Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Culinary Mythology: French Cookery

I don't know why someone hasn't made a book of culinary mythology. These are fascinating and also eye-opening as several are things I had taken as gospel truth, including the one below.

Catherine de' Medici arrived in France form Italy in 1533, as the 14-year-old financée of the future Henri II of France. She was accompanied by a train of servants including cooks. The myth consists in the idea that she and her retinue between them transformed what had been a rather primitive cuisine at the French court into something much more elegant and sophisticated, on Italian lines.

Barbara Ketcham Wheatam (1983) is not alone in demolishing this myth -- far from it, since it has become an almost routine activity for food historians. However, she has mustered more evidence and more detail on this matter than more of her colleagues. She shows that French court cuisine was not transformed (in any direction) in the 1530s and 1540s, and that in any case the interchange of ideas of people between France and Italy had begun before Catherine was born and continued after her death. Italian culinary practice could exert such influence as it may have had on the French by means of the steady traffic and also through books; but the French in the 16th century had a conservative outlook which in any case immunized them against sudden and foreign influences. Where Catherine did eventually have an effect, it was less on the cooking and more on the attitudes and expectations of the diners, for the wonderful festivals or masquerades which she planned and executed (this was after the death of her husband Henri II) developed into an institution of great visual and dramatic significance.

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