food in the arts




Italy has been called the mother of the Western cuisines, and perhaps its greatest contribution was its influence on France. The crucial event was the arrival of Catherine de Médicis in France in the 16th century. The great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Catherine married the young man who later was to become Henry II of France. She brought with her a retinue of Florentine cooks who were schooled in the subtleties of Renaissance cooking—in preparing such elegant dishes as aspics, sweetbreads, artichoke hearts, truffles, liver crépinettes, quenelles of poultry, macaroons, ice cream, and zabagliones. Catherine also introduced a new elegance and refinement to the French table. Although, during Charlemagne’s reign, ladies had been admitted to the royal table on special occasions, it was during Catherine’s regime that this became the rule and not the exception. Tables were decorated with silver objects fashioned by Benvenuto Cellini. Guests sipped wine from fine Venetian crystal and ate off beautiful glazed dishes. An observer reported that:

‘the Court of Catherine de’ Médici was a veritable earthly paradise and a school for all the chivalry and flower of France. Ladies shone there like stars in the sky on a fine night.’

Catherine’s cousin, Marie de Médicis, who married Henry IV of France, also advanced the culinary arts. An important new cookbook appeared in her time. It was called Le Cuisinier françois (1652) and was written by La Varenne, an outstanding chef, who is believed to have learned to cook in Marie De Médicis kitchens. La Varenne’s cookbook was the first to present recipes in alphabetical order, and the book included the first instructions for vegetable cooking. By now spices were no longer used to disguise the taste of food. Truffles and mushrooms provided subtle accents for meats, and roasts were served in their own juices to retain their flavours. A basic point of French gastronomy was established; the purpose of cooking and of using seasoning and spices was to bring out the natural flavours of foods—to enhance rather than disguise their flavour. In keeping with this important principle, La Varenne cooked fish in a fumet, or stock made with the cooked fish trimmings (head, tail, and bones). The heavy sauces using bread as a thickener were discarded in favour of the roux, which is made of flour and butter or another animal fat.

Contributions of the Sun King

La Varenne’s cookbook was a gastronomic landmark, but a long time was to pass before the French cuisine would achieve its modern forms. In pre-Revolutionary France extravagance and ostentation were the hallmarks of gastronomy. Perhaps the most extravagant Frenchman of the time was the Sun King, Louis XIV, who, with members and guests of his court, wined and dined in unparalleled splendour at his palace at Versailles. There the kitchens were some distance from the King’s quarters; the food was prepared by a staff of more than 300 people and was carried to the royal quarters by a procession headed by two archers, the lord steward, and other notables. As the cry “the King’s meat” proclaimed their progress, an assemblage laden with baskets of knives, forks, spoons, toothpicks, seasonings, and spices solemnly made their way to the King’s quarters. Before the King dined, tasters sampled the food to make certain it had not been poisoned. The King himself was such a prodigious eater that members of the court and other dignitaries considered it a privilege merely to stand by and watch him devour his food. His sister-in-law reported that at one meal he ate:

‘four plates of different soups, an entire pheasant, a partridge, a large plateful of salad, mutton cut up in its juice with garlic, two good pieces of ham, a plateful of cakes, and fruits and jams.’

Louis XIV is remembered principally for his extravagance, but he was genuinely interested in the culinary arts. He established a new protocol for the table; dishes were served in a definite order instead of being placed on the table all at once without any thought to complementary dishes. The fork came to be widely used in France during his reign, and the manufacture of fine French porcelain was begun. The King himself hired a lawyer-agronomist, La Quintinie, to supervise the gardens at Versailles and was intensely interested in the fruits and vegetables—strawberries, asparagus, peas, and melons—that were grown there. He paid special honour to members of his kitchen staff, conferring the title of officer on his cooks.

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The Renaissance Kitchen