January 20, 2011
Felipe Fernández-Armesto on the origins of the restaurant, haute cuisine and Champagne, and the sorry case of the tardy lobster.
The first French cookbooks imitated Moorish cuisine. Sugar, still a luxury, made food sweet. Saffron gilded it, rose water perfumed it, and milk of almonds made it rich. Today’s taste for tajines and couscous is an echo of the middle ages.
The Renaissance: artists of the skillet discarded the Moorish palette. The new chefs were Italian, inspired by the sharp, salty, viscous preferences of ancient Rome. The physician at the court of Henri II (born 1519-died 1559) was alarmed at the rediscovery of fungi as food: these “phlegmy excretions”, he warned, were ancient murder weapons, which massacred banqueters in antiquity. Fine wine, another Roman obsession, played a complementary part, stimulating appetites and aiding digestion. Château Latour was recommended as a digestif by the essayist Montaigne (1533-1592), a gourmand who ate so ravenously that he bit his fingers in his frenzy for his food.
Royal patronage promoted French cooking. Henri IV (1553-1610), who aimed to put “a chicken in the pot” of each peasant, funded banquets as lubricants of policy. The table of Louis XIII (1601-1643) featured 22 kinds of fish and 28 of fruit. The “complaisant digestion” of his successor, Louis XIV (1638-1715), introduced enlightened gluttony to the court. Louis’s sister-in-law saw him eat “four soups, a pheasant, a partridge, a plate of salad, sliced mutton with garlic, two lumps of ham, a plate of pastries, fruits and preserves” at one sitting. He incapacitated himself with food on his wedding night. A butler killed himself when his lobsters arrived late. The secrets of Louis’s kitchen were divulged in cookbooks: by 1691, when François Massialot (1760-1733) published a book whose title, Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois, summed up the process of social diffusion, the embourgeoisment of haute cuisine had begun. Meanwhile, Dom Pérignon (1639-1715) invented the art of making Champagne, storing his wine in bottles strong enough to contain the pétillance (effervescence) of secondary fermentation. Coffee, introduced in 1644, revived a taste for the exotic, while, in 1686, the development of the croissant celebrated a Christian victory in Austria over the crescent banners of the Turks.
The appeal of French food grew with the prestige of French culture: only England resisted, patriotically loyal to roast beef and sceptical of superfluous sauces. The English even flirted with Portuguese wines in their trade wars against the French. Imperialism inaugurated the age of sugar, chocolate, global grocery. While abundance inspired extremes of gastro-nomic inventiveness for the elite, cooking became philosophy in 1765, when the restaurant movement began in a ‘house of health’ run by one M Boulanger, whose shop sign pledged: “Hasten unto me, all whose stomachs labour, and I will restore you.” A new journalistic breed – food critics and restaurant reviewers – made Paris the shrine of foodie pilgrims. Later, the Revolution dispersed to the world the chefs of decapitated aristos: the French style, after spreading slowly for centuries, suddenly became universal.
The 19th century consolidated French supremacy. Antonin Carême (1784- 1833), founder of grande cuisine, organised spectacular, Roman-style meals. In 1825, Jean-Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin wrote what is still the world’s best food book, La Physiologie du Goï¿½t. Brillat-Savarin exalted cooking as art and science, inviting ladies of his acquaintance to experiment with aphrodisiacs, and advocating kitchens as the laboratories of the laws of nutrition. He justified gourmandism on the grounds that it showed “implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator, who, when he ordered us to eat in order to live, gave us the inducement of appetite, the encour-agement of savour, and the reward of pleasure”. Industrialisation intervened, but the French exploited the new techno-logies to serve the table. In 1804, Nicolas Appert (1750-1841) began experiments in bottling: at first, the needs of the army were paramount but when, in 1810, he made his process public, he appealed to gourmets and housewives. Sardines were the commercial breakthrough: first canned in the 1820s, by 1880 they emerged from French canneries at the rate of 50 million tins a year. Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés (1817-1880) responded to the crisis in butter supplies in 1869, mixing beef fat with skimmed milk and stirring in a bit of cow’s udder. He called his product ‘margarine’ because its anaemic tone resembled pearls known as ‘margaritas’. Science even saved the wine industry, after phylloxera struck the vine-yards. American grafts restored French stocks, the first sign that France’s near-monopoly was vulnerable to competition.
Yet French food relied for its reputation on the inventiveness not of its industrialists, but of its chefs and gastronomes. Auguste Escoffier (1846- 1935), “the chef of emperors and Emperor of chefs”, founded the grand hï¿½tel style, which left amateur cooks, and traditional and foreign cuisines on the wrong side of a chasm. His books were the most influential culinary texts since the writings of ancient Rome’s top chef, Apicius. He created dishes for the celebrities of the new century: cuisses de nymphe Aurore (a dish of frogs’ legs) for the Prince of Wales, and peach Melba, in honour of the owner of the smoothest stage voice of the day, whose memory survives only on menus. His showy, ingenious, liquor-lashed, cream-besotted dishes dominated haute cuisine until the Seventies, when light-handed, digestion-friendly nouvelle cuisine became the last French fashion to reshape the way we eat.
Doom-mongers are trumpeting the decline of French pre-eminence. Inter-national cuisine and fashionable fusion are the gastronomic counterparts of cultural pluralism, while French wines are rivalled by the best of the rest. One country can no longer dominate the tables of the world, or even the west, but centuries of passion are not easily effaced. The French have accommodated every crisis of the past, without ever compromising on quality. At the world’s table today, their hegemony may be unsustainable, but their excellence is unshaken.