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THE BEGINNING OF FRENCH GASTRONOMY
The real turning point in the French gastronomy was the arrival from
Italy of a plump fourteen-year old girl named Catherine de Medici. She came
to Paris in 1533 to become the queen of Henry II. It was not she who
revolutionized the tastes of France; it was her retinue of chefs, pastry
makers, and gardeners, the finest from Florence. To realize what an impact
this made, it is necessary to examine the culinary accomplishments of
At the time of Catherine de Medici's arrival in Paris, the gastronomic
arts had reached their epitome in Florence. The first modern cooking
academy, the Compagnia del Paiolo ("Company of the Cauldron"), had been
founded there in the early 1500s. Cookbooks had been commonplace in Rome
since the first century C.E., with the writings of Apicius. Consumption of
vegetables, especially cabbage, common boiled greens, and fava beans were
all commonplace, as was the consumption of a variety of fruits such as
apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, figs, and many types of melons.
Herbs, spices, and many blended sauces were used both in cooking and as
flavoring to be added at the table.
The Romans are said to have invented cheese-cake, both a savory and a
sweet dessert type using honey. More than a dozen varieties of cheese were
known; they were used often after the meal as a dessert with fruits.
Breads made with flour and yeast, pasta made from flour and water and
shaped in a variety of ways then dried, even the use of tomatoes and corn,
newly arrived from the ships of the conquistadores, had some of their
first experimental tastes in Italian kitchens.
While Catherine de Medici dazzled the French court with her sumptuous
banquets of unusual dishes, the greatest shock must have been her
introduction of the fork. Spoons and knives had been used before, but to
dine with a fork was revolutionary. The art of making breads, cakes, and
pastries, the preparation of fresh vegetables, and the serving of fruits
and cheeses were appreciated, but a great favorite was ices and ice cream.
There is some disagreement as to whether the first ice creams were
introduced by Catherine de Medici or by a Sicilian in Paris, Francisco Procopio, who reputedly opened the first cafe selling ice creams and ices
of many flavors. It is certain that Catherine introduced the French court
to the iced delicacies, but perhaps Procopio deserves credit for
presenting it to Parisians.
From the kitchens of Marie de Medici, Catherine's niece who married Henry
IV came the present French classics: sauce bearnaise and sauce mornay. By
now the culinary arts gained even wider appreciation, and while the next
king, Louis IV, gorged on endless courses and enormous quantities of
foods, Parisians were beginning to enjoy a new stimulation: the first
public cafes (in 1669) serving coffee.
The 1700s saw many fads and fancies such as bombe glacee, petits pois
(actually introduced by Catherine de Medici), animelles (ram's testicles),
and truffle foie gras (imported truffles from Italy had started the
French on a search for their own underground delicacies).
But it was through the efforts and writings of a French agronomist and
economist, Antoine Parmentier, that the humble potato was finally accepted
as a food. About the same time, restaurants began appearing, much to the
consternation of the traiteurs or caterers who had more or less a monopoly
on the selling of cooked meats. In 1765, an innkeeper named Boulanger is
said to have used sheep's feet to flavor his soups which he sold as
restorantes. This was construed by the traiteurs as an illegal way of
selling cooked meats, but once the furor died down, more and more
Parisians were enjoying eating out, and by the turn of the century more
than 500 "restaurants" had opened their doors, each boasting long and
different menus. This was the period of the development and codification
of French gastronomy by four of the greatest French chefs and gastronomes:
Jean Anhelm Brillat-Savarin (1755-1876) who labored for twenty-five years
to produce Physiology of Taste (La Physiologic du Gout); Antonin Careme
(1784-1833) who wrote volumes on everything from the chronicling of menus
to the construction of confectionary architecture and was called "the king
of chefs and the chef of kings"; George Auguste Escoffier (1847-1935) who
was regarded as "the emperor of the world's kitchens," a title conferred
on him by German Emperor William II; and the author of Larousse Gastronomique, Prosper Montagne (1865-1948). It was not uncommon, then as
today, that cooks trained in the palaces and wealthy homes opened their
own fine little restaurants when they retired.