French cuisine has been famous for centuries. It has been the international standard of taste, excellence and tradition. Even today, should there be a show on television of a book where a man takes a woman out on an incredible date, the are usually going to Chez Pierres or Chez Francoise or some other French clich for a restaurant name. But aside from its magnificent taste, French cuisine is also the symbol for richness, extravagance and decadence. And it is not surprising to find out that those traditions came from the forefathers of self indulgence themselves, the Romans. Before France was France, it was Gaul, a Roman province.
In great many respects Gaul benefited immensely from the civilization that the Romans brought with them from the first century BC on. Not only did the Romans organize the administrative part of governing this land and imposed, with time, a much needed written law, but Roman soldiers, merchants, and other citizens that were far from familiar surroundings, naturally longed to retain the customs which they were used to in the Eternal City. And of these traditions the refined pleasures of the table were undoubtedly what represented to the displaced citizens, the essence of being Roman.
Roman food habits continued to live in Gaul, at least to the extent that the usual foodstuffs were available or could be obtained, during the five centuries that the Empire lasted. In the Area of Roman cookery one name stands out as representative of custom and tradition in the most glorious age of the Empire. M. Gavius Apicius (c. 25 BC 35 AD) was a notorious gourmet whose self inflicted death was induced by his realization that his wealth had been so squandered as to have declined to a level at which he was unable to keep up his lifestyle.
Apicius was the author of De re coquinaria, the first complete compilation of roman recipes, 450 to be exact, 138 of which the author was responsible for himself. The book outlasted its Empire, was copied by monks through out the Middle Ages and was first printed in 1498. Another name, which stands out, is not as famous but in no way less influential. It is the Letter of Anthimus to Theodoric. This letter, written about 520A. D. , embodies medical and culinary advice about foods offered by a Greek physician to and Ostragoth ruler. It is a practical dietetic, often resembling an informal cookery manual.
This letter embodies two very important aspects of medieval cookery. Firstly, the Frankish tribes which broke across the frontiers of the Roman Empire looked to Roman usage for the standards they would adopt in their own social practice. And secondly, the best advice that could be given about food in this period was given by a physician and founded on medical concepts. Copies of this letter continued to be made into the twelfth century. The Franks themselves, for whom the advice was written, ultimately established themselves in the land to which they gave their name, France.
In matters of food the French continued to respect the doctrines of medical science all the way to the end of the middle ages. This in no way denied them the decadence, which the social class rift of the Middle Ages brought with it. The cooking was not so much about taste as about the preservation of the product. Spices are critical and of great value. Not so much to cover the taste of spoiled meat as the popular wisdom has it, but more to counteract all the salt and the bland taste of shoe-leather quality meat boiled in the pot all day.
Medieval people did not value “taste” in quite the same way that we do – food was appreciated more for its appearance, its symbolic value, or its rarity. When the great noble feasts are described, a great deal of narrative is spent on the clever inventions constructed to look like castles or unicorns, boars covered in gold leaf, and peacocks dressed in their own feathers, but nothing at all on how the food tasted. The sign of a great cook was the ability to make something look like something else: fish that looks like venison or vice versa.
Those silly little fruit-shaped marzipans that are consumed at Christmas are a vestige of this tradition. However, this was an age of transition, as it was for so many arts. These times were beginning to see the development of what we consider a modern sensibility about cuisine — food valued for itself and its taste, where spices and cooking methods are used to bring out its intrinsic qualities. These new tendencies had appeared earlier in Italy, where so many of the fine arts of the Renaissance were born. The influence of Italian-born Catherine de Medici brought about the development of the culinary arts in France.
Arriving in 1533, she had her staff introduce delicacies previously unknown to the French. Over the next couple of centuries, the royal families employed chefs who developed and prepared the finest cuisine, and dining became an art form. How much impact this had on the everyday cook is hard to say. One thing she did bring over that not only influenced the cooks, but still in considered important today is the fork. Table utensils had been used only as tools of extreme measure in the Middle Ages now a proper table etiquette was beginning do develop.
And so was what we today know as Haute Cuisine, The rich yet subtle taste which we associate with French cooking. Haute cuisine enjoys the reputation of being considered the finest cuisine in the world. Literally meaning high cooking or high-class cooking, the rich sauces, fine ingredients and exquisite taste of haute cuisine typifies classic French cooking. Through the efforts of the great French chefs, haute cuisine first came to the attention of the rest of the world at the time of the French Revolution.
