The True History of French Cooking: The Italian Myth of Catherine de Médicis Debunked

The True History of French Cooking
The Italian Myth of Catherine de Médicis Debunked

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Catherine de Médicis was born in 1519 to a French mother, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, in Florence, Italy. She was fourteen (1533) at the time she arrived in the French court of Francis I to marry Henry II, future King of France. Twelve ladies in waiting, also her age, numerous cooks, servants and the like accompanied her. The cooks and servants took care of the large group on the ship over to Marseilles and the overland trip to the Francis I court. As Esther B. Aresty states in her lovely book entitled The Exquisite Table – a History of French Cuisine, “But as far as installing cooks at the court of Francis I to serve her own needs – that would have been bringing coals to Newcastle, and unthinkable in any case with a monarch like Francis I. At that time his court was far more elegant than any court in Italy.” Historian Jean Heritier describes his court as “The foremost court in Europe.” There is no doubt that the Italian Renaissance had an effect on France. “… a French Renaissance had been in stride since the fifteenth century. True, the seeds had wafted over from Italy into France, as they had in other countries, but wherever the Renaissance took root, what matured from the semination emerged differently in each country – on canvases, in books, and in architecture.” Francis I brought great Italian artists like Da Vinci to work for him. “Francis adopted the pose of a chivalric King, the first gentleman of his kingdom, although his autocratic statecraft was imbued with a shrewd realism. His patronage of the arts was intended to augment the splendor of his court. He brought Leonardo da Vinci and other great Italian artists to France to design and ornament his châteaux. He employed Guillaume Budé in creating a royal library and in founding professorships of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, which formed the nucleus of the later Collège de France.” When Catherine arrived she was described as being unassuming and undemanding, even the Venetian ambassador labeled her as molto obediente.

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From 1547 – 1559, Catherine reigned as Queen of France. To paraphrase “The Exquisite Table”, it is the misunderstanding of a quote attributed to Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), French essayist and philosopher, which has led some scholars astray. Montaigne was a prominent figure at the court late in Catherine’s reign as Queen. He is often quoted as praising Italian cooks at her court. “One encounter with such a cook, “late in the kitchen of Cardinal Caraffia,” and spoke of that cook’s “magisterial gravity” when discussing his art, “the weighty and important considerations… (in) lofty, magnificent words, the very same we use when we discourse upon the government of an Empire.” In fact he was joking and furthermore it didn’t take place at the court but actually when he was interviewing the cook as a perspective employee. To quote Mrs. Aresty “The conversation struck Montaigne as so hilarious that he was inspired to write an essay on “how to make little things appear big.” He called it On the Vanity of Words. In 1570, when Montaigne traveled to Italy he said, “Provisions are not half so plentiful… and not near so well (prepared).”

“French cuisine had been growing in its own national direction long before Catherine de Medici came to France, and was as fully formed by 1533 as cookery and dining then allowed. At best, all national cuisines were still medieval. Forks were not in general use. Spoon and finger foods were the rule: hashes, stews, potages and meats sliced thin enough to be speared on the point of a knife to be eaten by hand, or laid on a slice of bread and swallowed in a few gulps.” To understand the style of food in vogue in the Aristocratic courts one has to look back at how it came to be. For French references we need to look at the early works of Guillaume Tirel, a.k.a. Taillevent, master Chef to Charles V (1337 – 1380). The earliest known copies of Taillevent’s book date back to 1392. The recipes were organized by ingredients and methods. Le Viander is divided into sections on meat, entrements, fish, sauces, etc. His recipe for Civé de Veau could be considered a very early version of Blanquette de Veau. In the recipe he tells his audience to roast the veal on a spit or grill without overcooking. Then cut up the pieces and cook in fat with onions, mix with stale bread boiled in beef broth and wine, add the normal range of medieval spices that were infused in verjus. Also important to note are two other French books of the same period; Menagier de Paris written for the amateur cook and Chiquart’s masterwork, Du fait de Cuisine, which is considered by scholars as “Europe’s first true cookbook”. All three of these French books were written 100 years before Catherine’s birth. All three books had influences that directly led to the development of modern French cookery. Without trying to sound too corny I have always envisioned the progress of French cooking to be like a torch being passed from one kitchen to another, throughout the generations. Each Chef adding his or her particular spin and dimension to the culinary body. French food did not make gigantic leaps from Carême to Escoffier to Bocuse to today’s crop of great Chefs. There were many small steps in between that history has overlooked.

By the time of the 1600’s, the difference in the cuisine of Italy and France was very pronounced as evident by the two major works of that period, Le Vrai Cuisinier François by François Pierre La Varenne (1615 – 1678) and Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto di papa Pio Quinto by Bartolomeo Scappi (1540 – 1570) published I believe in 1570 but was still considered the benchmark of Italian cuisine. La Varenne warned his audience “to cook just long enough” while Scappi advocated overcooking. “Scappi presented the noble Maccaronis of Italian cooking in great variety; there were no macaronis in Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois, though present in fifteenth century English cookbooks. The Italian influence was in fact felt more strongly in England, where macaroni (macrow to the English) and spicy forcemeats called “Balles of Italy” appear…” In La Varenne’s works, he classifies preparations considered basic to French cuisine, bouillons, liaisons, roux, farces, etc.

