Wednesday, October 10, 2012
As I researched the history of lace for my novel, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t traditionally a French product. In the 1600s, when French kings found they couldn’t ban it, they decided to encourage the creation of a home-grown domestic industry. In order to do so, they hired lacemakers away from Italy. Just like French lace, French silk, French wine, and French glass, French cuisine isn’t completely French either. In fact, many of the luxury consumer goods for which France is famous today owe their inspiration and roots to…Italy!
Although France had a well-developed cuisine by the early Middle Ages, it took a queen from Florence, Catherine de Medicis, to introduce the French to some of the culinary traditions for which they’re now famous. Along with introducing the fork to the French table in 1533 (although it would take another century for it to come into vogue), she brought along duck a l’orange, onion soup, several of the sauces for which French cuisine is now known, pastries of all sorts, ices and sorbets. She also put an end to medieval banquets where the equivalent of entire dinners were served multiple times and instituted a preference for serving a meal in defined courses. As well, she introduced one of the inviolable rules of French taste: never mix savory and sweet.
Popular wisdom says the French accepted her changes, incorporated them into their traditional fare and then quickly surpassed the Florentines to re-invent what had already widely been considered the finest cuisine in Europe. Since then, the French have given the Western world many firsts: champagne, the first published recipes for marinades, the first modern restaurants, and Peach Melba. Our celebrity chef culture also has its roots in the early history of French cuisine. Taillevent, La Varenne, and Vatel are just a few of the chefs who obtained prominence working for the French nobility. And believe it or not, Martha Stewart was foreshadowed in French culinary history. In the 1600s, when the nobles’ mania for one-upmanship rose to dizzying heights of perfection, the French chef Vatel famously committed suicide when he was told his delivery of fish would be delayed.
The French have truly elevated cuisine to an art and their most important contribution has been their emphasis on seasonal ingredients and the quality of food. Eating well to the French is not just a platitude, it’s an ethical responsibility. As the renowned gastronome Brillat-Savarin once said, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’
Guest Post: Iris Anthony, Author of The Ruins of Lace