Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine

Medieval_baker, foto cabecera historia cuisine francesa

Over centuries the  French cuisine has evolved extensively thanks to local and foreign influences. The national cuisine began to take shape during the Middle Ages through the work of skilled chefs who served the French nobility. The city of Paris was the center of many innovative movements led by royal chefs that eventually gave birth to the modern French cuisine that we can enjoy today. This cuisine eventually spread throughout the country and reached other countries through overseas export trade and colonization, which in turn brought numerous other influences from around the world. Middle Ages In the days of the French medieval cuisine, banquets were common among the aristocracy. Multiple courses would be prepared, but served in a style called service en confusion, i.e., all the courses at once. Food was generally eaten using the hands; meats were cut into large pieces, held between the thumb and two fingers, and introduced into the mouth. Sauces were highly seasoned and thick, and mustards were heavily flavored.  Pies were a common item in banquets, and their the crust serving primarily as a container, rather than as food itself, but it was not until the very end of the Late Middle Ages that the shortcrust pie was developed. Meals often ended with an issue de table, which later changed into the modern dessert, and which typically consisted of dragées (in the Middle Ages, meaning spiced lumps of hardened sugar or honey), aged cheese and spiced wine, such as hypocras. The ingredients of the time varied greatly according to the seasons and the church calendar; also many food items were preserved with salt, spices, honey, and other preservatives. Late spring, summer, and autumn afforded abundance, while winter meals were more sparse. Livestock were slaughtered at the beginning of winter. Beef was often salted, and pork was salted and smoked. Bacon and sausages would be smoked in the chimney, while the tongue and hams were put in brine, or dried. Cucumbers were brined as well, while greens would be packed in jars with salt. Fruits, nuts and root vegetables would be boiled in honey for preservation. Whale, dolphin and porpoise were considered fish, so the salted meats of these sea mammals were eaten during Lent. Artificial freshwater ponds (often called stews) were used held carp, pike, tench, bream, eel, and other fish. Poultry was kept in special yards, with pigeon and squab being reserved for the rich. Game was highly prized, but very rare, and included venison, wild boar, hare, rabbit, and birds. Kitchen gardens provided herbs, included some as rare today as tansy, rue, pennyroyal, and hyssop. Spices were treasured and very expensive in those days – they included pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace. Some spices used then, but no longer today in French cuisine are cubebs, long pepper (both from vines similar to black pepper), grains of paradise, and galingale. Sweet-sour flavors were commonly added to dishes with vinegars and verjus combined with sugar, or honey. A common form of food preparation was to finely cook, pound and strain mixtures into fine pastes and mushes. Visual display was prized. Brilliant colors were obtained by adding, for example, juices from spinach and the green part of leeks. Yellow was obtained from saffron or egg yolk, red came from sunflower, and purple came from Chrozophora tinctoria or Heliotropium europaeum. Gold and silver leaf were placed on food surfaces and brushed with egg whites. One of the grandest showpieces of the time was roast swan or peacock sewn back into its skin with feathers intact, the feet and beak being gilded. Since both birds are stringy, and their taste is unpleasant, the skin and feathers could be kept and filled with the cooked, minced and seasoned flesh of tastier birds, like goose or chicken. The most well known French chef of the Middle Ages was Guillaume Tirel, also known as Taillevent. Taillevent worked in numerous royal kitchens during the  fourteenth century. His first position was as a kitchen boy in 1326. He was chef to Philip VI, then the Dauphin who was son of John II. The Dauphin became King Charles V of France in 1364, with Taillevent as his chief cook. His career lasted sixty-six years, and upon his death he was buried in grand style between his two wives. His tombstone represents him in armor, holding a shield with three cooking pots, marmites, on it.

