A short history of the gastronomic meal of the French
Victories, births, weddings…Since their earliest days, the French have always celebrated great events with a meal to delight, stimulate and satisfy the senses. Today, the rite of the gastronomic meal has become one of the most widely shared traditions of the French people. A tradition with roots deep in the past.
Long before the French gastronomic meal emerged, the ancient Gauls excelled in the art of feasting, gathering in large groups for good food and good drink. Fast forward to the Middle Ages: feudal society practiced and perpetuated the culture of preparing a table to welcome guests, a sign of abundance and prestige. The gastronomic meal – in the French sense of the term – was born. Elite society enjoyed increasingly numerous and refined dishes – albeit still eaten with their fingers! – interspersed with entertainment and songs. The same rites took place at abbeys, which often produced their own cheese and wine, both flavourful additions to medieval feasts.
All of the arts were ‘reborn’ during the Renaissance period, and feasting rites and rituals were no exception. The art of the gastronomic meal flourished, absorbing the influence of foreign customs and creations, gradually adopting the fork, individual plates and Venetian-style glasses. The gastronomic meal reached its pinnacle under the reign of Louis XIV: the maître d’hôtel set the tone, orchestrating a succession of several courses, each comprising myriad dishes laid on the table at the same time. The serving order was established: soups and starters, followed by roasts, and culminating in sweets and desserts.
This ritual celebrated French cuisine, which earned its lofty reputation through the genius of masters such as the maître d’hôtel François Vatel and the chef La Varenne. These men drew their inspiration from the teachings and writings of an illustrious vanguard, including Guillaume Tirel – alias Taillevent – who wrote one of the founding works on the subject, Le Viandier, in the 1500s. Over the years, culinary literature developed and spread, carrying with it the fame of the French meal.
Repas sous Louis XIV
Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1837)
Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833)
Since that time, this delicious invention à la française has thrived, as have the cookbooks that serve as manuals. Generations of gastronomes have passed down its secrets over the centuries: Carême, Grimod de la Reynière, Brillat-Savarin, Escoffier, Bocuse; all heirs of the French tradition of culinary innovation. These famous chefs and culinary experts have brought the art of good food from their kitchens to the tables of the humblest homes, making the art of the gastronomic meal the art of all the French.
The bourgeois meal
Very early on, the upper middle classes – the haute bourgeoisie – were inspired by the nobility to develop their own style of dining, while of course adapting it to their own budget. François Massialot’s book Royal and Bourgeois Cuisine, published in 1691, clearly captures this evolution, with the concept of “good manners” expanding to “all sorts of homes” and gradually to the whole of society.
But it was Menon’s The Bourgeois Cook, first published in 1746 with constant reprints over the next century, that made the greatest contribution to the spread of bourgeois cuisine. Alongside the many recipes it contains, it alludes to the provenance of the best ingredients, the importance of seasonality, and the fact that the highest quality butter is essential to good cooking.
The emergence of the Parisian restaurant in the mid-eighteenth century, and its democratisation in the nineteenth, which opened fine dining to a wider public, reinforced the concept of eating for pleasure, as well as ensuring the iconic status of bourgeois cuisine. Back at the family home, tables were decorated with crockery, cutlery and crystal-ware, adding a festive allure to the French gastronomic meal.
Texts written by Patrick Rambourg
A historian specializing in culinary history and tradition
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*Patrick Rambourg, Histoire de la cuisine et de la gastronomie françaises. (Du Moyen Âge au XXe siècle), Paris, Perrin, 2010, [1ère éd. 2005].
*Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, L’office et la bouche. Histoire des mœurs de la table en France 1300-1789, Paris, Calmann-Levy, 1984.