When many Americans think of French cuisine the notion of expensive restaurants and French fries may come to mind. Like many Cuisines’ of foreign countries, French cuisine is much different then our own. It boasts its own rich history that evolved over time from the middle ages to present day. It has been revered as one of the world’s most refined culinary locations, and there are over 9,000 restraints in Paris alone.
The history of French cuisine dates back to the middle ages. During this time French meals where very similar to Moorish Cuisine, and were served in a style called service en confusion, meaning that meals were served all at once. Meals consisted of spiced meats such as pork, beef, poultry, and fish. In many cases meals where determined by the season, and of what food was in abundance. Meats were salted and smoked to preserve, and vegetables were also salted and put in jars to preserve for the winter months. During this time the presentation of the meal was also very important. The more lavish and colorful the display, the better, and cooks would use edible items such as saffron, egg yolk, spinach, and sunflower for color. One of the most extravagant dinners of this time was a roast swan or peacock, which was sewn back into its skin and feathers to look intact. The feet and beak were gilded with gold to complete the spectacle.
During the 15 th and 16 th centuries the French where influenced greatly by the advancing culinary arts in Italy. Much of this influenced was do Catherine De Medicis (a Florentine princess) who married Henry duc d'Orleans (who became King Henry II of France). Italian chefs where light years of ahead of French culinary experts, and had already begun creating dishes such as lasagna, manicotti, and had experimented using ingredients like truffles, garlic, and mushrooms. When Catherine married King Henry II, she brought along with her Italian chefs who in turn introduced Italian culinary practices to the French court. Even though the culinary cultures of these two countries have taken different roads, the French owe much of their culinary development to the Italians and their intervention in the 1500s.
The period between the 16 th and 18 th centuries was also known as the Ancien Regime, and during this time Paris was referred to as “… the central hub of culture and economic activity and as such the most highly skilled culinary craftsmen were to be found there.” During the Ancien Regime food distribution was regulated by the city government in the form of guilds, and these guilds put in place restrictions that allowed certain food industries to operate in assigned areas. Guilds were separated into two groups: people who supplied the raw materials to make food, and the people who sold already prepared items. The restrictions that were put in place by guilds hampered the development of culinary arts during this time, by restricting certain chefs to assigned areas.
Between the 17 th and 18 th century there was a development in Haute Cuisine or “High Cuisine”, and its origins can be found in the recipes of a chef named La Varenne. Varenne was the author of what is known today as the first “true French cookbook”. Unlike the cooking styles of the middle Ages, Verenne’s cookbook (Cvisinier François) contained new recipes which focused on more modest and less extravagant meals. This was an ongoing trend throughout the history of French cuisine, with more and more chefs continuing to tone down on the abundance of a meal, and focusing on the ingredients in the meal.
The French Revolution also brought about a turning point in the French food industry, because it led to the fall of guilds. With guilds no longer in place any French chef could produce and sell any type of food product he or she wished. This lead to a type of enlightenment within the French food industry, and more chefs began to experiment with different types of ingredients and dishes. One of the most prominent chefs of the 18 th and 19 th century was Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême based his cooking around the development of what he called his “mother sauces”. These sauces were made up of espagnole, velouté, as well as béchamel, and where also known as fonds or “base sauces”. Carême over the span of his career created hundreds of sauces, many of which are still being used today in French cuisine.
In the late 19 th century and early 20 th century there began a modernization of haute cuisine. Much of this new cuisine owes its development to Georges Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was chef and an owner of many restaurants, as well as a culinary writer. Much of Escoffier methods in modernizing haute cuisine were drawn from the recipes of Carême. By simplifying Carême recipes as well as adding his own touches Escoffier was able to develop a new modern French cuisine. In his efforts to modernize French cuisine Escoffier also developed a system to organize and manage a professional kitchen. The system was called a “brigade system” and separated the kitchen into five sections. In this system each member of a designated section created a specific part of the dish. The sections 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. By reorganizing the manufacturing of dishes within the kitchen Escoffier was able to cut down on the time that was required to prepare a dish, in turn making professional kitchens more efficient. Escoffier is a legend in the world of French Cuisine and he has written many famous cookbooks, his most famous being Le Guide Culinaire which includes over 5,000 recipes.
Since the days of Escoffier there have been many changes in the anatomy of French Cuisine. Over time new techniques have evolved, and chefs have become more inventive. There has been a tendency to shy away from larger menus, and the focus has changed from the abundance food included in a dish, to the quality of the ingredients in the dish. Present day French meal structure is divided into Le petit déjeuner, Le déjeuner, and Le dîner (Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner). Breakfast often consists of “tartines” which are small slices of French bread which are then spread with jelly, and or pastries. Lunch was once known as one of the largest meals of the day, and in many professional situations workers would be allowed a two hour lunch break. Though in today’s French society many French workers are allotted an hour for lunch, which most use to eat out or at the business or school’s cafeteria. Dinner in most cases consists of three courses: the entrée, the plat principal or main course, and the cheese or desert course. Some popular French dishes include Blanquette de veau (blanquette of veal), Coq au vin (rooster in red wine), Bouillabaisse (fish soup), and Boudin blanc (Delicate flavored sausage similar to bockwurst). Wine is essential item in French meals, and it to has a rich history in France. In many cases a different wine is paired with each course in a meal, and each wine is picked depending on what is being served for each course. Though France is know for its wine, there has been a 60 percent drop in the consumption of wine during meals throughout France. Instead there has been a rise in fruit juice, water, and beer consumption, as well as other alcoholic drinks mixed with cider or other mixers.
French cuisine has a rich history, and like many other native cuisines, French cuisine owes it development to brilliant chefs as well as the some helpful influences from neighboring countries. It can be assured that French cuisine will continue to evolve and change and that in years to come brilliant French culinary experts will continue to push the boudaries of the culinary world. Like many cultures it has taken many years for the French to perfect their cuisine, with each generation adding something new to the mix. Yet it is because of the chefs of the past generations that a country’s cuisine can develop to what it is now.
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