How French Cuisine Took Over the World
(And the Early Cookbook Industry)
September 13, 2017 By Henry Notaker
Henry Notaker is a literary historian who taught courses in food culture and history for over a decade. He was a foreign correspondent for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and a TV host of arts and letters shows and documentaries. He is the author of numerous books and articles on European and Latin American contemporary history, food history, and culinary literature.
Geographically, the first steps in the diffusion of printed culinary texts go from Italy to other countries in Europe. Platina’s Latin book, De honesta voluptate, first printed in Rome (ca. 1470), Venice (1475), and Cividale del Friuli (1480), soon went to the presses in Leuven, Strasburg, Paris, Cologne, and Basel. Translations were published in Italian, French, and German, and part of the text was included in a Dutch book. Martino’s recipes were never printed under his own name, but beginning in the early 16th century, they were used—almost unchanged—as the basis for printed cookbooks with the names of other authors on the title page.
Most of these books were published by two enterprising Venetians who specialized in popular literature, romances of chivalry, and love stories but obviously also noticed the awakening interest in culinary literature among the wealthy Italian bourgeoisie. One of their books was translated into English in 1598 under the Italian title Epulario, but with the subtitle The Italian Banquet. The prominence of Italian cookbooks continued into the 16th century, when recipes from the impressive Opera (Work), by Bartolomeo Scappi—private cook to the pope—were published in Spanish and Dutch versions.
The Italian influence in the first period of printing had to do with the high position Italian culture generally occupied during the Renaissance. In France, the papal court in Avignon had been a gateway to Italian art, literature, and finance since the fourteenth century. Lyon, the second largest French city during the early modern period, was an international cultural center for merchants and bankers, many of them from Florence. In Paris, an important colony of Lombardians had settled and made themselves known within commerce and the arts. Even King Francis I employed prominent Italian artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci.
A similar influence can be traced in other European countries, such as Hungary and Poland. In Bohemia, Italian food was so highly regarded that it became a target for moralists, who felt that foreign food habits undermined the old, local, and less extravagant traditions of the region. The Lutheran pastor Štelcar Želetavsky criticized “nobles, squires and burghers who now won’t eat the old Czech way, but the Italian way . . . [with] 50 or 100 dishes or more . . . on silvery and gilded plates.”
Yet despite the significant Italian impact on culinary culture, the first printed recipe books in Central and Eastern Europe seem more influenced by German cuisine than Italian, and the same is true for Denmark, where the first cookbooks were translations from German books. The reason for this may have been that publishers were more interested in a market among the growing bourgeoisie, which was generally more attached to German culture.
In the Netherlands, there were early influences from Italy as well as from Germany and France, but the foreign dishes referred to in cookbooks were primarily Spanish. Strong commercial links were established between Dutch and Spanish merchants after King Philip II of Spain became the ruler of the Dutch provinces in 1556. In one manuscript from the late sixteenth century, a recipe was even named after the king’s brutal military commander at that time, the Duke of Alba. Spanish dishes continued to be popular after the Dutch rebellion and the independence of the northern provinces in the 17th century.
The overall cuisine in Europe was rather diversified until the mid-17th century, when a new pattern appeared: influences began to arrive from France in courts and cities all over the continent. This new French cuisine, developed in the early 17th century, was first documented in England in the 1620s by John Murrell, who had visited France. He published a cookbook in which he presented 22 dishes with the epithet “French Fashion.” In France itself, the new cuisine was introduced in Le cuisinier françois (The French Cook), written by the chef La Varenne, who had experience working at the court of the Marquis of Uxelles. The book was published in 1651, and after a hundred years of nothing but reprints of old texts in France, its success was immediate, with seven editions produced during the first three years.
Le cuisinier françois was published in translation in England (The French Cook, 1653) and in an abridged version in Sweden (Then frantzöske-kocken, 1664), and other popular French books were published with similar titles in German (Der Franzö- sische Becker, Koch und Confitirer, 1665) and Italian (Il cuoco francese, 1680). In the eighteenth century, more translations—of the French authors Massialot, Menon, and Marin—followed in Poland, Russia, Holland, Scandinavia, England, and Italy. It is remarkable that during the 17th and 18th centuries, when several British and German philosophical works were published in French (including writings by Locke, Hume, and Kant), no foreign cookbook was translated into French.
French cuisine dominated European cooking for centuries, and royalty and aristocracy in England, Prussia, and Italy employed French cooks. How can this hegemony be explained? At the dawn of the 1600s, France was just emerging from a century of war and internal strife. But the country was the politically dominant power in Europe, with the largest army in the 17th century. And it was rich. By 1700, France’s economy was twice that of England’s, and the population was three times as big. The royal government, in the hands of powerful ministers, first Cardinal Richelieu and then Cardinal Mazarin, encouraged and patronized the arts during the 17th century. The Académie française (French Academy) was founded 15 years before La Varenne’s book was published. The apex of military, economic, and cultural strength was reached in the period after 1661, when King Louis XIV secured absolute power and the Château de Versailles became a symbol of French glory. The new French cuisine can be considered a part of the classicism that made its impact everywhere during the siècle classique, which was also a siècle d’or.
