Busting French Cuisine Myths
Written by: Susan Pinkard
Busted: Catherine de’Medici’s Italian Chefs Taught the French How to Cook
According to legend, the turning point in the development of French gastronomy was 1533, when Catherine de’ Medici, daughter of the famous Florentine family, married the future King Henry II of France.The suite of servants who accompanied her north from her native Tuscany included chefs, who brought the recipes and techniques of Italian cooking with them.These dishes were unlike anything served in France at the time and they touched off a culinary revolution.
Versions of this story have been reprinted countless time since first surfacing in the 18th century and they have also entered into popular oral tradition.Whenever I mention to a group of acquaintances—in France or even here in America—that I write about the history of French cuisine, somebody inevitably brings up Catherine and her cooks.But the story is a fiction, as a little history will show.
In her lifetime, Catherine was famous for giving lavish parties and for a marked personal tendency towards gluttony.These facts about her love of good living seem to have been embroidered into the story of the revolutionary impact of her Italian cooks on the development of French cuisine. (Interestingly, the earliest source to discuss Catherine’s impact on French cooking accused her of corrupting a hitherto wholesome culinary tradition with a taste for luxury and self-indulgence that was dangerous to health and morals.)
In the Renaissance, elite households throughout Latin Christendom served food that was complex, spicy, and sweet, much like Moroccan cooking is today.The techniques, equipment, and many of the seasonings used in this style of cooking had been part of European practice since the antiquity or dated, at the latest, from the spread of Muslim influence in the High Middle Ages.Thanks to these pan-European influences, the kind of food that Catherine encountered at the French court was identical in its fundamentals to the cooking she grew up eating in Florence.There was no such thing as “French” or “Italian” cuisine in the 16th century.Even if the cooks who accompanied Catherine on her journey north remained in France (and there is no clear evidence that they did), their recipes would have fit right in to established traditions.