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FRANCE: FOOD AND CUISINE

Starting in the early fourteenth century, manuscript cookbooks were being written in France, one of which became extremely popular. This book, simply known as the Viandier (the term viande [meat] at that time referred to all eatables, hence a viandier was simply a cookbook) was said to be the work of one Taillevent, a chef in the royal kitchens of Charles V. The recipes we find in the Viandier are as rich and varied as those in contemporary Italian, English, Germany, or Spanish cookery manu- scripts. This said, French cooks do not appear to have had a greater reputation than those in other European countries. They served dishes common to an “interna- tional repertoire” as well as some specific to France.

The situation seems to change in the sixteenth cen- tury but not it the way our two eighteenth-century au- thors suggest. Although a new generation of French cooks did rejuvenate cooking in France, the dishes they propose owe little or nothing to the Italian cuisine of the time, the style of which was radically different. Indeed, the earliest published cookbooks are German and French, not Italian, and barring an Italian dietetic work by Platina published in the 1470s that included some recipes from some fifty years earlier, not one Italian culinary treatise is translated into French. At a time when Catherine de’ Medici was still a baby, travelers, including Italians vis- iting France, claim that French cooks are the best in Eu- rope, and Rabelais, the most gourmand of writers, clearly prefers French dishes to those of any other nation since he frequently mentions those specific to the national repertoire in his gargantuan menus. In fact, there is no proof that Catherine de’ Medici even brought her cooks with her to France!

No author living in the sixteenth century mentions the supposed superiority of Italian cookery, although Montaigne does marvel at the eloquence and precision of an Italian maitre d’hôtel describing the art of banquet- ing, and the expertise of Italian gardeners, confectioners, and carvers is not only recognized, but admired and copied. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the esteem in which Italians are held in the accessory arts of serving and confectionery, it is not until two centuries later that any hint of the so-called Italian influence on French cui- sine per se appears in print. Be that as it may, French cooks do not achieve a clear dominance in the kitchens of Europe until the mid-seventeenth century.

The Beginnings of French Hegemony

Neither Marin nor Le Chevalier de Jaucourt gives a spe- cific date for the rise of French cuisine. The latter does indicate that the French had “surpassed their masters” in the seventeenth century by including three seventeenth-

century cookbooks (Le Cuisinier françois, Le Cuisinier royal

and L’école des officiers de bouche) in his list of treatises de- voted to the culinary arts. One of these books, Le Cuisinier françois of La Varenne, is the first to document the rad- ical changes French cooking had undergone since the end of the Renaissance. Published for the first time in 1651,

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOOD AND CULTURE

La Varenne’s book would be translated into several lan- guages and remain in print for over one hundred years. In the preface to the English translation of 1653 we read, “Of all the cooks in the world, the French are esteemed the best,” and from that time forward French predomi- nance in the kitchen will continue its almost uninter- rupted ascendancy.

A partial explanation for the influence of French cui- sine lies in its vitality. The best professional chefs feel a duty to improve on the work of their predecessors in or- der to “advance” the art of cookery. Not only do they create new dishes, their cooking embodies new attitudes toward food, which often spread with the dissemination of the dishes they have invented. Over and over again, a new philosophy of cookery emerges, often in conflict with that of previous generations, always claiming to mark sig- nificant “progress” in the culinary art. In the eighteenth century, for instance, devotees compared the cooking of their nouvelle cuisine to alchemy, claiming to distill the essence of taste from the ingredients employed. A cen- tury later, a new generation of chefs led by Antonin Carême saw the cook more as an architect than a chemist. They encouraged the creation of monumental assem- blages and developed a family of basic sauces, some of which are still in use today.

In turn, Auguste Escoffier in his Guide culinaire of 1903 rejected the elaborate cuisine developed by Carême, claiming that the “fast pace of modern life” no longer al- lowed chefs the leisure to prepare elaborated displays, and argued for a simplification of cuisine. It should be noted, in this context, that Escoffier was the first chef to obtain international recognition and to father a new school of cookery who did not work in a private home. Whereas previously the greatest French chefs all worked in aris- tocratic households or in royal kitchens, Escoffier built his reputation as a hotel chef at the Savoy Hotel in Lon- don and later at the newly created Ritz Hotel in Paris, before returning to London to the kitchens of the Carl- ton Hotel as an internationally acclaimed celebrity whose writings would form the basis of French cooking throughout the greater part of the twentieth century.

Gastronomy and Gastronomes

Food and cooking alone do not explain France’s reputa- tion in culinary matters. To recall Brillat-Savarin’s words, “only people with refined taste know how to dine,” and the French have not only cultivated the art of cookery but have long considered it an integral part of their cul- ture: how one eats is as important as what one eats. In- deed, the French claim that they invented gastronomy and linguistically, this is certainly true. The term first ap- pears in the title of an epic poem, La Gastronomie by Joseph Berchoux, published in 1803, its four cantos treat- ing respectively the history of cuisine in antiquity, the first service, the second service, and the dessert of a ban- quet. The word rapidly came to designate the study of food and cookery as an art; those who excelled in this

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