes, their cooking embodies new attitudes toward food, which often spread with the dissemination of the dishes they have invented. Over and over again, a new philosophy of cookery emerges, often in conflict with that of previous generations, always claiming to mark significant "progress" in the culinary art. In the eighteenth century, for instance, devotees compared the cooking of their nouvelle cuisine to alchemy, claiming to distill the essence of taste from the ingredients employed. A century later, a new generation of chefs led by Antonin Carême saw the cook more as an architect than a chemist. They encouraged the creation of monumental assemblages and developed a family of basic sauces, some of which are still in use today.

In turn, Auguste Escoffier in his Guide culinaire of 1903 rejected the elaborate cuisine developed by Carême, claiming that the "fast pace of modern life" no longer allowed chefs the leisure to prepare elaborated displays, and argued for a simplification of cuisine. It should be noted, in this context, that Escoffier was the first chef to obtain international recognition and to father a new school of cookery who did not work in a private home. Whereas previously the greatest French chefs all worked in aristocratic households or in royal kitchens, Escoffier built his reputation as a hotel chef at the Savoy Hotel in London and later at the newly created Ritz Hotel in Paris, before returning to London to the kitchens of the Carlton Hotel as an internationally acclaimed celebrity whose writings would form the basis of French cooking throughout the greater part of the twentieth century.

Gastronomy and Gastronomes

Food and cooking alone do not explain France's reputation in culinary matters. To recall Brillat-Savarin's words, "only people with refined taste know how to dine," and the French have not only cultivated the art of cookery but have long considered it an integral part of their culture: how one eats is as important as what one eats. Indeed, the French claim that they invented gastronomy and linguistically, this is certainly true. The term first appears in the title of an epic poem, La Gastronomie by Joseph Berchoux, published in 1803, its four cantos treating respectively the history of cuisine in antiquity, the first service, the second service, and the dessert of a banquet. The word rapidly came to designate the study of food and cookery as an art; those who excelled in this study, and for whom gastronomy was a central feature of their existence, were "gastronomes."

The gastronome was defined as a critical observer of the chef's worknot a chef. As professionals, gastronomes became food critics, the earliest of whom in the western world appear to be French. Among them, Grimod de la Reynière leads the list as the inventor of a new branch of literature with the publication of his L'almanach des gourmands from 1803 to 1812. In this yearly journal, he reviewed restaurants and published the results of tastings aimed at selecting the best artisans and products of his day, beginning a tradition of searching out quality that remains very much alive in the French mentality today.

L'exception française

One has only to contemplate the ferocious aversion of French consumers to hormone-fed beef and veal, to genetically modified food plants and the standardization of food in general, to understand that their relationship to food goes far beyond just eatingmuch to the bemusement and exasperation of France's trading partners. And where else but in France would the Education and Culture Ministries sponsor a national inventory of traditional food products, or classes teaching children how various foods are made and how to appreciate different tastes, smells, and textures?

The French approach to cookery, the institutions developed by its proponents and the gastronomic culture it glorifies have all contributed to the preeminence of French cuisine. Indeed, the very use of the term "cuisine," when applied to the food of another nation, implies that it has gone from simply being cooking to something more refined and complexsomething closer to the French model. Naturally, the culinary superiority of France has been challenged in the past and continues to be challenged today, but no other cuisine has had such a sustained influence on the cooking practices of its neighbors, nor can any other claim to have exerted as universal an impact on professional cooks around the world, as that which developed and continues to evolve in France.

See also Carême, Marie Antoine; Chef, The; Cookbooks; Cuisine, Evolution of; Escoffier, Georges-Auguste; La Varenne, Pierre François de; Medici, Catherine de'; Middle Ages, European; Nouvelle Cuisine; Rabelais, François .


Flandrin, Jean-Louis, Philip Hyman, and Mary Hyman. "Introduction." In Le Cuisinier françois by La Varenne. Paris: Editions Montalba, 1983.

Hyman, Philip, and Mary Hyman. "La première nouvelle cuisine." In L'honnête volupté: Art culinaire, art majeur, " pp. 7374. Paris: Editions Michel de Maule, 1989.

Mennell, Stephen. All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Oxford, Basil Blackwood, 1985.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Philip HymanMary Hyman