Vive la France et sa cuisine

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France is understandably proud of its culinary heritage. From the opulent banquets of the Middle Ages, the influence of Italian cuisine during the 15th and 16th centuries, through to the rise of Haute Cuisine and the role food played in the French Revolution; France has been recognised, across the world, as a capital of gastronomic excellence. We take a look through the ages at the influences behind the cuisine as well as some of the leading lights that have not only shaped a cuisine, but more importantly, shaped a country.

Middle Ages

Banquets were commonplace among the aristocracy in the Middle Ages, with multiple courses of meats, pies, greens, hams and sauces served ‘service en confusion’, literally ‘all at once’. Food was generally eaten with the hands and often ended with an issue de table, which later evolved into the modern dessert, and typically consisted of spiced lumps of hardened sugar or honey, aged cheese and spiced wine, such as hypocras.

Increasingly more rare and intricate foods were created for these regal occasions, but as the dishes became more intricate and complicated masterpieces they didn’t always taste very good. For example, whale, dolphin and porpoise were considered fish dishes during these times.

The most well known French chef of the Middle Ages was Guillaume Tirel, also known as Taillevent. Taillevent worked in numerous royal kitchens during the 14th century, cooking for Philip VI, and King Charles V of France. Taillevent wrote a famous book on cookery titled ‘Le Viandier’ that was influential on subsequent books about French cuisine and important to food historians as a detailed source on the medieval cuisine of northern France. His career spanned sixty-six years, and upon his death his tombstone represents him in armor, holding a shield with three cooking pots.

For those lower down the social ladder, ingredients were far more rustic. Bread would typically be the staple ingredient used, albeit the quality of grain meant the bread was often inedible and cost a large percentage of the meager budget. The peasant farmers would often eat meats but chicken was only eaten on special ocassions. As these meats would be costly and hard to come by, they would have to be preserved in salt to keep them fresh. As the peasants diet became totally dependant on what could be grown or purchased and kept, it lacked some of the essential vitamins required for a healthy diet and caused many diseases such as scurvey.

By the 15th and 16th centuries new influences were making their way into the kitchens of France. Much of this occurred due to the marriage of Catherine de’ Medici (a Florentine princess) and Henry duc d’Orleans (who later became King Henry II). Italian cooks were light years ahead of French culinary specialists and not only created dishes such as manicotti, and lasagna, but used ingredients like garlic, truffles, and mushrooms to add flavour and texture.

Ancient Regime

The period between the 16th and 18th centuries was called the Ancien Regime. During this time Paris was considered the hub of culture and activity, including culinary activity. In the Ancien Regime distribution of food was managed by the city government as societies, and theseGuilds set up confinements that permitted certain food businesses to work in assigned regions.

Guilds were isolated into two groups: individuals who provided the raw materials to make food, and the general population who sold already prepared food. The restriction set up by societies hampered the advancement of culinary arts during this time, by limiting certain gourmet experts to allotted territories.

Haute Cuisine (High cooking)

Haute cuisine became a movement in 17th century France. Born out of political and social changes in the country, the “high” cuisine represented a hierarchy, as only the privileged could eat it. Haute Cuisinedistinguished itself from regular French cuisine by making the style of cooking difficult, by using exotic or expensive ingredients, such as caviar or tongue. Cooking was also time consuming and would only be taken on by those who were both talented chefs and who could take all day preparing and executing these types of dish.

It was not until the end of the 17th century that a French chef and writer La Varenne broke with tradtion and revolutionized the more simplistic dishes of the Middle Ages in his book ‘Le Cuisinier françois’ (1651). It is considered one of the most influential cookbooks in early modern French cuisine and concentrated on modest and less extravagant meals. This new approach to cooking became popular with more culinary specialists who toned down on the plenitude of a meal, and concentrated on fresh ingredients, a new approach to cooking meats, so that flavour was not lost. He also introduced vegetables like cauliflower, asparagus, peas, cucumber and artichoke whilst using locally grown herbs such as parsley, thyme, bayleaf, chervil, sage, tarragon.

Vive La Revolution

Until the day the Bastille was stormed in 1789, 70 percent of French citizens were peasants and poor farmers whose diets were based mainly on grains. Bread was the primary component of their diet and when the grain crops failed in 1788 and 1789, bread became so expensive that only on one’s table, it was a mark of social standing.

Both the physical hunger of the population, and the hunger for liberté, egalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), were catalysts in the French Revolution. After the uprising, many cooks and servants, whose aristocrat employers had fled Paris or were executed, opened restaurants and made finer foods available to the public.

20th Century French Cuisine

Major improvements to transportation meant regional cuisines and ingredients, that were previously segregated, could now be made readily available to a new audience. Also, veterans of two World Wars, who had tasted the delights of European cuisines whilst abroad fi ghting for the Allies created a flurry of tourism that put French cuisine firmly on the map.

After the wars, a need for grand cuisine at a fair price created a new movement ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’, championed by the likes of chef Paul Bocuse and others, who emphasized freshness, lightness, and clarity of flavour.

Gone were the unnecessary and complicated steps that cooked the food to within an inch of its life to preserve natural flavours. Instead, ingredients were steamed with an emphasis on freshness. Thick sauces were replaced by simple herbs, butter and lemon dressings, similar to the peasant dishes of the past.

By the 1980s, nouvelle cuisine had already seen its day as chefs began returning to the haute cuisine style of cooking, although much of the lighter presentations and new techniques remained. Born out of these hybrid styles of cooking a new breed of French pioneering chefs were created. The likes of Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon and Michel Roux Snr have all continued to develop the cuisine with innovative and ground-breaking techniques that have made it even more accessible to a wider audience and reveared by foodies across the world.

In November 2010, French gastronomy was added by the UNESCO to its lists of the world’s ”intangible cultural heritage”.

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