From its great Bordeaux wines to its fine cheeses, regional specialities and refined dishes France is known worldwide for the quality of its cuisine. Everyone from the home cook to the Michelin star chef makes France the home of quality, luxury gastronomy.
This reputation for exceptional cuisine did not happen overnight; it has a long history behind it and is rooted in the specialities of every region and culture in France.
Colours of the Middle Ages
During the Renaissance, novelist François Rabelais waxed lyrical about the grandeur of French gastronomy. In his best-known works Gargantua and Pantagruel, giants with mammoth appetites feast on huge banquets for the most part of the novel, which is spread over 5 volumes of work. So you could say he was pretty into food!
And this wasn’t just literature, it was an accurate portrayal of the middle ages when people revelled in grand festivities.
Contrary to what people might think, the medieval era was full of contrasts and full of colour.
Fasting was taking very seriously throughout Advent and Lent and abstinence was practised every Friday all year long.The Church was characterised by this restraint but on the contrary, it also hosted gatherings that would fill your belly to bursting!
Wine was a staple of the French diet and was consumed daily (much like it is today).
Our ancestors particularly liked tables full of different, varied dishes, and presentation meant a lot to them: they even went to the lengths of colouring different dishes so they would look better on the table!
On more noble tables, you would find the meat of swans, bears, and other game. Most of these animals were hunted so regularly by our predecessors that they are now protected species.
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Refined Dishes of the Court
The first rules of dining start to appear, taking advantage of the establishment of a Court with specific rules.
At the Kings’ tables, metal plates are replaced with something nice like ceramic.
French style service is born; several dishes were served at the same time. Large plates would be placed in the middle of the table and everyone would help themselves.
The three centuries between the invention of the printing press and the Revolution are characterised by gastronomical discoveries.
Spices from the East were already well known in Europe but new ones arrived from other parts of the world.
The vegetable world is revolutionized by tomatoes, squash, beans and potatoes, helping to put an end to famines in many areas with poor soil.
Coffee, chocolate and tea bring new tastes, and turkey arrives from India.
If the Middle Ages eliminated the gap between the noble diet and that of the poor (who, if necessary, would go as far as eating rats), the century of Louis XIV somewhat reestablished them.
On the contrary, cooks strived to demonstrate their abilities by preparing the most difficult dishes.
Things like jelly, marmalade, jam, compote remained within the reach of the poor but dairy and meat was considered highly aristocratic.
Certain inventions of the French gastronomy were kept for the rich: mayonnaise, Chantilly cream and champagne.
In the Age of Enlightenment, society evolved around food. The inn or tavern where you could just go to drink gave way to restaurants where people could go out to eat.
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Great Cuisine of the 19th Century
In the 19th Century, the restaurant becomes a veritable institution and food critics start to emerge.
Thanks to its rich gastronomic history, France sets the tone for good restaurants. People are now more interested in flavour, taste and pleasure.
Russian style service becomes the norm: guests are served individually dish by dish.
Different monarchs across the continent start hiring French chefs, and apprentice chefs around the world dream of one thing: learning to cook in France!
At the same time, scientists are working on hygiene and health issues. The first ideas of a recommended balanced diet start to appear.
Meanwhile, refined gastronomy comes onto the scene. The universe of the professional kitchen becomes more complex as it grows: the brigade is born and each kitchen is split into sections (sauces, desserts etc.)
Desserts are the order of the day, and thanks to their sweetness they become enormously popular. Crepe Suzette, poached pears and peach melba burst onto the food scene in the Capital!
Gourmet Cuisine of the 20th Century
The inaugural guidebooks Michelin, Gault & Millau, Hachette wine guide, and Larousse Gastro honour top chefs and restaurants. These guides showcase the exceptional quality of French chefs.
Traditional cuisine from the Romantic period still remains but it starts to give to way to creativity.
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Trends start to move towards decentralisation, meaning regional cuisine is championed. Grandmothers’ recipes are heralded as real French cooking.
Foods like oysters, foie gras and scallops, which were originally only available locally, become popular across the country.
Just like the Nouvelle Vague of the cinema world, a wave of New Cuisine arrives to disrupt the French gastronomy scene in the 1970s.
Healthy diets are introduced into society, but richer dishes like the Breton lobster marinated in brandy remain popular.
Great chefs like Robuchon, Ducasse and Bocuse emerge onto the scene. The ‘savoir-faire’ (know-how) of French cooking became more and more well-known thanks to the growing number of televisions in peoples’ homes.
Molecular cuisine gains in popularity thanks to advances in science and techniques. Foreign influences continue to multiply and new Italian, Chinese and Fast-food restaurants pop up all over the country and new eating trends become popular like vegetarianism, veganism and gluten-free.
It’s no surprise then that in 2010 French gastronomy was recognised as a central part of French heritage by UNESCO.
Now it’s your turn to try this famously good French cuisine for yourself!
You can give it a go with these French recipes.