The slightly more knowledgeable may envision this cuisine as using large game birds notably the peacock , being served in pasties pastry shells or on trenchers and made with some specialized ingredients such as verjuice. But not only are these elements those of highly aristocratic food, they are those of such food fairly late in the medieval period. They are not in the least representative of how most people — including most aristocrats — ate for most of the medieval period that is, from the fifth to the fifteenth century. In fact, in regard to France, for a very long time most knowledge of medieval food reflected two 14 th century sources: Taillevent's Viandier and the anonymous Menagier de Paris.
A glance at other major survey works on French food will show that most either go directly to the 14 th century or skip very quickly over what came before. Though this was already not the case when the Larousse first appeared, it neatly reflects the general sense among food historians that, well, there just is no information beyond certain major sources.
At the very least, this approach makes short shrift of almost a millennium of French history. By Taillevent's time, France had been ruled by two major dynasties and was some centuries into its third. Before the French monarchy began, the Gauls and the Gallo-Romans had been creating what would become France for over another millennium. But further, the fact that information on the food of these times is not as neatly presented as in Taillevent's work certainly does not mean there is no information to be found.
Already in the nineteenth century writers on food and local history had unearthed a wealth of information, albeit widely scattered. Since then archaeologists and other scientists have expanded the available data. Nor have food historians completely ignored these periods.
The tables which follow offer data that will hopefully counteract any idea that there is little substantial to be found on French food before Taillevent. This data is taken from on-going research and is not in any way meant to be comprehensive or complete. While some of it reflects major developments in the relevant period, some of it is chosen arbitrarily from sets of similar facts and does not necessarily imply any larger theme.
The point at this stage is not to develop a continuous and coherent narrative but to provide a largely impressionistic mosaic that will leave the reader with a richer, more nuanced view of food and related developments in each of these periods in French history. Still, some broad lines are apparent even in this loosely presented data.
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A glance at the sample meals and ingredients here should make it clear that the most typical medieval food — and across all but the poorest classes — was pork usually salted , served with broad beans or peas mature, and so white, peas. Typically this was flavored with pork fat, vinegar or mustard, and additional salt and even pepper for those who could either afford it or like monks received these as rations. Contrast this with the highly spiced brewets and large game birds described in the Viandier.
Even the most common food of Taillevent's own era which is also addressed here more closely resembles the former than the latter. Archeology has also shown that the medieval French ate more beef than is reflected in the written record and so that might have been substituted for pork in many cases. Since France was a Catholic country, on meatless days the meat would have been replaced by fish, most often herring, though eel and mackerel were also common.
Salads and root vegetables may have been included they were virtually obligatory for many monks , but since they could be picked from kitchen gardens, they tend to appear less in records such as accounts. Even this however reflects food in the latter half of the medieval period.
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For a very long time — possibly past Charlemagne's era — the more refined cuisine remained essentially Roman, even if a breakdown in infrastructure and the decline of Rome itself meant that this bore only a fitful resemblance to what had once been served under the Roman Empire. It changed not only the way I thought about food, but the way I thought about life. Why follow rules?
What are boundaries? What delicious joy to think beyond such constraints! What had happened? T he restaurant is a modern invention and, crucially, a French one. Of course, there have always been inns and taverns where travellers could get a bite. But the atmosphere tended to be male, the fare rough and ready, the tables shared. In the 18th century, as Paris grew, butchers began to sell bouillons , nourishing broths made from offcuts of meat, to workers and tradesmen. You could now sit down at a table to partake of your soup instead of having to take it away.
This decree coincided with the construction of the Palais Royale, with its elegant arcades designed to house shops and ateliers and, inevitably, brothels, in one of which, some have said, a young Lt Bonaparte lost his virginity in the style of an Eastern bazaar. This new shopping mall necessitated a food court for peckish Parisians, and many of the early restaurants were located in and around it. Le Grand Vefour still occupies the same corner where there has been a restaurant since It is possibly the most beautiful restaurant in the world.
The French revolution swept the old order away. Paris roiled with politics and plots, hungry pamphleteers and provincials; restaurants sprang up everywhere to feed them. And the food changed, too. The elaborate banquets of the ancien regime, in which whole animals were stuffed and dressed and placed all at the same time on the table, were replaced by dishes that were served by waiters from a platter — in the Russian style. The new restaurants embodied the changed times: a menu of choice, individual portions served to anyone who could pay. Democracy on a plate.
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Almost as soon as they had invented the restaurant, the French invented the restaurant scene. By the time Napoleon had been defeated for the first time, in , the almanac listed more than restaurants in Paris. The lexicon of cuisine soon followed. Later, Escoffier organised the restaurant kitchen into the strict hierarchy that still prevails today, from the commis chefs at the bottom, to the chefs de parties who oversee the different stations of meat or fish or cold starter, to the sous chef and the chef de cuisine.
