French food and cooking are generally considered the backbone and underpinning of many cuisines across the Western world.
The influence and recognition of classical French cooking techniques are legendary. But the French haven’t always been keen on garlic, mushrooms, and truffles. Before the fifteenth century, seasonings and decorations were used to disguise food that had spoiled. France had what many today consider peasant food; it was simple fare without extravagant adornment.
French cuisine is based on different culinary styles originating from the French traditions. It has evolved throughout the centuries following the social and political changes in the country.
It all begins with Guillaume Tirel (1310 – 1395) who was the main cook in the kitchen of Charles V, king of France between 1364 and 1380. He revolutionized the cuisine by integrating vegetables, produces and spices imported by the European sailors from the New world (a name used by the discoverers from the end of the 15th century to call America as opposed to the Old world, Europe, Asia and Africa).
In his work Le Viandier he offered a new culinary technique for combining of game, poultry and fish with saffron, ginger, black pepper and cinnamon-based sauces. Thanks to this work Guillaume Tirel becomes the first author of a culinary work.
In 1533 the culinary world goes through another revolutionary change on the occasion of the wedding of Catherine de Medici and Henry II, who later in 1547 became king of France. Catherine was Italian and the daughter of one of the richest bankers in Western Europe)
When Catherine de Medici of Italy moved to France, she was bringing with her Florentine-educated cooks and a sense of creative drama and manners.
Thus, from Italy, forks with two tines, faience plates and Murano glass glasses (from the island of Murano near Venice, with a gold-plated silver or tin finishing) were introduced. In the coming years, French cuisine turned into a magical art of beautiful presentation and innovative flavours.
During his reign, and during the reign of Maria Medici, the wife of King Henry IV, the royal celebrations became exquisite as a sign of excellence, and the culinary art became an art of life. Since then people speak of the French gastronomy, an achievement with which the name of the great French cook François Vatel (1631-1671) is indisputably related.
He was renowned for the magnificent celebrations that he organized. His life came to an end namely during one such feast when he commits suicide out of fear not to succeed with the preparation of the food for 3,000 guests invited to the feast in honour of king Louis XIV.
Vatel was responsible for an extravagant banquet for 2,000 people hosted in honour of Louis XIV by the Grand Condé in April 1671 at the Château de Chantilly, where he died.
According to a letter by Madame de Sévigné, Vatel was so distraught about the lateness of the seafood delivery and about other mishaps that he committed suicide by running himself through with his sword, and his body was discovered when someone came to tell him of the arrival of the fish.
The French Cuisine in the time of history
Later, another Medici married another French king, and the food just kept coming. As a result, dining in France became increasingly significant. Like the Italians, the French liked to embellish their tables with fine china, glassware, and serving ware. Dinner, said one critic, became “theater” in France, and it has remained a highlight of French culture and society.
With the developing of printing in the 16th century, the culinary world evolved more and more, since then it became possible to spread different recipes and cooking techniques on a larger scale. Gastronomic literature is developed, and it enjoys a big success.
During the French revolution many employers leave the country and consequently cooks remain jobless. This is the reason to search for new ways to make a living and it is how the first restaurants appear. The development of the restaurant industry leads to the creating of a new movement in the gastronomy culture and namely the culinary criticism.
There was a succession of great chefs : the pastry-chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) was highly original with his béchamel sauces, his soups, his tiered cakes and his soufflés. Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), the “king of cooks”, further improved Carême’s refined cooking.
The first chef to receive the Legion of Honour, he became responsible for the restaurants at the Ritz and promoted French gastronomy abroad. His Guide culinaire (Culinary Guide) offered almost 5,000 recipes and it was a real best-seller, republished four times during his lifetime.
The beginnings of “Gastronomy”
The word “gastronomy” was in fact invented by the poet and humourist Joseph Berchoux in 1801. In 1803 Alexandre Grimod de la Reynière published the Almanach des Gourmands in which he listed where to eat and which restaurants offered the best value for money.
Grimod de La Reynière was one of the first critics. Described as a little queer but gifted with an incredible intelligence, he remains in history with the creation of the first culinary guide in 1803 – The Gourmand’s Almanac (Almanac des Gourmands).
At that time, among the biggest names in cooking, those of Antonin Carem, the king of chefs, the founder of the sophisticated “high” cuisine and famous for the unusual culinary transformations of the food, the ideas for which he took from the architectural style of the royal court and the Parisian new rich. And Jules Gouffé, a French chef and pastry chef who cooked for Emperor Napoleon III and was known as Decorative cooking‘s apostle.
Above all he set up a tasting jury. Culinary criticism was born and became popular thanks to the legal expert Brillat-Savarin, who is well known for his aphorism : “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are“, or as we say today “You are what you eat”. Brillat-Savarin published an important work in 1826 : his Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste). The dessert known as a “savarin”, a sort of rum baba, was created in his honour.
The XIXth century was notable for some other major culinary inventions, such as Marengo chicken, which was improvised by the chef Duval after the Emperor’s victory, or much later, the peach Melba, invented in honour of the Australian opera singer Nelly.
The twentieth century
With the development of motoring and tourism in the early 20th century, most restaurants became popular and attracted more and more clientele. Thus, in 1900 the first Michelin Guide was created.
The first Michelin Guide was compiled in 1900 by French industrialist Andre Michelin, along with his brother Edouard Michelin. They wanted to create demand for automobiles…and therefore, the tires they manufactured.
At the time, there were plenty of bicycles, but there were only 300 cars in France. Not enough for a viable business selling automobile tires…the brothers had a profit motive.
The first print of the Michelin Guide was 35,000 copies and included maps, instructions on how to repair and change tires. It also included a list of restaurants, hotels, mechanics and gas stations along popular routes in France.
It was given away for free.
The twentieth century brought about dramatic changes in French cuisine as well. Traditional haute cuisine (grande cuisine) is the world-renowned food made famous for its elaborate preparation and precise presentation. It was the model of French food preparation until food critics challenged it for being too inflexible.
New cuisine (nouvelle cuisine) was a 1970s backlash to the classic heavy French cuisine. This movement, brought by the famous culinary critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, is characterized by lightened up cream sauces and focused on the product and true tastes, using fewer ingredients.