This is the first post of a new series in which I investigate food-related questions that pique my interest. While I plan to conduct research to look more deeply into these subjects, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m not a scholar, just a layperson with a sense of curiosity.
Feel free to comment with additional resources, information, or suggestions for future food questions. Here we go!
Today’s question is born from an offhand comment by Clarissa Dickson Wright (one-half of the British cooking duo, the Two Fat Ladies, who greatly shaped my curiosity and appreciation of food):
“Catherine de’ Medici, who taught the French how to cook”
Who the heck was that? Is that true?, I wondered as a young adolescent. Clarissa made the statement with such unquestionable authority (or maybe it was the British accent), I always considered there to be a kernel of truth.
Now living in France, I have the great privilege to be able to taste and investigate French gastronomy for myself. I can learn firsthand about French food tradition, so refined and richly delicious.
Of course, French cooking techniques transformed the way the Western world sees food, and it is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for a reason. That said, there is, without a doubt, there is a profound stink of arrogance and hoity-toitiness that can be off-putting. The endless fascination and reverence can be alienating to a dabbler such as myself. I’m not in a position to denigrate this grand tradition, but come on. French cuisine can come across as elitist, and there is an insufferableness with which enthusiasts genuflect before it, and sniff at “less refined” cuisines.
The idea that the culinary juggernaut of French cuisine didn’t spontaneously generate in a vacuum, dreamed up by a pompous French moustache-twirler, is sexy and intriguing. The question of Catherine de’ Medici’s influence is one that has been scratching my ear ever since I moved to France, and began to learn to appreciate the rich complexity of French food tradition.
The question that sits at the heart of my fascination, be it in in food, history, folklore, psychology, or otherwise is: What is the origin story?
Where did this achievement in human excellence and creativity stem from?
Let’s dive in.
14th-century French cuisine was known for quantity, without the same refinement and quality we associate with it today. Imagine large free-for-all banquets where people ate with their hands. How terribly unelegant. But with the beginning of the Renaissance, alongside the same ol’ innovations we all read about in history class, came another important cultural offshoot: the development of food preparation techniques.
Ah, the Renaissance. It’s difficult to talk about it without mentioning the Medici, a powerful Florentine dynasty that held a 300-year-influence that spanned through the Renaissance, and who notably financed great artists and thinkers like Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Botticelli. And like any dynasty, they married their children off to foreigners to solidify their power.
Enter Catherine. A woman whose story unfurls more and more mystery, intrigue, and drama, the deeper you dig. Married to Henry of Orléans, later King Henry II, who snubbed her in favor of an older woman, Diane of Poitiers. (That said, even if her husband wasn’t exactly thrilled by her, they still conceived ten children, nine of which she outlived. Her last remaining son, Henry III, died in the same year she did.) A woman with a deep appreciation for good food, Catherine held a fascination with the occult and astrology. Widowed into power, she was the reviled Italian-born Queen of France, quelle horreur!
23 October 1533. 14-year-old Catherine arrived in Marseilles, in a grand display of finery, with procession of horses, accompanied by twelve demoiselles, clad in silk of gold and silver. The great finery in her trousseau included a lavish collection of silk and lace, precious gemstones and opulent jewelry.
She was married to Henry of Orléans the following day, and thereby became a royal duchess. It is said that the excessive displays of decadence extended to the great banquet held after the wedding, and the masquerade ball-turned-orgy after the teenaged couple’s departure to their nuptial chambers.
Hey, they knew how to party.
Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII, had brokered her marriage to Henry, promising an alliance with King Francis, along with a certain amount of land and a sizeable dowry. Unfortunately, a year after the wedding, the Pope died, having only paid part of her dowry. Effectively, his death left Catherine with no political value to King Francis I.
Not known for her looks, nor her political clout, she had to appeal to her father-in-law’s strong appetite for beauty. It’s said that she made up for her lack of looks with her charm, wit, intellect, and skills in dancing and hunting. She’s credited with bringing the side-saddle to France, supposedly to show off her well-shaped calves. She’s also said to have introduced pantaloons as undergarments, so as to preserve her modesty under a footman’s roving eye while descending from horseback.
Later, she was known for her enormous appetite for rich food–a 16th century gourmande, she was. Perhaps it was an overindulgence in artichokes and puff pastry that gave her that double chin later in life. Legend has it that when she was presented with tobacco from the New World in 1560, she crushed into a powder and found it intriguing enough to introduce to the French people. Other innovations allegedly popularized by Catherine de’ Medici include the folding fan and the handkerchief.
Overall, sources seem to be conflicted on the precise list of novelties that Catherine brought to the French. From what I’ve read, it’s safe to assume that she brought the fork with her to France and popularized its use. She also brought a team of fine Italian cooks and master pastrymakers who probably showed those French cooks a thing or two. With respect to crediting her introducing ingredients to France, such as broccoli, lettuce, and spinach, and savoy cabbages, there is more doubt.
It’s also known that along the French Riviera, individual Italian dishes crossed over, but not an entire style of cooking. The Greeks introduced the olive to Provence, and perhaps even the famed Marseillais dish, bouillabaisse.
It’s not possible to conclude that Catherine de’ Medici “taught the French how to cook,” but her influence seems to be one factor that catalyzed a push toward culinary refinement. Her arrival in France coincided with several other important revelations at the time, notably the flood of new ingredients coming in from the New World.
I’d like to think that we have Catherine de’ Medici to thank every time we crunch into spinach-and-artichoke filled puff pastry triangles at a cocktail party, sipping fine wine and hoping things pick up and get spicier. And after someone kills their fifth glass of Cab, takes their shirt off and starts howling at the full moon, we smile and remember that life is here for us to savor.
Future Lari here: If you’re interested in more illustrated food history essays like this, consider checking out my newsletter, RENDERED. It is a continuation of this Food Questions series: free, monthly, in-depth essays, all researched and illustrated by me. Thanks!
Frieda, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. Phoenix, 2003.
O’Neill, Molly. “Quel Shock! The Italianization Of French Cuisine.” NYTimes.com. Published 5 October 1994. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Oulton, Randal. “Catherine de Medici.” CooksInfo.com. Published 01 August 2005; revised 17 November 2012. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Root, Waverly. The Food of France. Vintage Books Edition, May 1992.