Before 1789, chefs were employed by the richest families to prepare food similar to what was being served at court. These chefs provided the training ground for the elaborate recipes that formed the basis of haute cuisine. The style at the time was elegant food served in many courses, often with rich sauces to accompany the many meats on the menu. Although the food was unfamiliar to common citizens and beyond their reach, it soon emerged to popular consumption after the revolution. The fall of the aristocracy meant the great chefs were out of work, and resulted in the opening of restaurants.
Before the revolution, there were at least 100 restaurants in Paris, which increased to over 500 after the social changes. Customers who had never tasted a truffle now were able to visit the emerging restaurants to sample new delicacies, such as tripe cervelle de conut and foie gras. Restaurants became temples of haute cuisine. Chefs depended on the recipes created by the masters, such as Marie-Antoine Carme (1784-1833) and his successors: Duglr, Urbain, Dubois and Escoffier. Sauces are synonymous with haute cuisine, and Carme was responsible for classifying them into four families, each headed by a basic sauce.
In 1902, Escoffier listed in his book, Guide Culinaire, more than 200 different sauces not including those used in desserts. He described haute cuisine being directly related to its sauces. The most important French cookbook however, was Francois Pierre de la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier Francois, which signals the end of the anarchy of the medieval age and Renaissance fantasy, and methodically organizes cooking. It starts with bouillon or stock, the base ingredient for sauces, etc. The goal was a harmonious blend of ingredients so that not one predominates.
The cookbook continued to be reprinted in France until 1815. It went through an estimated 250 editions with over 250,000 copies published. This alerted publishers to the financial possibilities of cookbooks. La Varenne worked for the marquis d’Uxelles. He founded the classical French cooking school. There is, however, a name that stands out in all of French culinary history as probably the most important and the most revolutionary. Georges-Auguste Escoffier was born in the Provence region of France in October 1846.
When he turned 13, his father took him to Nice where he apprenticed at a restaurant owned by his uncle, thus beginning the illustrious career that he enjoyed for the next 62 years. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War began, Escoffier was called to duty in the army where he served as Chef de Cuisine. It was during this period that he came to consider the need for tinned foods and was thus the first chef to undertake in-depth study of techniques for canning and preserving meats and vegetables. After returning to civilian life, Escoffier resumed his career in several Parisian restaurants where he steadily moved up the ladder of success.
It was during his years in Monte Carlo that Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pairing of Escoffier and Ritz brought about significant changes in hotel industry development throughout the ensuing years, raising the standards of hospitality to considerable heights. Both went to the Savoy Hotel in London where Escoffier served as Head of Restaurant Services. Later, Ritz opened several of his own hotels, such as the Hotel Ritz in Paris and the Carlton in London, where Escoffier was the key player in the restaurant end of the establishments.
Three of Escoffier’s most noted career achievements are revolutionizing and modernizing the menu, the art of cooking and the organization of the professional kitchen. Escoffier simplified the menu as it had been, writing the dishes down in the order in which they would be served (Service la Russe). He also developed the first la Carte menu. He simplified the art of cooking by getting rid of ostentatious food displays and elaborate garnishes and by reducing the number of courses served. He also emphasized the use of seasonal foods and lighter sauces.
Escoffier also simplified professional kitchen organization, as he integrated it into a single unit from its previously individualized sections that operated autonomously and often created great wasted and duplication of labor. Throughout his career, Escoffier wrote a number of books, many of which continue to be considered important today. Some of his best-known works include Le Guide Culinaire (1903), Le Livre des Menus (1912) and Ma Cuisine (1934). The French government recognized Escoffier in 1920 by making him a Chevalier of the Legion d’ Honneur, and later an Officer in 1928.
The honors due Escoffier can be summed up by a quote from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II when he told Escoffier, I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs. The cult of food was at its height at this time. The turn of the century was a time of excess – something the Victorians were known for embracing. In an era of wealth, idealism and luxury, those who had the resources wanted only the best of everything in food and wine. Menus for the wealthy were full and lush, and combined the haute cuisine of the time with fine regional wines that accompanied every course.
The preferred method of dining was service la Russe, where each dish was prepared and served on individual plates and placed before the diner. The meal was composed of a series of courses served in succession. The average menu would begin with an hor doeuvre, followed by a soup, main course, salad, cheese, and dessert. The amount of food depended on how elaborate the dinner. Large meals might consist of as many as ten courses, spread out over several hours. Oysters were a favorite hor doeuvre to start a meal. The second course might include two soups, a clear consomm and a cream soup.
