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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 France’s neighbor.

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.

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