Ancien régime

During the ancien régime, Paris was the central hub of culture and economic activity, and as such, the most highly skilled culinary craftsmen were to be found there. Markets in Paris, such as Les Halles, La Mégisserie, those found along La Rue Mouffetard, and similar smaller versions in other cities were very important for the distribution of food. Those that gave French produce its distinctive identity were regulated by the guild system, which developed in the Middle Ages. In Paris, the guilds were regulated by city government as well as by the French crown. There were two basic groups of guilds – first, those that supplied the raw materials: butchers, fishmongers, grain merchants, and gardeners. The second group were those that supplied prepared foods: bakers, pastry cooks, sauce makers, poultry men, and other food suppliers. There were also guilds that offered both raw materials and prepared food, such as the pork-butchers and rôtisseurs (purveyors of roasted meat dishes). They would supply cooked meat pies and dishes as well as raw meat and poultry. This caused problems between butchers and poultry men, who sold the same type of raw materials. Guilds served as a training ground for those within the food industry. The degrees of assistant-cook, full-fledged cook and master chef were conferred by guilds. Those who reached the level of master chef were of considerable rank in their individual industry, earned quite a lot of money and enjoyed a high level of  economic and job security. Sometimes, those in the royal kitchens did fall under the guild hierarchy, but it was necessary to find them a parallel appointment based on their skills once they had left the service at royal kitchens. During the 18th and 19th centuries, French cuisine assimilated many new food products from the New World. Although it took a long time before they were adopted, records of banquets show Catherine de’ Medici serving sixty-six turkeys at one dinner. The dish called cassoulet was born from the discovery of haricot beans in the New World, which are central to the dish’s creation, but had not existed outside of the New World until its discovery by Christopher Columbus.

17th century – early 18th century

Haute cuisine (pronounced: [ot kɥizin], “high cuisine”) has its foundations during the 17th century with a chef named La Varenne. As author of works such as Le Cuisinier françois, he is credited with publishing the first true French cookbook. His book includes the earliest known reference to roux using pork fat. The book contained two sections, one for meat days, and one for fasting. His recipes represented a change from the style of cookery known in the Middle Ages, to new techniques aimed at creating somewhat lighter dishes, and a more modest presentation of pies. La Varenne published another book on pastry in 1667 titled Le Parfait confitvrier (republished as Le Confiturier françois), which similarly modernized and codified the emerging haute cuisine standards for desserts and pastries. During the reign of Louis XIV, in 1691, chef François Massialot wrote Le Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois,. The book contained menus served to the royal courts in 1690. Massialot worked mostly as a freelance cook, and was not employed by any particular household. He and many other royal cooks received special privileges due to their  association to the French royalty. They were not subject to the regulation of the guilds; therefore, they could cater weddings and banquets without restriction. His book is the first to list recipes alphabetically, and he perhaps was a forerunner in creating the first culinary dictionary. It is in this book that a marinade is first seen in print, with one type for poultry and feathered game, and a second is for fish and shellfish. No quantities are specified in the recipes, which suggests that Massialot was writing for trained cooks. The successive updates of Le Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois include important refinements, such as adding a glass of wine to fish stock. Some definitions were also added to the 1703 edition. The 1712 edition, re-titled Le Nouveau cuisinier royal et bourgeois, was enlarged to two volumes, and was written in a more elaborate style with extensive explanations of all the techniques described. Additional smaller preparations are also included in this edition, which lead to lighter preparations, and the appearance of a third course to the meal. Ragout, a very important course in today’s French cookery, made its first appearance as a single dish in this edition as well, although it was listed as a garnish.

Late 18th century – 19th centuryMarie-Antoine Carême

marie antoine carememe

The French Revolution was fundamental to the expansion of French cuisine, since it effectively abolished guilds. This meant that any chef could then produce and sell any culinary item he wished. Marie-Antoine Carême was born in 1784, five years before the onset of the Revolution. He spent his younger years working at a pâtisserie until he was  discovered by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who would later cook for the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Prior to this employment with Talleyrand, Carême had become known for his pièces montèes, which were extravagant constructions made of pastry and sugar. More important to Carême’s career was his contribution to the refinement of French cuisine. The basis for his style of cooking had to do with his sauces, which he named mother sauces. Often referred to as fonds, meaning “foundations”; such base sauces, espagnole, velouté, and béchamel, are still known today. Each of these sauces would be made in large quantities in his kitchen, and become the basis of multiple derivatives. Carême had over one hundred sauces in his repertoire. In his writings, soufflés appear for the first time. Although many of his preparations today seem extravagant, he simplified and codified an even more complex cuisine that had existed beforehand. Some significant codifications of the French cuisine were: Le Maître d’hôtel français (1822), Le Cuisinier parisien (1828) and L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle (1833–5).

