The Fascinating History of French Cuisine

French cuisine is considered as the foundation and the heart of many cuisines across the Western world. In fact the history of cooking can’t be written with out a significant portion or our modern history being impacted by French chefs.  French cooking’s influence and recognition are legendary and has gained a status of having flair and elegance. The methods used in French cuisine are widely taught in western cooking schools and culinary education. In fact, one of the most famous and highly regarded cooking schools in the world is the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France.

In November 2010, French gastronomy was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list for its “intangible cultural heritage”. The long history of French gastronomy has lead up to this honor. With out a doubt, French cuisine is known world-wide.

Medieval Age

In medieval French cuisine, food was essentially the same as Moorish cuisine and meals were prepared and served in a style called “service en confusion” or “all at once”. Food was generally eaten by hand and large sliced pieces of meats were held between the two fingers and the thumb. Strong mustard flavors were used and their sauces were thick and heavily seasoned. Pies were common and its crust served primarily as a container rather than food itself. The culture of drinking alcoholic beverages existed but beer was more common than wine. In late medieval ages, meals often end with “dessert” which typically was aged cheese and spiced wine.

Ingredients being used varied greatly with the seasons and the church calendar. Spring, summer and autumn afforded abundance while winter were much more sparse. During winter months, meats were smoked and salted to be preserved, and vegetables were salted and preserved in jugs. During lent, whales, dolphins and porpoises were salted to be eaten. Poultry on the on the other hand, was kept in special yard to be reserved for the elite. Gardens provided herbs and spices which were very expensive.

A common food preparation that was believed to beneficial and healthy was to finely cook, pound and strain mixtures into fine pastes and mushes. Sweet-sour flavors were commonly added to dishes with vinegars combined with sugar or honey.

Italian Influence

In 1540s, Catherine de Medici of Italy came to France along with her Florentine-educated cooks to marry Henry duc d’Orleans, the future King Henry II. Under her reign as queen and queen mother of France, the dinners she hosted helped moved French cuisine to turn into a magical art of beautiful presentation and innovative flavors. Fine tableware and glassware became important and new foods were introduced from the Mediterranean as well as from distant regions. Garlics, truffles, and mushrooms were also used. She announced that ladies attending a sumptuous feast should be dressed in fashionably revealing attire. Dinners in France became extravagant. A French court chef named Guillame Tirel also known as “Taillevent”, wrote one of the earliest recipe collections of medieval France named “Le Viander”.

Ancien Regime

During the 16th and 18th centuries, Paris was alluded to as the central hub of culture and economic activity. In the Ancien Regime, Paris guilds were regulated by the city government as well as by the French crown. Guilds restricted those in each branch of culinary industry to operate only in that field. Guilds were divided into two groups: individuals that provided raw materials and people who supplied prepared foods. There were also guilds such as “charcutiers” and “rótisseurs” that catered both raw materials and prepared. In the 1600s, royal patronage promoted French cooking with various dishes of fish and fruit being the most popular. Also, during this time, the art of making champagne had begun by Dom Pérignon. He started it by storing his wine into bottles that allows secondary fermentation to happen.

In 1691, chef Francois Massialot wrote “Le Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois” containing menus served to the royal courts in 1690. Massialot works as a freelance cook and was not employed by any household. He and many other royal cooks were not accountable to the regulation guilds therefore, they could cater weddings and banquets without restriction. His book was the first to list recipes alphabetically and his recipes has listed no quantities which suggests that the book was published for trained cooks.

During the reign of King Louis XIV, sumptuous dining took another leap in extravagance at his palace in Versailles when silverware became common. He introduced the concept of dining in a series of courses and cooks became specialized.

