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French and British Cooking

French and British Cooking Compared

England and France are two countries which, in world perspective, are actually rather similar. Their pattern of long-term development differs subtly in detail but in broad terms is equally similar, and their cultures and cuisines have been in reciprocal contact ever since the Middle Ages. Moreover, the alimentary raw materials available were broadly the same though not identical. How, then, did their strikingly different culinary cultures take shape?

Caricature is a serious danger in this field. What people eat is universally a potent ingredient of national and social stereotyping. That applies both to the formation of people's "we-images" of their own group and of their "they-images" of outsider groups. Food has long played a prominent part in the sense of national identity of both the English and the French, and it is very risky to accept their reciprocal stereotypes of each other's cuisine at face value. At the very least, one must not fall into the trap of comparing, say, the food of Paul Bocuse with that served at some British transport café, or French professional cuisine with English domestic cookery. Yet, the conclusion is that such common stereotypes as the rotund and rubicund John Bull sitting at a table of roast beef, or the lank and bony French cook smelling of garlic and spearing a frog leg with a fork really do have a kernel of truth in them, particularly in relation to underlying attitudes.

This investigation took as its baseline the late Middle Ages, reviewing the published documents and drawing upon the work of specialists, notably Stouff's outstanding monograph (1970) on late medieval Provence. The picture that emerges from such studies can be briefly summarized. First, the national differences in cuisine that we take for granted were as yet very little developed in medieval Europe. Members of the same estate of society ate in strikingly similar fashion throughout Western Europe. Before Columbus, many of the vegetables now seen as typically Mediterranean were unknown, so that, for example, the humble cabbage was as prominent an item in Provence as in Northumberland. Second, however, the differences between the estates were quite marked, though quantitative differences in consumption were possibly more striking than differences in quality (with an exception registered for a very small elite in really major courts). Stouff depicted graphically the increase in sheer quantity of food consumed as one progressed up the social ranks. Before the Black Death, this was especially marked in the case of meat, though subsequently meat was relatively abundant for the lower ranks, too. The famous gargantuan banquets thrown by kings and nobles to mark particular occasions were notable for their vast scale rather than the subtlety of the cooking; their motivation and social function resembled that of the potlatch among the Kwakiutl Indians. Only in the greatest princely courts, and even there probably only for the more special occasions, was the famous courtly cuisine with its elaborate mixtures and proliferation of spices to be found. The recipes found in the manuscripts, whether from France, Italy, or England, are strikingly similar.

Although the evidence from the Middle Ages is too sparse to be conclusive, the best guess from the similarity between surviving manuscripts from different places and periods is that the pace of change in matters culinary was then very slow in all strata of society. From the time of the Renaissance onward, however, the pace of change perceptibly quickens in these as in so many other aspects of everyday life (cf. Elias, 2000), at first among the secular upper classes and then very gradually among lower strata, too. We must be careful: the history of eating is a prime instance of what Elias has called "the polyphony of history." Marc Bloch contended that only in the nineteenth century was it possible to see "the beginning of a trend towards greater uniformity in foodspeaking in very relative termsfrom the top to the bottom of the social ladder (1970, p. 232)." Until then, the food and the cookery of the peasants in the countryside seem to have changed only extremely slowly over the centuries. It was something to be studied in the perspective of the longue durée. From the advent of the printed book, however, it is possible to trace a gradually accelerating pattern of change in the cookery of the upper and upper middle classes. If changes in technique and fashion never quite attain the pace of histoire événementielle although the gastronomic myth-makers delight in representing the invention of new dishes as unique creations of great men on unique occasions (see Mennell, 1985, Chapter 10)it could fairly be portrayed as histoire des conjonctures.

The first elaborate cuisine representing a definite change from the medieval traditions is to be found in the secular and religious courts of Renaissance Italy, but the leadership of Europe in culinary as in so many other facets of culture soon passed to France. Very detailed work by Jean-Louis Flandrin and his associates in Paris may be interpreted to show that French leadership goes back further, but from the appearance of La Varenne's famous book Le Cuisinier François in 1651, it does not require in-depth research to see that something recognizable to later eyes as a distinctively French style of cuisine has emerged. From then on, the cookery books are more numerous, and not only can advances in cookery techniques be seen, but it is quite clear that contemporaries were conscious of the rapid pace of change and of the importance of food as an aspect of fashion in courtly circles. By the 1740s, the first gastronomic controversies were being fought out in Paris between minor courtiers (Mennell, 1981). Although by then cookery books were being directed specifically at the bourgeoisie, and some differentiation between courtly haute cuisine and domestic cookery was being codified, the models still clearly stemmed from courtly circles. One of the important consequences of this was that the spirit of thrift and economizing in the kitchen, which was very marked from an early date in England, was much less in evidence even in French cookery books, and something of the courtly functions of luxurious display heedless of the cost (cf. Elias, 1983) lived on until the present day in the French kitchen.