Late 19th century – early 20th century

Auguste Escoffier

Georges Auguste Escoffier is commonly acknowledged as the key  figure in the modernization of haute cuisine and in the process of organizing what would become the national cuisine of France. His influence began with the rise of some of the great hotels in Europe and America during the 1880s – 1890s. The Savoy Hotel managed by César Ritz was an early hotel in which Escoffier worked, but much of his influence came during his management of the kitchens in the Carlton from 1898 until 1921. He created a system of “parties” called the brigade system, which he divided separated the professional kitchen into five separate stations. These five stations included the “garde manger” that prepared cold dishes; the “entremettier” prepared starches and vegetables, the “rôtisseur” prepared roasts, grilled and fried dishes; the “saucier” prepared sauces and soups; and the “pâtissier” prepared all pastry and desserts items. This system meant that instead of one person preparing a dish on one’s own, now multiple cooks would prepare the different components for the dish. An example used is “oeufs au plat Meyerbeer”, the previous system would take up to fifteen minutes to prepare the dish, while with the new system, the eggs would be prepared by the entremettier, kidney grilled by the rôtisseur, truffle sauce made by the saucier and thus the dish could be prepared in a shorter time and served quickly. Escoffier also simplified and organized the modern menu and structure of the meal. He published a series of articles in professional journals that outlined the sequence; later, in 1912 he finally published his Livre des menus. This type of service embraced the service à la russe (serving meals in separate courses on individual plates), which Félix Urbain Dubois had made popular in the 1860s. Escoffier’s largest contribution was the publication of Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, which set up the fundamentals of French cookery. The book was a collaboration with Philéas Gilbert, E. Fetu, A. Suzanne, B. Reboul, Ch. Dietrich, A. Caillat, among others. Le Guide Culinaire deemphasized the use of heavy sauces and opted for lighter fumets, which are in fact the essence of flavor taken from fish, meat and vegetables. This style of cooking sought to create garnishes and sauces whose function would be add flavors to the dish rather than mask flavors as in the past. Escoffier found inspiration for his work from personal recipes and recipes from Carême, Dubois as well as ideas from Taillevent’s Viander, who had a modern version published in 1897. Another source of recipes came from old peasant dishes that were subsequently translated into the refined techniques of haute cuisine. Expensive ingredients would replace the common ingredients, making the dishes look and taste less humble. The third source of recipes came from Escoffier himself, who invented many new dishes, such as pêche Melba and crêpes Suzette. Escoffier modernized Le Guide Culinaire four times during his lifetime, noting in the foreword to the book’s first edition that even with its 5,000 recipes, the book should not be regarded as an “exhaustive” text, and that even if so when he wrote the book, “it would no longer be that way tomorrow, because progress marches on day by day.”

Mid 20th century – late 20th century

Paul Bocuse The 1960s brought about innovative ideas to the French cuisine, and especially because of the contribution made by Portuguese immigrants who had arrived to the country fleeing the forced drafting to the Colonial Wars that Portugal was fighting in Africa. Many new dishes were introduced, as well as new techniques. This period was also marked by the appearance of the “Nouvelle Cuisine”. The term nouvelle cuisine has been used many times in the history of French cuisine. In the 1740s, Menon first used the term, but the cooking practices of Vincent La Chapelle and François Marin were also regarded as modern. In the 1960s, Henri Gault and Christian Millau revived it to describe the cooking practices of Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé and Raymond Oliver. These chefs were working together against the “orthodoxy” of Escoffier’s cuisine. Some of the chefs were students of Fernand Point at the Pyramide in Vienne, and had decided to postpone to open their own restaurants. Gault and Millau “discovered the formula” contained in ten peculiarities of this new way of cooking. The first characteristic was to reject an excessive complication in cooking. Second, the cooking times for most fish, seafood, game birds, veal, green vegetables and pâtés were greatly reduced in an attempt to preserve the natural flavors. Steaming was an important trend used to make this possible. The third characteristic was to use the freshest possible ingredients. Fourth, large menus would give way to shorter menus. Fifth, strong marinades for meat and game were no longer used. Sixth, cooks would cease using heavy sauces such as espagnole and béchamel, which are thickened with flour, and would season their dishes with fresh herbs, quality butter, lemon juice, and vinegar. Seventh, they used regional dishes for inspiration instead of haute cuisine dishes. Eighth, new techniques were adopted and modern equipment was often used, as for example, Bocuse, who even dared to use microwave ovens. Ninth, chefs bore in mind the dietary needs of their guests through their dishes. Tenth, and finally, chefs were extremely inventive and created new combinations and pairings. Some have speculated that the World War II was a contributor to nouvelle cuisine as animal protein was in short supply during the German occupation. By the mid-1980s food writers stated that the style of cuisine had reached exhaustion and many chefs began returning to the haute cuisine style of cooking, although much of the lighter presentations and new techniques remained. ________________________________________

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