Gastronomy: How has French cuisine evolved over the centuries?

Cooking hasn’t always been a popular passion. As proof, for a long time, only the richest had a real room dedicated to the kitchen with a fireplace. Among the peasants, only a brazier in the center of a single room was used to cook food. Different foods by social category. For example, “beef is not considered high table meat, [contrairement] to poultry and birds”, explains Patrick Rambourg. And to explain: “in general, all foods that come as close as possible to heaven are more noble foods. It was considered not only a lighter food, but above all closer to heaven , to the world of God”.

“Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are”

Another big difference between the dishes eaten by the people and the medieval aristocracy: spices. Contrary to popular belief spread by 19th-century historians, these spices were not used to hide the taste of spoiled meat. “Historically it doesn’t work, assures the professor of the University of Paris VII, spices are very expensive, so the only ones who can buy them at the time are the richest. But they don’t eat spoiled meat, they eat it very fresh, almost as soon as the animal has been killed. While today we eat an animal whose meat has rested for ten to fifteen days”.

Widely used during the Middle Ages, since it was then considered beneficial for health to mix so-called hot and dry spices with foods such as meat or fish, which were said to be cold and moist, spices however gradually disappeared in the Renaissance. At that time, another luxury, long medicinal, appeared – sugar. It becomes “a good of sweetness and pleasure”, comments the historian. The sugar is then used to reduce the acidity of the recipes and to soften the spices. This product is becoming a “fashion”, so much so that even fish and meat are sweetened. Accused of hiding the true taste of food, sugar was gradually removed from the dishes.

“Butter also shows an evolution of cuisine during the Renaissance”continues Patrick Rambourg. After having been banned for a long time during Lent and on lean days, because it was made of animal fat, the Church finally authorized its consumption on lean days starting in the 15th century, «especially in western France since in this region there is no there is a lot of oil”.

The art of the table, a French specialty

What makes French gastronomy special is not only the taste of the dishes, but also their presentation. With the French service it is the art of the table that manifests itself. If we see its beginnings from the Middle Ages, it is above all from the 17th and 18th centuries that it really enters into habits. “It consists of bringing a certain number of dishes at the same time and putting them on the table. While today we serve dish after dish”, simplifies Patrick Rambourg. And he adds: “At that time we thought that work was the table, and not just the plate and the kitchen. It is a set, we have taken into account the shape of the dish, its colour, its presentation”.

“As long as French service exists, there will be no glasses on the table because there is no room”, explains the historian. The glasses existed on more distant sideboards, so nobles and aristocrats had to ask servants to bring them to them. Glasses appeared on tables with the arrival of Russian service, which gradually replaced the French service in restaurants which multiplied at great speed starting in 1760. Russian service, which did not specifically come from Russia, is “a service in which the dishes are served one after another and no longer a set of dishes that are put on the table”. This frees up space on the table for a glass, or even more for each alcohol.

In the 19th century, gastronomy became a science

It was during the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) that cooking was elevated to the rank of art., just like painting. The work in the kitchens is more hierarchical, everyone is in their place, the kitchen is more sophisticated and the technique more and more advanced. In the 19th century, a new stage with the arrival of the first culinary critics, gastronomy became a real science. It was at this time that Auguste Escoffier was born, a great chef who modernized the kitchen. His book “The Culinary Guide” becomes a veritable bible in which “many chefs have found themselves locked up”, Patrick Rambourg blurs.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that a new generation of cooks arrived with Paul Bocuse or even Joël Robuchon. The “new cuisine” movement was born, pushed by Gault and Millau, two journalists who in 1972 created their gastronomic guide and helped to make the great chefs and French gastronomy known.

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