In England, the cookery books from the late sixteenth century onward depict a more rustic, "country housewife" style of cookery. They were still directed at readers among the nobility and gentrythis is not the food of the peasantsbut they reflect their readers' greater continuing involvement in country life and pursuits than was the case among their French counterparts. There was for a time a line of English courtly cookery books too, but that tradition lost its vitality in England after the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, and from the early eighteenth century it is eclipsed by the resurgence of the "country housewife" style of book, written mainly by women, unlike those of the French and courtly traditions. The spirit of thrift and economy, often linked with an overt hostility to French extravagance, is strongly expressed.

This is a very compressed summary of only part of the evidence for differences in culinary culture between England and France. To counteract the necessary over-simplification, it must be emphasized that when speaking of "English cookery" and "French cookery," we are not dealing with two entirely separate things. French cookery had an early and continuing influence on English cookery, particularly through English cooks having worked in France and French cooks working for the very wealthiest English families. Yet there is a valid contrast. The food of the English gentry and prosperous farmers, depicted in the English cookery books, enjoyed a prestige of its own to which there was no equivalent at that date in France. From the technical point of view, there are also clear differences. The French developed a "cuisine of impregnation," replacing the antique "cuisine of mixtures." The use of cullis (the English translation of coulis ) as a fonds and the proliferation of saucesa process carried still further in France in the nineteenth centurywas precisely not the foundation of English cookery. In England, continuities from the past were much more in evidence. The old pies and joints of meat remained the center of the English meal, whereas in France the focus of attention shifted to the ever-increasing variety of delicate little "made dishes."

What explanations can be offered for the rather different courses of development observed in the taste in food of the two countries?

One explanation has been so often repeated that it has the force of conventional wisdom. It is that meat (and other raw materials) were so abundant and of such superior quality in England that it was not necessary to cook them with great skill, disguise their flavor, or eke them out in made dishes. This explanation is implausible. For one thing, the superiority and abundance of English raw materials is highly questionable. For another, this popular explanation rests on the implicit proposition that all human beings prefer the "natural" taste of foods, transformed as little as possible by the culinary arts, which are thus seen as little more than a forced adaptation to circumstance. There is no serious evidence for this proposition.

On the contrary, three more explicitly social strands of explanation bear closer examination. These are, first, the possible influence of Puritanism, or other religious differences between England and France; second, the role and influence of the court society, and, more generally, differences in the distribution of power and social stratification; and, third, the differing relationship between town and country on the two sides of the Channel.

The influence of religion on eating is certainly very strong and familiar in many of the world's cultures. But the contention, advanced by such popular writers as Philippa Pullar (1970), that Puritanism blighted the English kitchen needs to be treated with some skepticism. For one thing, it is not clear that the English Puritans of the mid-seventeenth century were at all the general killjoys of later stereotype; they certainly do not have much to say against enjoying one's food. Later, perhaps, as Dissenters, their outlook narrowed, but by then they were not in the prominent positions in society from which they might once have commanded taste-setting power. Moreover, it is often overlooked that, besides the sizeable Huguenot community, seventeenth-century France also saw an influential Jansenist current within Catholicism that has long been seen to have similarities to the Calvinist predestinarian kind of Protestantism. Yet no one has ever suggested that Jansenism permanently damaged French taste buds.

As for the royal and princely courts, their direct influence on the authors of French cookery books is plain to see. In the light particularly of Norbert Elias's account of the place of luxury and display in French court society (1978), it is highly likely that competition between courtiers would be acted out through their kitchens and their tables as in many other aspects of culture. An essential link in the argument is that the French nobility, having emerged on the losing side from a series of struggles with the king, became deracinated and defunctionalizeddeprived of their roots in a rural way of life, deprived in particular of their relatively independent power bases and governmental functions in the provinces. This did not happen to the same extent in England. The power shifts that were the outcome of the Civil Wars, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the Hanoverian succession in 1714 nipped in the bud the growth of an absolutist monarchy and court society on the French model. The royal court in eighteenth-century England was more primus inter pares; noble houses and the gentry retained a relatively independent power and governmental function in the provinces; and the pressures toward competition through virtuosity in consumption were relatively less intense.

