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The History of Fine Dining: Middle

Spices and the Crusades

Then came the fateful Crusades. Although presumably based in religion it gave the European royalty a taste of luxury and refinement for the first time. Prior to their exposure to the sophisticated Muslim civilization of the Middle East, the European royalty had eaten the same foods as the peasantry with the same preparations. The upper classes just got the choice cuts and more of everything. However after experiencing the luxurious and refined customs of the Muslim aristocracy, which derived from the Persian autocracies, which had actually preceded the Greeks, there was no turning back. The European royalty almost immediately embraced spices and the use of sauces to enhance their cuisine. These spices, while augmenting the flavors of their food, were also quite expensive, as they had to be imported from afar. This was to have momentous consequences for the global politics of your planet.

Because of the exorbitant cost of these spices only the royalty could afford them. Hence the very possession of Spices conferred Status on the possessor, because it differentiated them from the peasantry. They became one of the perquisites of wealth and power. Because of their lack of sophistication the European royalty began consuming the spices straight - the more the better - just like the nouveau riche where bigger is best. Thus the use of spices reflected one’s wealth, and consequently conferred Status. This is the time period Space was referring to.

In 1375 a cookbook was written, Le Viander, which gives an indication of the lack of refinement at the time. Spices were widely used in the wealthy households - including ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. However the soups, meats, and poultry were so heavily seasoned that the taste of food was obscured. The spices disguised the flavor of the food rather than augmented it. This was partly due to the lack of refrigeration, which led to tainted meat and fish. And it was partly due to a lack of understanding of the function of spices. In their confusion of form and function, the wealthy just poured on the spices to exhibit their wealth. Sauces appeared for the first time but they were thickened with bread. There was also little variety in the preparations.

The Refinement of the Italian Renaissance

Although the Western European royalty embraced spices as way of showing off their wealth and to simultaneously separate themselves from the lower classes, the Italians were the first to adopt a more sophisticated and sensible use of ingredients. This was probably due to the Moorish influences, as they occupied both Spain and Italy for centuries during the Middle Ages. The royalty and wealthy consumed delicate tournedos, the center cut of the beef filet - not slabs of beef. They also began using more varied ingredients, including mushrooms, garlic, truffles and caviar. At their mealtimes, which sometimes lasted up to 3 hours, they drank wine out of exquisite Venetian glass and sat at tables adorned with delicate embroidered table clothes. Further women became a part of the feast for the first time - dressed in all their finery - to augment the visual side of the experience. Also food sculpture made its entry into the cuisine of the rulers. Animals made from lemons, turnips, and other vegetables were displayed, along with large statues of marzipan which expressed classical themes - such as Hercules and unicorns, which reflected the obsession with Greek culture that was prevalent then. As with many other traditions the Italian Renaissance marked the real beginning of refinement in the culinary arts of the West. As such Italy is frequently referred to as the Mother of Western cuisine.

An Italian Princess comes to France

It was in the 16th century that the royal cuisine of Italy made its historic appearance in France. Catherine de Medici, the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, married the man who was to become Henry II of France. This joined her powerful Italian family with his royal blood in one of those alliances that are always popular among the privileged classes everywhere. She brought with her a retinue of Florentine cooks, who employed aspics, artichoke hearts, truffles, ice cream, and crepes in their preparations. Along with the refinement that women bring to a testosterone-laden environment, came crystal glasses, glazed dishes, and beautiful table clothes. Prior to Katherine ladies only entered the dining room on special occasions. With her entrance onto the royal banquet scene this became the rule, not the exception. Referring to a lavish feast one writer exclaimed: “Ladies shone like stars in the sky on a fine night.”

This Italian culinary transfusion was furthered when Katherine’s cousin Marie de Medici married Henry IV of France. La Varenne, one of the first great French chefs, presumably learned his trade in her kitchen. He wrote Le Cuisinier Francaise, The French Cuisine, published in 1652, which exhibited all the culinary advances that had been made due to the Italian influence. Spices were no longer used to disguise the taste of food, but to augment it instead. This was the first time that the French cooks attempted to enhance the natural flavors rather than overwhelm them. Along with this trend, meat came to be served in its own juices, the jus; and fish was served with sauces based in a fish stock - the flavors obtained from boiling down fish bones, heads and tails. In terms of sauces, bread was replaced as a thickener by the lighter roux, flower and butter combined with a meat stock. The roux still remains part of the repertoire of modern chefs, hundreds of years later.

Louis XIV & XV

Although known for his extravagance and ostentatious displays of consumption, which are not the hallmarks of a gastronome, Louis XIV and his court further advanced the French culinary art. New protocols were established. Silverware, including knives and spoons, but especially forks, came to be widely used. More importantly dishes came to be served in order rather than all at once. Also some intentionality was put into creating complementary dishes rather than just serving them upon completion. Louis XIV also emphasized the obvious, but neglected, importance of the cultivation of quality ingredients. This included improved techniques for the growing of produce and the raising of livestock. Further he felt cuisine was so important that he began honoring cooks as officers. This gave them the increased prestige and recognition that was to eventually evolve into the celebrity chef of modern times.

His son, Louis XV, furthered the evolution of the French Dining ritual by continuing to refine the culinary process. This included an increasing emphasis on the order of meals, cleanliness and elegance. His court also introduced more refinements in service, which included more sophisticated utensils and a more complex Dining ritual. With this increasing emphasis upon food consumption different specializations began emerging to deal with the demand. This included pastry, sauce, meat and fish cooks in the kitchen and all the supporting professions to supply their quality ingredients - winemakers, bakers, and the like. This was the aristocratic foundation of Fine Dining that Boston was referring to.

 

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