Traditional Haute Cuisine

The foundation of “haute cuisine” or “high cuisine” was during 17th century with France’s premier chef La Varenne. He is credited with publishing the first true French cookbook entitled “Le Cuisinier Francóis” in 1652. It contained new techniques such as the use of roux using pork fat as a sauce thickener. The book contains two sections: for meat days and for fasting. His recipes marked a change from the style of cookery to new techniques creating lighter dishes and more modest presentations. In 1667, he published a pastry book entitled “Le Parfait Confitvrier”. It updated the emerging haute cuisine standards for desserts and pastries.

The 1712 edition of Le Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois retitled “Le Nouveau Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeios” was increased to two volumes. It was written in a more elaborate style with an extensive explanation of techniques.

French revolution

The French revolution was integral to the growth of French cuisine as it abolished the guild system giving anyone a freedom to produce and sell any culinary item. Chefs began to set up restaurants which went well beyond common taverns and inns which all had access.

At this time, many of the nation’s people depended on bread as a significant food source. Bread was referred as the basic dietary item for the masses and used as a foundation for soup. It was so important that thee harvest, prices, and supplies were all watched and controlled by the French government as fear of famine was always present.

During this period, extravagant constructions of pastry and sugar architecture by Marie-Antoine Careme called “pieces montées” became known. His contribution to the refinement of French cuisine was based on his style of cooking his sauces which he named “mother sauces”. Careme had over one hundred sauces in his repertoire and soufflés appeared for the first time in his writings. His preparations may have seemed fancy, but he simplified the even more complex cuisine that existed previously. The appreciation for his talent carried him to many courts including the “Russian Tsar” or “Russian service” where guest were served individually first appeared.

Modern Haute CuisineCuisine_Trois_étoiles

By streamlining Careme’s formulas and adding his own touches, Auguste Escoffier codified French cuisine to become modern haute cuisine in the 20th century. Escoffier introduced a lighter approach to classic sauces and enhanced the dishes to make a new distinct flavor. He took peasant dishes and transformed them using the refined techniques of haute cuisine. Although Escoffier left out much of the local culinary character in regions of France and is considered difficult to execute by home cooks, multiple high-profile chefs universally accepted this new style of cooking. Escoffier additionally established a frame work known as “mise en place” where everything was organized and in its place.  He also instituted a system of “parties” called the “brigade system” which professional chefs are separated into five stations:

  • Garde manger was the responsible for preparing cold dishes
  • Entremettier prepares starches and vegetables
  • Rôtisseur was the one who oversees the preparation of fried, grilled and roasted foods
  • Sacucier prepares soups and sauces
  • Pâtissier was responsible of desserts and pastries

This system is more of a production type approached and approve the quality and speed at which dishes were prepared. Meals can be served faster, and tables can be turned over more quickly which meant more income to gain.

Nouvelle cuisineJacques_Lameloise,_escabèche_d'écrevisses_sur_gaspacho_d'asperge_et_cresson

In the late 1950s, French chefs led by Paul Bocuse, Guérard and Chapel introduced new dishes and techniques called “Nouvelle cuisine”. It replaced the traditional heavy sauces to emphasizing the freshness, lightness and clarity of flavors. This new way of cooking gets rid of unnecessary and complicated procedures to preserve more of the foods natural flavors. Steaming became vogue emphasizing the freshness of the ingredients as possible. This period reduced the serving size and large plates were used for visual presentations.  In the mid-1980s, this style of cuisine had reached its peak and many chefs began returning to the haute cuisine style although lighter presentations and new techniques remained.

Modern French cuisine

French cuisine now rides a fine line between haute and nouvelle styles. The attention paid to its quality, flavor and appearance is pure and gives remarkable experience in every bite. There is so much variety with French cuisine and that is the most valuable aspect it has. French cuisine is now renowned by its elaborate preparation and precise presentation around the world. It held high in regard and respect by making the daily meal and a product of an art.

French cuisine had gone through a lot of developmental changes which led to its prestigious reputation. They innovated their own cuisine style into savory, luxurious, and classy dishes. French cuisine have been a symbol of a tradition, an art and a way of life.

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