Fish was featured in the third course, often with a rich sauce. The next course, or two if it was a grand meal, would include several meat selections. Chicken, beef, lamb, and roast duckling were accompanied with several vegetable dishes. Creamed carrots, boiled new potatoes, rice, and green peas as well as any seasonal vegetable available regionally would be served. The meat dishes were often dressed with sauces. Salads then followed the meat and vegetable course. The French custom was to serve the douceur, or sweet, after the cheese course. Common choices were bombes, mousses, or iced parfaits.
Of course, one sweet would never do in the era of indulgence. Several choices were standard for a large meal. The French have always believed that there is an appropriate beverage for every food. Wine has always been an important beverage, always drunk with the meal, but rarely on its own. An aperitif, or light alcoholic beverage preceded the meal. A different wine accompanied each succeeding course, and port or cognac followed the meal to aid digestion. On the other side of the dining experience, the bourgeois menu was simpler and more directly in touch with foods available regionally.
Seafood was often the heart of a meal, and fresh vegetables combined with simple bread and wine completed it. In place of rich meats, which might not be available, local sausages, kidney, brain or tripe served as a substitute. But in reality, though the rich class was becoming larger with time, the gap between classes was still huge and so it was respectively in the ability to obtain fine foods. It took a world war at the beginning of the twentieth century to halt the gross inequality of wealth at the table, and to bring about a more even distribution of the nation’s produce.
In fact, the general expectation of good eating is a relatively new experience for the French. At the time the Bastille was stormed in 1789, at least 80% of the French population were subsistence farmers, with bread and cereals as the basis of their diet, essentially unchanged since the time of the ancient Gauls nearly two millennia before. In the mid-nineteenth century, following the demise of the aristocracy, food was a conspicuous symbol of social position, swiftly adopted by a new ruling class of bourgeoisie, who recreated the sumptuous meals of the very aristocracy they had once criticized.
At the same time, two-thirds of Parisians were either starving or ill fed, five times more likely to be nourished from vegetable proteins than from any meats or dairy products. The golden age of haute cuisine benefited only those at the very top of the social ladder. The advent of improved transportation, especially by train, brought culinary revolution to the regions, and slowly the spreading affluence could put a chicken on every peasant’s table.
Eventually, tourism fanned the flames of change in France’s commercial kitchens, as chefs were obliged to create dishes appealing to an ever-widening audience of British, Japanese, Middle Easterners, and Americans, as well as French travelers hungering for new experiences. In some instances the reasons for change in regional products were a pragmatic reaction to a decline in other industries (such a silk) or to the economic disaster brought about by the Phylloxera pest, which wiped out most of France’s grape vines at the turn of the century.
French cooking has always been known as traditional. What is perhaps less widely recognized is that France’s reputation for fine food is not so much based on long-held traditions but on constant change. What was probably the greatest change in French cooking history was the advent of nouvelle cuisine and the newly modern fusion cooking. Becoming popular in the 1970’s, Nouvelle Cuisine took traditional French cooking and gave it a fresh look. Its advent was a reaction to the typically rich and time-consuming recipes of haute cuisine.
Emphasizing lighter tastes and healthier fare, Nouvelle Cuisine introduced fruit-based and reduction sauces in its recipes as alternatives to the heavier cream and flour based sauces that were found in many dishes. Fresh ingredients, prepared in ways that optimized their natural aromas and flavors, were essential to Nouvelle Cuisine dishes. This style of “freeform” cooking strayed from the structured system of rules previously in place in French culinary philosophy.
Nouvelle Cuisine’s presentation, however, transformed cooking to an art and the chef to the status of artist, with the bite-sized portions of food being carefully and artistically arranged on large plates. Essentially taking us back to the middle ages where the chef was chosen for his presentation of the food. Michel Gurard, Jean and Pierre Troisgros and Alain Chapel all worked to pioneer Nouvelle Cuisine as a way of simplifying French cooking. It is Paul Bocuses name, however, that is most often associated with the trend’s upsurge on the French culinary horizon in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.
While the height of Nouvelle Cuisine’s popularity was enjoyed during the 1970’s and 80’s, the effects of this trend can be seen to this day with a strong emphasis on eating healthier dishes with lighter and fresher ingredients. Today with influence from Asia, India and Latin America the concept of fusion cooking is very popular mixing the traditional ingredients with more exotic ones. But the love of traditional haute cuisine has in no way been compromised. It is still the symbol of tradition refinement taste and status.