The True History of French Cooking
Catherine de Médicis was born in 1519 to a French mother, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, in Florence, Italy. She was fourteen (1533) at the time she arrived in the French court of Francis I to marry Henry II, future King of France. Twelve ladies in waiting, also her age, numerous cooks, servants and the like accompanied her.
The cooks and servants took care of the large group on the ship over to Marseilles and the overland trip to the Francis I court. As Esther B. Aresty states in her lovely book entitled The Exquisite Table — a History of French Cuisine, “But as far as installing cooks at the court of Francis I to serve her own needs — that would have been bringing coals to Newcastle, and unthinkable in any case with a monarch like Francis I. At that time his court was far more elegant than any court in Italy.”
Historian Jean Heritier describes his court as “The foremost court in Europe.” There is no doubt that the Italian Renaissance had an effect on France. “… a French Renaissance had been in stride since the fifteenth century. True, the seeds had wafted over from Italy into France, as they had in other countries, but wherever the Renaissance took root, what matured from the semination emerged differently in each country — on canvases, in books, and in architecture.”
Francis I brought great Italian artists like Da Vinci to work for him. “Francis adopted the pose of a chivalric King, the first gentleman of his kingdom, although his autocratic statecraft was imbued with a shrewd realism. His patronage of the arts was intended to augment the splendor of his court. He brought Leonardo da Vinci and other great Italian artists to France to design and ornament his châteaux. He employed Guillaume Budé in creating a royal library and in founding professorships of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, which formed the nucleus of the later Collège de France.” When Catherine arrived she was described as being unassuming and undemanding, even the Venetian ambassador labeled her as molto obediente.
From 1547–1559, Catherine reigned as Queen of France. To paraphrase “The Exquisite Table”, it is the misunderstanding of a quote attributed to Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), French essayist and philosopher, which has led some scholars astray. Montaigne was a prominent figure at the court late in Catherine’s reign as Queen. He is often quoted as praising Italian cooks at her court. “One encounter with such a cook, “late in the kitchen of Cardinal Caraffia,” and spoke of that cook’s “magisterial gravity” when discussing his art, “the weighty and important considerations… (in) lofty, magnificent words, the very same we use when we discourse upon the government of an Empire.”
In fact, he was joking and furthermore it didn’t take place at the court but actually when he was interviewing the cook as a perspective employee. To quote Mrs. Aresty “The conversation struck Montaigne as so hilarious that he was inspired to write an essay on “how to make little things appear big.” He called it On the Vanity of Words. In 1570, when Montaigne traveled to Italy he said, “Provisions are not half so plentiful… and not near so well (prepared).”
“French cuisine had been growing in its own national direction long before Catherine de Medici came to France, and was as fully formed by 1533 as cookery and dining then allowed. At best, all national cuisines were still medieval. Forks were not in general use. Spoon and finger foods were the rule: hashes, stews, potages and meats sliced thin enough to be speared on the point of a knife to be eaten by hand, or laid on a slice of bread and swallowed in a few gulps.” To understand the style of food in vogue in the Aristocratic courts one has to look back at how it came to be.
For French references, we need to look at the early works of Guillaume Tirel, a.k.a. Taillevent, master Chef to Charles V (1337–1380). The earliest known copies of Taillevent’s book date back to 1392. The recipes were organized by ingredients and methods. Le Viander is divided into sections on meat, entrements, fish, sauces, etc. His recipe for Civé de Veau could be considered a very early version of Blanquette de Veau. In the recipe, he tells his audience to roast the veal on a spit or grill without overcooking. Then cut up the pieces and cook in fat with onions, mix with stale bread boiled in beef broth and wine, add the normal range of medieval spices that were infused in verjus. Also important to note are two other French books of the same period; Menagier de Paris written for the amateur cook and Chiquart’s masterwork, Du fait de Cuisine, which is considered by scholars as “Europe’s first true cookbook”. All three of these French books were written 100 years before Catherine’s birth. All three books had influences that directly led to the development of modern French cookery. Without trying to sound too corny I have always envisioned the progress of French cooking to be like a torch being passed from one kitchen to another, throughout the generations. Each Chef adding his or her particular spin and dimension to the culinary body. French food did not make gigantic leaps from Carême to Escoffier to Bocuse to today’s crop of great Chefs. There were many small steps in between that history has overlooked.
By the time of the 1600s, the difference in the cuisine of Italy and France was very pronounced as evident by the two major works of that period, Le Vrai Cuisinier François by François Pierre La Varenne (1615–1678) and Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto di papa Pio Quinto by Bartolomeo Scappi (1540–1570) published I believe in 1570 but was still considered the benchmark of Italian cuisine. La Varenne warned his audience “to cook just long enough” while Scappi advocated overcooking. “Scappi presented the noble Maccaronis of Italian cooking in great variety; there were no macaronis in Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois, though present in fifteenth-century English cookbooks.
The Italian influence was, in fact, felt more strongly in England, where macaroni (macrow to the English) and spicy forcemeats called “Balles of Italy” appear…” In La Varenne’s works, he classifies preparations considered basic to French cuisine, bouillons, liaisons, roux, farces, etc.
In conclusion, I think it would be foolish to argue which cuisine is better than the other; first and foremost it is a matter of opinion and secondly, they both are wonderful, vibrant and different. It is equally foolish to believe that the two countries so close didn’t have culinary influences on each other. Both were conquered and occupied by similar peoples. Lastly, I think it is also foolish to believe that one single event defined a countries palate. A palate is a work in progress. Both nations had an established cuisine well before Catherine arrived on the scene.