In conclusion, I think it would be foolish to argue which cuisine is better than the other; first and foremost it is a matter of opinion and secondly they both are wonderful, vibrant and different. It is equally foolish to believe that two countries so close didn’t have culinary influences on each other. Both were conquered and occupied by similar peoples. Lastly, I think it is also foolish to believe that one single event defined a countries palate. A palate is a work in progress. Both nations had an established cuisine well before Catherine arrived on the scene.

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Important Culinary Books

in the history of French Gastronomy 1373 to 1651

“Gourmandise is an enormous book, always open to whoever knows how to read it, and whose pages offer a series of moving tableaux, whose horizon spreads as far as the eye can see.”

~ Grimod de la Reynière

It has been suggested that French cuisine was unsophisticated prior to Catherine de Médicis. I suggest that there was a sophisticated national cuisine prior to Catherine that kept with the palate of the times and that while the Italian Renaissance did effect French cooking, it started with Platine in 1505, twenty-eight years prior to Catherine’s arrival in France. Catherine may have brought something with her, but most of what she is accredited in contributing has appeared in writing prior to her existence.

The Grand Masters of French Cuisine starts with the oldest French cookbook written in 1290 entitled Traité où l’on enseigne à faire et appereiller tous boires commes vin, clairet, mouré et autres, ainsi qu’a appareiller et assaisoner toutes viands selon divers usages de divers pays or “Treatise where one is taught to make and dress all drinks such as wine, claret, Mouré and others, as well as how to dress and season all meats according to the diverse countries”. Although other books were probably written, the second oldest French book comes 100 years later, in 1380 entitled Le Grand Cuisinier de toute cuisine, “The Great Cookbook of All Kinds of Cooking”. This book has come to be known as Viandier written by Guillaume Tirel whose nickname was Taillevent. In this cookbook, Taillevent gives us wonderful recipes such as Civé de Veel (an early version of Blanquette de Veau), Poached Mullets with sauce Cameline (a sort of relish), Grilled Mullets, Hochepot de Poullaille (Chicken Casserole), Sutil Brouet d’Engleterre (Chestnut Purée from England), Oeufs rôtis à la broche (spit roast eggs), Pâté d’anguilles (eel pate), and Cretonnée de Pois Nouveaux (Green Pea Puree with Chicken) among others.

On first look the food appears to be ancient compared to what we eat now. As a student of gastronomy I can tell you that Blanquette de Veau is still being prepared, as are grilled Mullet, Chicken Casserole, Chestnut Puree, Eel Pate and pureed Green Peas. One could say that the generous uses of what I term medieval spices are no longer in use today. I agree, but that was the fashion of the time. Spices had a great value and only wealthy people could afford them. Spices did not have the luxury of modern vacuum packing and transportation. Therefore spices lost much of their potency through inefficient packing and lengthy travel times from point of origin to the kitchen in France and Italy. I will admit I am not a scholar on early Italian works; some could even argue I am not a scholar on early French works. Perhaps Riccardo, Rogov, or someone else could help us with what the Italians cooked in the mid to late 1300’s. I am certain the cuisine would be similar.

The next book of note to appear on the scene is Le Ménagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris), written between June of 1392 and September of 1394. Among the recipes, suckling pig stuffed with egg yolks, sausage, chestnuts, cheese, saffron and ginger; Chicken liver and gizzard stew, and eel stew stand out. The middle-aged author wrote the book for the benefit of his 15 year old bride, whom he felt could only give him “petit et ignorant service” without it. Apparently she had begged him to forgive her for her youth and the slight and imperfect service she could render. He wrote the book to quickly educate her on domestic science. The recipes, for the large part, are borrowed from Viandier, but a few new ones did appear.

In 1420, Chiquart Amiczo a book entitled Du Fait de Cuisine (On the Matter of Cookery). He was the Chef to the Duke of Savoy. His book dealt with food preparation as well as planning and arranging enormous feasts that lasted for several days. To quote Early French Cookery, “…staggering logistics involved in preparing for such a feast, even only two days’ duration. In order to allow for something like 57 dishes to be served, the cook must ensure the availability of 100 heads of cattle- to be slaughtered on the spot – along with 130 sheep, 120 pigs, 200 piglets, 200 lambs, 100 calves, 2,000 hens and 12,000 eggs to say nothing of the incredible quantities of wild game and fish, spices, herbs, fruit, sugar, wines, candles, firewood, filter cloth and so forth.” Du Fait de Cuisine gives us valuable information on the royal cuisine of the time.

