History of French Cooking – Part 1

Posted by on June 27, 2011

French cooking through history will take you back  not to the Deluge (the great floods), but to the time when France was inhabited by the Gauls. I believe you will find this gastronomique trip interesting and amusing.   The present grandeur of France might be contested by some.  The greatness of her cooking and her “wit” is not contested by anyone.  I will start this article by an aphorism by Brillat Savarin – lawyer, epicure and gastronome (1755-1826):  “The destiny of nations depends on the manner with which they feed themselves.  The people have the cuisine which they deserve.”  If he is right, France still has a beautiful future ahead!

The Gauls found wild boars, mushrooms and snails in the dense forests which covered France, then called Gaule (82BC-42BC.)  They raised poultry, geese and semi-wild pigs.  This formed the basis of their essentially carnivorous diet. As far as snails were concerned, they consumed them grilled, directly in the shell, and as … a dessert.  Under the oak trees, in certain spots, and with the help of pigs, they found truffles and cooked them, buried in ash.  Pork, the foundation of French cooking, played a great role and is still “a l’honneur.”

Let’s return to pork, which the Gauls called bacon, word which we find in Anglo-Saxon languages.  The Gauls were expert in curing.  You must add the fish that our ancestors fished in the rivers and on the coasts, and oysters pulled out of the Atlantic ocean, with which the Gauls had a succesful commerce with Rome, long before the conquest of Gaule by Julius Cesar.  These details come from Julius Cesar’s “De Bello Gallico” which supplies us with so many details of the Gauls’ life and customs. The Gallo-Roman period covers about 500 years and was a prosperous era.  With the Roman peace, the conquerors brought bread and wine, vital elements of French cuisine, in addition to onions and peppers.  The Gauls brought “charcuterie” (pork meats and pork cold cuts of many kinds) and curing and preservation processes of which they had become masters.

Alas, invasions by the Barbarians hordes put culinary preoccupations away from first priorities.  The Barbarians brought nothing with them… They seemed to have a definite tendency to take things away!  Let’s salute Charlemagne in passing (768-814).  He was a fervent amateur of roasted meat on the spit, and he discovered Brie cheese in an abbey in St.Germain.  He promptly encouraged its fabrication.  He also encouraged plantations of orchards and vineyards, and the raising of fish.  Let’s mention that it is Charlemagne who was the first to admit the ladies at the table during the feasts.  Ladies, let us have a grateful thought to Charlemagne.

The Middle Ages present a mixture of feasts and famines. The great feasts primarily consisted of meat and game. (The first cookbook on record was actually called “Le viandier”. viande is the French word for meat.)  This manuscript was  written before 1380 by Guillaume Taillevent, Head of Charles IV’s Royal Kitchen, and is kept in France’s National Archives.  The French of the time ate very few vegetables because conservation was a big problem.  This was a primary cause of famines especially concerning meats.  This problem incidentally gave birth to the pâtés, the Glory of Middle Age cooking.  Freshly caught fish was highly prized.  There was no sugar.  The Middle Age used instead bitter-sweet (aigre-doux) fallen out of favor in today’s cooking.  It would not be gastronomically correct to mention here the famines which cast their shadows on the Middle Ages.  However, in the quest for anything to eat, many vegetables, roots, and herbs were discovered and improved, and let us not forget frogs and snails forgotten since the gallo-roman period and which reappeared.  That is what famines brought to gastronomy.

An important apparition: spices and rice, brought by the Crusaders.

This will be the end of this article.  My next article will take you to the Renaissance and beyond.

One Response to History of French Cooking – Part 1

  1. Janice Pioretta

    Absolutely love the newsltter!

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