In Sweden, where close contact with France had been established during Queen Kristina’s reign (Descartes moved to Stockholm on her invitation), three of the four cookbooks published in the 17th century were adaptations or translations of French works. In Portugal, the only cookbook of the 18th century was written by Lucas Rigaud, a French cook established at the royal court in Lisbon after 30 years of experience in courts in Paris, London, Turin, and Madrid. In Italy, several French books were published in adapted translations with titles and subtitles such as “The Piedmontese cook perfected in Paris” and “The new Italian cook according to French taste.” The continuing influence of French cuisine can be easily detected by a look at the tables of contents in later Portuguese and Italian cookbooks
The strong French presence is also documented in criticism and satire expressed in contemporary literature. The Danish scholar and playwright Ludvig Holberg made fun of the Francophiles in his comedy about a man named Hans Frandsen, who called himself Jean de France and said that he would have died of hunger if there hadn’t been a French cook in Copenhagen. In the comedy Brigadir (The Brigadier), written by Denis Fonvizin, a young man says that he wishes he had a wife with whom he could speak only French. In Russia, as in several other countries, French was the preferred language of conversation among the elites during the 18th and 19th centuries. Several of the first cookbooks published in Russian were translations from French. One of the most prolific translators, the writer V. A. Levshin, was ridiculed by Pushkin, who called young epicures with their love for French food “fledglings of the Levshin school.” But Levshin’s six-volume dictionary of cooking not only introduced French and other foreign dishes but also included a Russian cookbook with traditional recipes. He was well aware of the strong foreign influence in the aristocratic cuisine of the period, and in 1807, he published a pamphlet, a “message” or “letter” to the Francophiles, expressing his anti-French sentiment.
France became a model for many German states after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648. The nobility in Germany got a new lease on life; some historians talk of a “refeudalization,” with Germans imitating French court culture and etiquette. King Frederick the Great of Prussia boasted that he had not read one German book, and he even wrote a poem in French to his cook André Noël. French travelers in Germany had no problems with communication, Voltaire said, because only soldiers and horses spoke German.
French influence in England was strong even before the Restoration and the return of the royal family from French exile after the Cromwell period. When Robert May finished the preface of his big cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook, at Englefields Manor in Leicestershire on January 24, 1659, he did not hide his knowledge of and experience with the most popular culinary tradition of that time: “As I lived in France and had the language, and have been an eye-witness of their Cookeries, as well as a peruser of their Manuscripts and printed Authours, whatsoever I found good in them I have inserted in this Volume.”
French cooks were hired by English aristocrats, and French books were translated into English, but just as significantly, original French recipes were adapted by English women writers. They were skeptical about what they saw as expensive extravagance by the imported cooks, a point of view illustrated by the often-quoted Hannah Glasse: “If gentlemen will have French Cooks, they must pay for French tricks.” But in spite of the vitriolic nature of many of their comments, these women nonetheless contributed to the diffusion of French cuisine in England by simplifying the dishes and preparing them with less expensive ingredients.
In periods of war between the two countries, French influence in Britain met with difficulties, but the reputation of French cuisine never collapsed totally. After the Napoleonic Wars, the French delegation to the peace conference in Vienna demonstrated through the excellent dinners organized by the foreign minister Talleyrand that the French superiority in the culinary art was still evident. The famous chef Carême was hired by English and Russian monarchs, and the Paris restaurateur Antoine Beauvilliers proudly wrote in his 1814 cookbook L’art de cuisinier (The cook’s art): “The French prided themselves when they saw the taste of their cuisine rule over the opulent states in Europe, from north to south, with the same majesty as their language and their fashion.”
In London, an essay was published the same year that described European cuisine from a historical perspective. The anonymous author regretted the lack of acknowledgment English authors gave to French works: “As it is common justice that every country should have the merit which is its due, we shall endeavor to restore to France her proper literature, and to recover for her artists an acknowledgement for those divine delicacies, of which the plagiarists of other countries would so unfairly deprive her.”
A persistent and growing interest in French culinary works (as well as the new gastronomic literature that was focused more on the pleasure of consumption than on production) was evident in Britain in the early 19th century. Margaret Dods opened her chapter on French cooking simply, with these words: “It will save much trouble to admit at once, that the French are the greatest cooking nation on earth.” French cuisine was regarded as more artistic than the cooking of other countries. John Ruskin, who had a high reputation as an art critic in the Victorian period, made a distinction in the culinary field between “the thoroughness of England” and “the art of France.”
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Auguste Escoffier turned modern restaurant cuisine—particularly in grand international hotels—into a culinary system that lasted into the 20th century and inspired restaurant culture in all countries. The French stamp was seen very clearly on restaurant menus and in cookbooks, where the French names of dishes were used or put alongside the local names (figure 8). A new boost for French cuisine started in the 1970s with the emergence of nouvelle cuisine, supported by restaurant guides such as Gault et Millau and Guide Michelin. Most of the new celebrity cooks, such as Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, and Raymond Oliver, also published cookbooks, which were later translated into foreign languages.
This French hegemony, which started in the 17th century, has more recently met with competition from cuisines in other parts of Europe and the world, and French restaurant culture is no longer the sole star in international cuisine.
From A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries. Used with permission of University of California Press. Copyright © 2017 by Henry Notaker.