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Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine, from the Middles


.................... to late 20th Century


Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

Over centuries the French cuisine has evolved
extensively thanks to local and foreign influences.
The national cuisine began to take shape during
the Middle Ages through the work of skilled chefs
who served the French nobility. The city of Paris
was the center of many innovative movements
led by royal chefs that eventually gave birth to the
modern French cuisine that we can enjoy today.
This cuisine eventually spread throughout the
country and reached other countries through
overseas export trade and colonization, which in
turn brought numerous other influences from
around the world.
Middle Ages
In the days of the French medieval
cuisine, banquets were common
among the aristocracy. Multiple
courses would be prepared, but
served in a style called service en
confusion, i.e., all the courses at
once. Food was generally eaten
using the hands; meats were cut
into large pieces, held between the
thumb and two fingers, and
introduced into the mouth. Sauces
were highly seasoned and thick,
flavored. Pies were a common
item in banquets, and their the
crust serving primarily as a
container, rather than as food itself,
but it was not until the very end of the Late Middle Ages that the shortcrust pie was
developed. Meals often ended with an issue de table, which later changed into the
modern dessert, and which typically consisted of dragées (in the Middle Ages, meaning
spiced lumps of hardened sugar or honey), aged cheese and spiced wine, such as
The ingredients of the time varied greatly according to the seasons and the church
calendar; also many food items were preserved with salt, spices, honey, and other
preservatives. Late spring, summer, and autumn afforded abundance, while winter
meals were more sparse. Livestock were slaughtered at the beginning of winter. Beef
was often salted, and pork was salted and smoked. Bacon and sausages would be
smoked in the chimney, while the tongue and hams were put in brine, or dried.
Cucumbers were brined as well, while greens would be packed in jars with salt. Fruits,
nuts and root vegetables would be boiled in honey for preservation. Whale, dolphin and
porpoise were considered fish, so the salted meats of these sea mammals were eaten
during Lent.


Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

Artificial freshwater ponds (often
called stews) were used held
carp, pike, tench, bream, eel,
and other fish. Poultry was kept
in special yards, with pigeon and
squab being reserved for the
rich. Game was highly prized, but
very rare, and included venison,
wild boar, hare, rabbit, and birds.
Kitchen gardens provided herbs,
included some as rare today as
tansy, rue, pennyroyal, and
hyssop. Spices were treasured
and very expensive in those days

cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and
mace. Some spices used then,
but no longer today in French cuisine are cubebs, long pepper (both from vines similar
to black pepper), grains of paradise, and galingale. Sweet-sour flavors were commonly
added to dishes with vinegars and verjus combined with sugar, or honey. A common
form of food preparation was to finely cook, pound and strain mixtures into fine pastes
and mushes.
Visual display was prized. Brilliant colors were obtained by adding, for example, juices
from spinach and the green part of leeks. Yellow was obtained from saffron or egg yolk,
red came from sunflower, and purple came from Chrozophora tinctoria or Heliotropium
europaeum. Gold and silver leaf were placed on food surfaces and brushed with egg
whites. One of the grandest showpieces of the time was roast swan or peacock sewn
back into its skin with feathers intact, the feet and beak being gilded. Since both birds
are stringy, and their taste is unpleasant, the skin and feathers could be kept and filled
with the cooked, minced and seasoned flesh of tastier birds, like goose or chicken.
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
fourteenth century. His first position was
as a kitchen boy in 1326. He was chef to
Philip VI, then the Dauphin who was son
of John II. The Dauphin became King
Charles V of France in 1364, with
Taillevent as his chief cook. His career
lasted sixty-six years, and upon his death
he was buried in grand style between his
two wives. His tombstone represents him
in armor, holding a shield with three
cooking pots, marmites, on it.
Medieval cuisine includes the foods,
eating habits, and cooking methods of
various European cultures during the
Middle Ages, a period roughly dating from the 5th to the 16th century. During this
period, diets and cooking changed less across Europe than they did in the briefer early
modern period that followed, when those changes helped lay the foundations for
modern European cuisine. Cereals remained the most important staples during the

Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

early Middle Ages as rice was a late introduction to Europe and the potato was only
introduced in 1536, with a much later date for widespread usage. Barley, oat and rye
among the poor, and wheat for the governing classes, were eaten as bread, porridge,
gruel and pasta by all members of society. Fava beans and vegetables were important
supplements to the cereal-based diet of the lower orders. (Phaseolus beans, today the
"common bean," were of New World origin and were introduced after the Columbian
Exchange in the 16th century.)
Meat was more expensive and therefore
more prestigious and in the form of game
was common only on the tables of the
nobility. The most prevalent butcher's
meats were pork, chicken and other
domestic fowl; beef, which required
greater investment in land, was less
common. Cod and herring were
populations; dried, smoked or salted they
made their way far inland, but a wide
variety of other saltwater and freshwater
fish was also eaten.
Slow transportation and food preservation techniques (based exclusively on drying,
salting, smoking and pickling) made long-distance trade of many foods very expensive.
Because of this, the food of the nobility was more prone to foreign influence than the
cuisine of the poor; it was dependent on exotic spices and expensive imports. As each
level of society imitated the one above it, innovations from international trade and
foreign wars from the 12th century onwards gradually disseminated through the upper
middle class of medieval cities. Aside from economic unavailability of luxuries such as
spices, decrees outlawed consumption of certain foods among certain social classes
and sumptuary laws limited conspicuous consumption among the nouveau riche.
Social norms also dictated that the food of the working class be less refined, since it
was believed there was a natural resemblance between one's labor and one's food;
manual labor required coarser, cheaper food.


Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

A type of refined cooking developed in
the late Middle Ages that set the
standard among the nobility all over
Europe. Common seasonings in the
typical of upper-class medieval food
included verjuice wine and vinegar in
combination with spices such as black
pepper, saffron and ginger. These, along
with the widespread use of sugar or
honey, gave many dishes a sweet-sour
flavor. Almonds were very popular as a
thickener in soups, stews, and sauces,
particularly as almond milk.
Ancient régime
During the ancient régime, Paris was the
central hub of culture and economic
activity, and as such, the most highly
skilled culinary craftsmen were to be
found there. Markets in Paris, such as
Les Halles, La Mégisserie, those found
along La Rue Mouffetard, and similar
smaller versions in other cities were very
important for the distribution of food.
Those that gave French produce its
distinctive identity were regulated by the
guild system, which was developed in
the Middle Ages. In Paris, the guilds
were regulated by city government as
well as by the French crown.
There were two basic groups of guilds –
first, those that supplied the raw
materials: butchers, fishmongers, grain
merchants, and gardeners. The second
group were those that supplied prepared
foods: bakers, pastry cooks, sauce makers, poultry men, and other food suppliers.
There were also guilds that offered both raw materials and prepared food, such as the
pork-butchers and rôtisseurs (purveyors of roasted meat dishes). They would supply
cooked meat pies and dishes as well as raw meat and poultry. This caused problems
between butchers and poultry men, who sold the same type of raw materials. Guilds
served as a training ground for those within the food industry. The degrees of assistantcook, full-fledged cook and master chef were conferred by guilds. Those who reached
the level of master chef were of considerable rank in their individual industry, earned
quite a lot of money and enjoyed a high level of economic and job security.
Sometimes, those in the royal kitchens did fall under the guild hierarchy, but it was
necessary to find them a parallel appointment based on their skills once they had left
the service at royal kitchens.


Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

During the 18th and 19th centuries, French
cuisine assimilated many new food products
from the New World. Although it took a long
time before they were adopted, records of
banquets show Catherine de’ Medici serving
sixty-six turkeys at one dinner. The dish
called cassoulet was born from the discovery
of haricot beans in the New World, which are
central to the dish’s creation, but had not
existed outside of the New World until its
discovery by Christopher Columbus.
17th century – early 18th century
Haute cuisine has its foundations during the
17th century with a chef named La Varenne.
As author of works such as Le Cuisinier
françois, he is credited with publishing the first true French cookbook. His book
includes the earliest known reference to roux using pork fat. The book contained two
sections, one for meat days, and one for fasting. His recipes represented a change
from the style of cookery known in the Middle Ages, to new techniques aimed at
creating somewhat lighter dishes, and a more modest presentation of pies. La Varenne
published another book on pastry in 1667 titled Le Parfait confiturier (republished as Le
Confiturier françois), which similarly modernized and codified the emerging haute
cuisine standards for desserts and pastries.
During the reign of Louis XIV, in 1691, chef
François Massialot wrote Le Cuisinier roïal et
bourgeois. The book contained menus served
to the royal courts in 1690. Massialot worked
mostly as a freelance cook, and was not
employed by any particular household. He and
many other royal cooks received special
privileges due to their association to the
French royalty. They were not subject to the
regulation of the guilds; therefore, they could
cater weddings and banquets without
restriction. His book is the first to list recipes
alphabetically, and he perhaps was a
forerunner in creating the first culinary
dictionary. It is in this book that a marinade is
first seen in print, with one type for poultry and
feathered game, and a second is for fish and
shellfish. No quantities are specified in the
recipes, which suggests that Massialot was writing for trained cooks.
The successive updates of Le Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois include important
refinements, such as adding a glass of wine to fish stock. Some definitions were also
added to the 1703 edition. The 1712 edition, re-titled Le Nouveau cuisinier royal et
bourgeois, was enlarged to two volumes, and was written in a more elaborate style
with extensive explanations of all the techniques described. Additional smaller
preparations are also included in this edition, which lead to lighter preparations, and the
appearance of a third course to the meal. Ragout, a very important course in today's


Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

French cookery, made its first appearance as a single dish in this edition as well,
although it was listed as a garnish.

Late 18th century – 19th century
Marie-Antoine Carême
The French Revolution was fundamental to
the expansion of French cuisine, since it
effectively abolished guilds. This meant that
any chef could then produce and sell any
culinary item he wished. Marie-Antoine
Carême was born in 1784, five years before
the onset of the Revolution. He spent his
younger years working at a pâtisserie until he
discovered by Charles Maurice de
Talleyrand-Périgord, who would later cook for
the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Prior to this employment with Talleyrand,
Carême had become known for his pièces
constructions made of pastry and sugar.
More important to Carême’s career was his
contribution to the refinement of French cuisine. The basis for his style of cooking had
to do with his sauces, which he named mother sauces. Often referred to as fonds,
meaning “foundations”; such base sauces, espagnole, velouté, and béchamel, are still
known today. Each of these sauces would be made in large quantities in his kitchen,
and become the basis of multiple derivatives. Carême had over one hundred sauces in
his repertoire. In his writings, soufflés appear for the first time. Although many of his
preparations today seem extravagant, he simplified and codified an even more
complex cuisine that had existed beforehand. Some significant codifications of the
French cuisine were: Le Maître d’hôtel français (1822), Le Cuisinier parisien (1828) and
L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle (1833–5).
Late 19th century – early 20th century

Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

Georges Auguste Escoffier is commonly
acknowledged as the key
figure in the
modernization of haute cuisine and in the
process of organizing what would become the
national cuisine of France. His influence
began with the rise of some of the great
hotels in Europe and America during the
1880s – 1890s. The Savoy Hotel managed by
César Ritz was an early hotel in which
Escoffier worked, but much of his influence
came during his management of the kitchens
in the Carlton from 1898 until 1921. He
created a system of “parties” called the
brigade system, which he divided separated
the professional kitchen into five separate
These five stations included the “garde manger” that prepared cold dishes; the
“entremettier” prepared starches and vegetables, the “rôtisseur” prepared roasts, grilled
and fried dishes; the “saucier” prepared sauces and soups; and the “pâtissier” prepared
all pastry and desserts items. This system meant that instead of one person preparing
a dish on one’s own, now multiple cooks would prepare the different components for
the dish. An example used is “oeufs au plat Meyerbeer”, the previous system would
take up to fifteen minutes to prepare the dish, while with the new system, the eggs
would be prepared by the entremettier, kidney grilled by the rôtisseur, truffle sauce
made by the saucier and thus the dish could be prepared in a shorter time and served
Escoffier also simplified and organized the modern menu and structure of the meal. He
published a series of articles in professional journals that outlined the sequence; later,
in 1912 he finally published his Livre des menus. This type of service embraced the
service à la russe (serving meals in separate courses on individual plates), which Félix
Urbain Dubois had made popular in the 1860s. Escoffier’s largest contribution was the
publication of Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, which set up the fundamentals of French
cookery. The book was a collaboration with Philéas Gilbert, E. Fetu, A. Suzanne, B.
Reboul, Ch. Dietrich, A. Caillat, among others.


Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

Le Guide Culinaire deemphasized the use of
heavy sauces and opted for lighter fumets,
which are in fact the essence of flavor taken
from fish, meat and vegetables. This style of
cooking sought to create garnishes and
sauces whose function would be add flavors
to the dish rather than mask flavors as in the
past. Escoffier found inspiration for his work
from personal recipes and recipes from
Carême, Dubois as well as ideas from
Taillevent’s Viander, who had a modern
version published in 1897. Another source of
recipes came from old peasant dishes that
were subsequently translated into the refined
techniques of haute cuisine.
Expensive ingredients would replace the
common ingredients, making the dishes look
and taste less humble. The third source of
recipes came from Escoffier himself, who
invented many new dishes, such as pêche
Melba and crêpes Suzette. Escoffier
modernized Le Guide Culinaire four times
during his lifetime, noting in the foreword to the book’s first edition that even with its
5,000 recipes, the book should not be regarded as an “exhaustive” text, and that even
if so when he wrote the book, “it would no longer be that way tomorrow, because
progress marches on day by day.”

Mid 20th century – late 20th century
Paul Bocuse

Some Notes on the History of the French Cuisine. From the Middles Ages to late 20th century. Carlos Mirasierras

The 1960s brought about innovative ideas to the
French cuisine, and especially because of the
contribution made by Portuguese immigrants
who had arrived to the country fleeing the forced
drafting to the Colonial Wars that Portugal was
fighting in Africa. Many new dishes were
introduced, as well as new techniques. This
period was also marked by the appearance of
the “Nouvelle Cuisine”.
The term nouvelle cuisine has been used many
times in the history of French cuisine. In the
1740s, Menon first used the term, but the
cooking practices of Vincent La Chapelle and
François Marin were also regarded as modern. In
the 1960s, Henri Gault and Christian Millau
revived it to describe the cooking practices of
Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel
Guérard, Roger Vergé and Raymond Oliver.
These chefs were working together against the “orthodoxy” of Escoffier’s cuisine. Some
of the chefs were students of Fernand Point at the Pyramide in Vienne, and had
decided to postpone to open their own restaurants. Gault and Millau “discovered the
formula” contained in ten peculiarities of this new way of cooking.
The first characteristic was to reject an excessive complication in cooking. Second, the
cooking times for most fish, seafood, game birds, veal, green vegetables and pâtés
were greatly reduced in an attempt to preserve the natural flavors. Steaming was an
important trend used to make this possible. The third characteristic was to use the
freshest possible ingredients. Fourth, large menus would give way to shorter menus.
Fifth, strong marinades for meat and game were no longer used. Sixth, cooks would
cease using heavy sauces such as espagnole and béchamel, which are thickened with
flour, and would season their dishes with fresh herbs, quality butter, lemon juice, and
vinegar. Seventh, they used regional dishes for inspiration instead of haute cuisine
dishes. Eighth, new techniques were adopted and modern equipment was often used,
as for example, Bocuse, who even dared to use microwave ovens. Ninth, chefs bore in
mind the dietary needs of their guests through their dishes. Tenth, and finally, chefs
were extremely inventive and created new combinations and pairings.
Some have speculated that the World War II was a contributor to nouvelle cuisine as
animal protein was in short supply during the German occupation. By the mid-1980s
food writers stated that the style of cuisine had reached exhaustion and many chefs
began returning to the haute cuisine style of cooking, although much of the lighter
presentations and new techniques remained.


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