A Short History of French Cuisine

By Sherril Steele-Carlin

Surprisingly, it was the Italians who were the ones who had the most influence on French cuisine, for a number of reasons. In 15th century Renaissance Europe, food was becoming much more significant than a simple meal.

Art, literature, and education were thriving, and so was a great interest in first-class food and drink. Wealthy Italians in Florence raised food to a higher norm, by using fresh ingredients and creating astonishing dishes, like layered pasta dishes (lasagna, manicotti, etc.), soups, breads, and desserts. They had learned how to keep food fresher, too, so that helped food remain tasty longer. They also started using ingredients like truffles, garlic, and mushrooms in their dishes.

The Medici's

All of this originality made its way to France through the famous Medici family. Catherine de Medici married France's King Henry II in the mid-sixteenth century, and brought her food ideas to the French court. Later, another Medici married another French king, and the food just kept coming. As a result, dining in France became increasingly significant. Like the Italians, the French liked to embellish their tables with fine china, glassware, and serving ware. Dinner, said one critic, became "theater" in France, and it has remained a highlight of French culture and society.

The French Cooking "Bible"

In 1652, the first French cookbook appeared. "Le Cuisine François," was written by a famous French chef, La Varenne, and it showed how French cuisine had become a vital part of cooking and dining in Europe. The book provided many preparation methods, including making a roux (a mix of flour and butter used for thickening soups and sauces). Before roux, the French, and others, had simply put bread in the soup to thicken it. Changes like these would make French cooking the most important type of cooking in Europe, and then the world.

Of course, other European regions have had an influence on French cooking, too. For example, the Alsace region of France borders Germany, and there are many inspirations from Germany in cooking of the region, including sauerkraut, sausage, and this is the area where Quiche Lorraine first developed. Each area of France has something unique to offer to the overall cuisine of the country.

Eat to Enjoy

Experts say dining in France is "theater," and that means dining and food preparation has turned into ritual in the country. Eating is to be enjoyed, shared, and most of all, filled with marvelous food.  The food must be pleasing to the palate, but pleasant to the eye, too, and so, how food is offered on the plate is very important in French cooking.

Don't Forget the Wine

Wine is an essential part of French dining, and it is paired to match the food that is served. During an elaborate French meal the wine is paired to each course. A light, bubbly Champagne may improve the first course. A dry white may go with the soup, and a hearty red might pair with the main course. A light, sweet dessert wine might go together with the dessert or cheese plate.  The French are masters of combining foods with wine, and it is an essential part of their meals.