Meanwhile, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer who coined the term gastronome , had made the intellectual leap: enjoying food was not just a pleasurable distraction, he argued, but a civilising art of existential import. There was a specific pomp and performance to a restaurant, that was different to a diner or a pub or a taverna. In time, it would come to connote a sophistication that became seen as the special preserve of the French — and, for us rude mechanical Anglo-Saxons, the height of our aspirations. Through the 19th century, the restaurant flourished and evolved.
The bistro was a cheerful neighbourhood place, often run by a husband and wife. Brasseries were brewery eateries brought to Paris by Alsatian refugees from the Franco-Prussian war of , serving choucroute and draught beer. Bouillons were popular, working-class cafeterias that served cheap food in vast dining rooms that could seat hundreds at a time.
There were dozens of bouillons in Paris between Several were chains — the first restaurant groups, perhaps even the first fast-food joints — reaping economies of scale by sourcing in bulk and flipping tables as fast as a revolving door. By the time I got to Paris there was only one left, Chartier, in a forgotten corner of the ninth arrondissement.
It had nicotine-coloured walls and the chattery humidity of a winter lunchtime crowd, and I liked to imagine it was the kind of place where Orwell had washed dishes when he was down and out. It embodied the breakneck speed and excitement of the times: cinema, Pasteur, the Eiffel Tower, aeroplanes, telephones, motor cars, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, Proust, Rimbaud, Diaghilev, art nouveau, haute couture and towering hats. The French, as we all do, lament its passing. More than years later, sometimes, as I would glance at a menu rich with foie gras, cream and beef, I would think they were consoling themselves by continuing to eat it.
But by the time Lost Generation were carousing in its past glories in the s, Paris was already living as a romanticised version of itself. AJ Liebling, later to become a war reporter covering D-Day and a famous New Yorker essayist, fell in love with French restaurants in his early 20s, even as plenty of older gourmets were lamenting that their heyday was over.
For a long time after the second world war, no one noticed the decline of the French restaurant, partly because there was little competition. The British were boiling their vegetables to grey, and battering and frying everything else; the Americans were gelatinising salads and defrosting dinner. Chinese and Indian restaurants were still widely seen as cheap options and still emulated the French with tablecloths and origami napkins , sushi was raw fish, and hardly anyone had been on holiday to Thailand or Morocco yet.
I n the 70s my parents — like other foodies at the time — planned whole trips around the puffed asterisk recommendations of the Michelin Guide. Le Guide Michelin was first published in to encourage the early motorists to visit restaurants in the provinces, and soon became the grand arbiter of French cuisine. Obscure, definitive, conjuring an image of a lonely, corpulent inspector able to swallow whole goose livers in one gulp, Michelin had the power of a king to award stars and turn around the fortunes of a restaurant.
But it also became a leviathan that focused on one kind of restaurant — those with formal dining rooms, white tablecloths and serried ranks of waiters. By the 90s, people had begun to complain that Michelin was hidebound and tended to favour its favourites. Fernand Point died in , but Michelin continued to award La Pyramide three stars out of respect to his widow, who continued to run the restaurant, for more than 30 years until her death in By then, restaurant economics had become brutal.
Even grand chefs were buckling under the expense of laundering their damask tablecloths to snowy Michelin standards. He raised the minimum wage, allotted French workers a fifth week of paid vacation, lowered the retirement age to 60, and cut the work week to 39 hours it was later to reduced again to The bill was piled on to sky-high VAT — Michelin stars became increasingly expensive to maintain.
In the chef Bernard Loiseau, in debt and losing customers, shot himself after hearing rumours that he was going to lose his third Michelin star. In the average French restaurant, in the everyday bistros, the situation was dire. Restaurant owners complained that it had become exorbitantly expensive to hire workers and almost impossible to fire them.
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The crisis grew. It was clear that restaurants could no longer afford to employ people to peel potatoes, chop carrots, mince garlic, pick through parsley and all the other time-consuming jobs at the bottom of the food chain. Much easier to just buy the pre-prepped version and reheat it. What I had noticed as gravied blandness had become a national scandal.
The government intervened to save the French restaurant. In , they reduced VAT it went down to 5. However, there were so many exemptions allowed — vegetables, except for potatoes, could be bought frozen, ready-peeled and chopped — that the designation was a pretty useless marker of quality.
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C onservation can breed conservatism. Over the decades, French cuisine has been increasingly codified. The famous Bresse chicken, with its tricolore colouring of blue feet, white feathers and red cockscomb, must be raised with a minimum of 10 sq metres of pasture per bird, finished and fattened on grain for two weeks and then killed at minimum age of four months and a minimum weight of 1.
At the same time, France has developed exacting professional qualifications for its chefs, patissiers , bakers, butchers, charcutiers , chocolatiers.
For example, you can bake and sell bread without a CAP diploma, but for the first three years, you are not allowed to put up a sign that says Boulangerie. These trades are further organised into professional guilds and confederations, each with their own criteria for inclusion. There is also a prestigious state competition open to many trades, from stonemasons to sommeliers.