Maestro Martino whose recipes appeared in the mid 1400’s in “De honesta voluptate et valetudine” (Of Honest Indulgence and Good Health) by Baptiste Platine de Crémone, did have dishes that appear to be more familiar with what we would label as Italian cooking today. In his book he lists dishes like Riso con brood di carne (a forerunner to Risotto Milanese), Ravioli in tempo di carne (ravioli for meat days), and Zucche Fritte (zucchini salad). But upon inspection, I see that medieval spices such as saffron, cinnamon and ginger figure prominently in these preparations. It is interesting to note that Riso con brood di carne is of Arabic origins. But, unlike Risotto Milanese, this dish uses eggs instead of grated cheese. The use of rice is also mentioned in Taillevent’s book. Platine, as the work was commonly known as, first appeared in print in France in 1505 under the name Platine en françois très utile et necessaire pour le corps humain, que traicte de honest volupté et de toutes viands et choses que l’ome mange, quelles vertus ont, et en quoy nuysent ou proffitent au corps humain, et comment se doyvent apprester ou appreiller, et de fair à chascune dicelles viands soit chair ou poysson sa proper saulce et des propriétés et vertus que ont les dites viands. Et du lieu et place convenable à l’ome pour abiter et de plusieurs gentillesses par quoy l’ome se peut maintenir en prospérité et santé sans avoir grant indigence d’avoir aultre médecin sil est homme de rayson or Platine in French, Very useful and necessary for the human body, which treats of honest pleasures and of all meats and things that men eat, what their virtues are, and how they hurt or help the human body, and how they should be prepared and dressed, and how to make for each one of these meats, either flesh or fish, its own sauce, and the properties and virtues that which he can maintain his prosperity and health, with no need to have any doctor, if he be a man of reason. One hell of a title to retype! Platine became very popular in France was published repeatedly for 100 years. The book details all the things eaten in the sixteenth century. He mentions 15 different salad plants. He describes how whale blubber was the fat used by poor people; that porpoise was a noble fish and that one should let it age. That it is better roasted than boiled. And if you are to boil it, it is better in wine than water. He also describes Catalan cookery.

The Italian influence continued with Opera nuova intitolata Dificio de recette, printed in Venice in 1541. The book was translated into French the same year and appeared as Bastiment de recettes (Edifice of Recipes). In 1551, a Parisian bookseller published Manière de faire toutes confitures (Manner of Making all Sorts of Confectionery). There is dispute whether the author was French or an Italian living in Paris. In 1552, Nostradamus published a book, which is most likely the first French pastry book entitled Le Confiturier Français.

Olivier de Serres’s book “Théâtre de l’Agriculture et mesnage des Champs (Theater of Agriculture and Care of the Fields) was printed in 1600 and completely revolutionized agriculture in France. De Serres encouraged their use in cooking and experimented with varieties never grown in France before. He suggested planting rice in Camargue and was the first person to talk about the advantages of the potato as food. Yes, well before Antoine Augustin Parmentier promoted their use in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

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In 1604, Lancelot de Casteau’s Ouverture de cuisine appeared, written in French outside of France by a non-Frenchman. It is one of the first books to list an international collection of recipes for both savory and sweets. Lancelot de Casteau described himself as a native of Mons, near Liège. Lancelot describes the menu of a banquet in 1557 where he served turkey, multi colored gelatins, medieval favorites such as roast swan, peacock pies and bustards. Further in the book he describes Italian specialties: raviolis, Bologna sausage and Parmesan cheese.

The next major work was that of Joseph Du Chesne. Le Pourtraict de la Santé (Portrait of Good Health) was published in 1606. In it he advises that nothing will restore “beaten health” like a leg of lamb with fresh breadcrumbs and lemon juice. He continues by telling us that sardines are best fried in butter and served with lemon juice. My favorite advice has to be that after dinner “everyone should stay at the table, without moving, for a good half hour, chatting agreeably with each other.” AMEN.

In 1607, a book entitled “Thrésor de santé ou mesnage de la vie humaine” (Treasures of Good Health or the Care of Human Life) was published. It is the first book to discuss regional favorite such as Saucisson de Lyon and Andouillettes de Troyes.

And finally, this brings us to “Le Cuisinier François” written in 1651 by Pierre de la Varenne. La Varenne was the founder of classical French cuisine. Dishes like: pumpkin pie, Boeuf a la mode, Oeufs a la neige, omelettes, beignets appear. Dishes like stuffed mushrooms, Chicken casserole with green peas, eel pate en croute, asparagus in cream sauce, and Ragout of rabbit are also included. He went on to write a pastry book as well.

In conclusion, I would like to see specifically how Catherine de Médicis, herself, affected French cuisine. For every chronicle of her feasts I can provide chronicles of feasts with similar lavish presentations. There is no doubt of an Italian effect on French cuisine, but it started before her, in 1505. I haven’t been able to find a book with a reference to her exactly, other than ones written in very recent history. I haven’t seen or heard of a book written by her Chef. I have however, listed many notable books from the French and Italians alike who wrote the books that the influenced the cooks of the time.

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“No rule exists for such compositions;

they are at the mercy of the artist’s genius.”

Grimod de le Reynière

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