The Brief History of French Cuisine

25 April 2001

French cuisine has been famous for centuries. It has been the international standard of taste, excellence and tradition. Even today, should there be a show on television of a book where a man takes a woman out on an incredible date, the are usually going to “Chez Pierre’s” or “Chez Francoise” or some other French cliché for a restaurant name. But aside from its magnificent taste, French cuisine is also the symbol for richness, extravagance and decadence. And it is not surprising to find out that those traditions came from the forefathers of self indulgence themselves, the Romans.

Before France was France, it was Gaul, a Roman province. In great many respects Gaul benefited immensely from the civilization that the Romans brought with them from the first century BC on. Not only did the Romans organize the administrative part of governing this land and imposed, with time, a much needed written law, but Roman soldiers, merchants, and other citizens that were far from familiar surroundings, naturally longed to retain the customs which they were used to in the Eternal City. And of these traditions the refined pleasures of the table were undoubtedly what represented to the displaced citizens, the essence of being Roman. Roman food habits continued to live in Gaul, at least to the extent that the usual foodstuffs were available or could be obtained, during the five centuries that the Empire lasted.

In the Area of Roman cookery one name stands out as representative of custom and tradition in the most glorious age of the Empire. M. Gavius Apicius (c. 25 BC – 35 AD) was a notorious gourmet whose self inflicted death was induced by his realization that his wealth had been so squandered as to have declined to a level at which he was unable to keep up his lifestyle. Apicius was the author of De re coquinaria, the first complete compilation of roman recipes, 450 to be exact, 138 of which the author was responsible for himself. The book outlasted its Empire, was copied by monks through out the Middle Ages and was first printed in 1498.

Another name, which stands out, is not as famous but in no way less influential. It is the “Letter of Anthimus to Theodoric”. This letter, written about 520A.D., embodies medical and culinary advice about foods offered by a Greek physician to and Ostragoth ruler. It is a practical dietetic, often resembling an informal cookery manual. This letter embodies two very important aspects of medieval cookery. Firstly, the Frankish tribes which broke across the frontiers of the Roman Empire looked to Roman usage for the standards they would adopt in their own social practice. And secondly, the best advice that could be given about food in this period was given by a physician and founded on medical concepts. Copies of this letter continued to be made into the twelfth century.

The Franks themselves, for whom the advice was written, ultimately established themselves in the land to which they gave their name, France. In matters of food the French continued to respect the doctrines of medical science all the way to the end of the middle ages. This in no way denied them the decadence, which the social class rift of the Middle Ages brought with it.

The cooking was not so much about taste as about the preservation of the product. Spices are critical and of great value. Not so much to cover the taste of spoiled meat as the popular wisdom has it, but more to counteract all the salt and the bland taste of shoe-leather quality meat boiled in the pot all day. Medieval people did not value "taste" in quite the same way that we do - food was appreciated more for its appearance, its symbolic value, or its rarity. When the great noble feasts are described, a great deal of narrative is spent on the clever inventions constructed to look like castles or unicorns, boars covered in gold leaf, and peacocks dressed in their own feathers, but nothing at all on how the food tasted. The sign of a great cook was the ability to make something look like something else: fish that looks like venison or