That connects with a third consideration. The relationship between town and country in England was rather different from that in France. It was not that England was a more rural country than France. Quite the contrary. London in the eighteenth century was absolutely bigger than Paris, and its population relatively still larger as a proportion of the nation as a whole. It is estimated that as many as one in six people in that period spent some part of their lives in London. Nevertheless, the prestige of the country way of life remained much higher in England than it did in France, and London and country society remained more closely interlocked than in France. A larger proportion of English noblemen and gentlemen spent a larger proportion of the year living on their country estates and largely eating the seasonal products of their lands than was the case in France. Rustication from court was dread punishment for a French courtier. Besides, it should not be forgotten that in a preindustrial economy the range of available foods was generally more limited in the country than in the markets of major cities. The very diversity of the products to be found in the principal markets of great cities is a prerequisite for the creation of a great diversity of made dishes. Haute cuisine is a characteristic of urban life.

Convergences: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

After the Napoleonic Wars, the divergence between English and French cuisines appeared to widen. What was actually happening was something rather more complicated. Certainly, French professional cuisine, founded in the aristocratic kitchens of the ancien régime, was raised to new heights through competition between the restaurants of nineteenth-century Paris. And there is a good deal of evidence that, especially in the latter half of the century, the rather fine English country cooking tradition declined and became coarsened. What appears to have happened was that French culinary hegemony in the higher circles of English society became far more firmly established than in the eighteenth century, when only a few of the greatest grandees had employed French chefs. French culinary colonialism now extended further down into the highest reaches of the middle class. Besides, the sheer number of families involved in London "Society" was growing very rapidly (Davidoff, 1973), and the intense competition created by this social inflation mimicked in some degree the competitive display found among French courtiers a century earlier.

It was not, however, likely that these conditions would favor the emergence of a separate and distinctive English haute cuisine. Something like the "dependency theory" of "world-systems" theory applies to culinary colonialism as well as to colonialism proper. French cookery having already reached great heights, its techniques, recipes, rules, and vocabulary were there to be adopted by the colonized, just as about the same time the advanced state of many English sports led to the adoption of the games and their English vocabulary in many parts of the world.

The coarsening of the English "country housewife" tradition of cookery in the nineteenth century may have been due not just to the defection of the social model-setting circles to French cuisine but also, lower down the social scale, to the disruptive effects of very rapid urbanization and population growth on the transmission of traditional knowledge from mother to daughter. Urbanization took place in England far earlier and far more rapidly than in France. By the time the corresponding movement to the towns took place in France, largely during the twentieth century, the popular press and other mass media may to some extent have provided alternative channels for the maintenance of traditional knowledge.

That is to some extent speculative and requires deeper investigation. What becomes quite clear, however, is that by the 1960s, forces leading to convergence between the culinary cultures of France and England were dominant over the forces of divergence. That was to be seen quite clearly in the further diffusion of French influence down the English social scale through cookery columns in women's magazines and cookery programs on television. But far more important was the enormous growth of the food processing industry and its impact on the domestic kitchen in both countries and indeed throughout the developed world. That, and the growth of the fast-food industry, have become very powerful agents for the internationalization of food, and that has involved contrary yet interlinked trends both to standardization and to the greater diversity of styles in an increasingly cosmopolitan culinary culture. This applies not just to the actual dishes that come out of domestic and commercial kitchens, but alsoin the richer countriesto social contrasts in eating. Both have been marked, in Elias's phrase, by "diminishing contrasts and increasing varieties."

In summary, France and England, two similar neighboring countries that had been in continuous contact with each other since the Middle Ages, nevertheless developed contrasting culinary cultures. The explanation for why that happened should not be sought not in any "innate" differences in the "taste" of English and French people, nor to any great extent in their natural endowments of alimentary raw materials, nor yet in religious differences. An answer lies rather in the divergence between their social structures from about the seventeenth century onward. In particular, competitive display and virtuoso consumption played a more compelling part in the absolutist monarchy that developed in France under Louis XIV and up to the Revolution than it did among the gentry and aristocracy in England after the defeat of the king in the Civil Wars in the mid-seventeenth century. Linked to these differences in stratification was a different relationship between the city and the country. French haute cuisine had its origins in courtly cookery, and courts are urban institutions. In contrast, the greater prestige of the country way of life in England is reflected in its cookery.

See also British Isles: England.


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Stephen Mennell

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