Renaissance Cuisine in France and Italy
Italy’s Tuscany and France’s Loire Valley don’t have much in common as far as geography or climate are concerned, but they share a special place in the history of the European Renaissance. From Florence, the Medici family dominated the political and military scenes of Italian city states from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century In France, monarchs and their numerous retinues spent weeks or months at a time at the different castles they or their subjects owned, although the official court of the French kings was in Paris. The Loire Valley presents the greatest and most remarkable concentration of French royal castles and palaces, many of them built by Italian architects and artists.
The cuisine of the Renaissance was based, like the art and the literature, on the revaluation of antiquity and banquet organizers applied ancient ideals of proportion, harmony and order to the culinary arts. Renaissance cooks studied recipes from Greek and Roman authors and developed dishes that would accentuate, rather than alter, the taste of the used ingredient (For more about this change in culinary traditions see Rick’s essay, “What is Nouvelle Cuisine? Food Renaissance or Revolution? During the previous centuries, in fact, people favored dishes where meats were first boiled, then roasted and then served with an abundant and very spicy sauce. Although simpler dishes became the norm, cooks still preferred to use recipes from distant and exotic countries, often disregarding local dishes. Also at this time, people began making the connection between nutrition and pathology, so that scholars examining the special properties of foodstuffs were able to recommend or discourage certain dishes for certain groups of people (Loosely adapted from Culinaria, Cologne: Konemann, 2000, p. 228).
One of the best representatives of the good and bad traits of the Renaissance and a powerful link between Italy and France was Caterina de’ Medici, daughter of the Duke of Florence, who in 1533 sailed from Portovenere to her new home in France, where she became the Queen Cathérine de’ Medici! She brought with her not just chambermaids and chests of clothes, but several chefs and bakers, as well as chests of Italian foodstuffs. The French court of that time still followed the Medieval culinary rules of hiding the ingredients under heavy and spicy sauces. Cathérine “abolished the bad habit of serving sweet and sour, or piquant and salty dishes at the same time,” introduced staple foods such as oil and beans and specialties “such as ….fricassée, pot-roasts, pies, sorbets…”
She insisted on refining table manners and introduced the use of elegant glassware from Venice, glazed earthenware from Faenza and that little tool, perfected in Florence, called the FORK (Culinaria, p. 228)!