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The book that cooked a French revolution
La Varenne projected a personal vision of how haute cuisine should be nurtured.
The first modern cook-book - one that heralded a culinary revolution in France and, in the process, gave cooking an exalted status - was published in 1651. The author of Le Cuisinier Franais (The French Cook) was a professional chef who had adopted the name La Varenne, the head cook of Henri IV. It is with this book and with a second one called Le Patissier Franais (The French Pastry Chef), published two years later, that La Varenne laid the foundations of what would eventually be known as gastronomy.
Following the publications of these two pioneering works, food in France was no longer just a necessity to nourish the body but a gustatory experience rooted in refinement and elegance. It set standards of good taste i. e. French taste. For over three centuries from this time onwards, the preparation and consumption of fine food, not to mention the way it was served, would be an exclusive French domain unsurpassed by any other gastronomic endeavour in Europe. La Varenne's Le Cuisinier Franais was reprinted twelve times in the first five years of its publication, forty-six times before 1700 and was translated into several European languages.
This immense popularity meant in the first place that chefs and diners in France made common cause to ensure that the pleasures of the palate would be sophisticated beyond compare. Secondly, the French style of fine dining acquired an international dimension. Half a century after the publication of La Varenne's books, royalty across Europe sought the services of French chefs. As a result, French excellence in culinary matters found favour among the rich and the powerful throughout the continent.
What explains the phenomenal success of La Varenne's books? They made a clean break with the cookery books of the past. These were authored by mere compilers of recipes. But his works were conceived as comprehensive, coherent, neatly structured codifications of ingredients and techniques. The preparation of each dish followed a precise, chronological order. The amount of each ingredient to be used was equally precise as was the time required at every step of the preparation of the dish. There were two other novelties. La Varenne introduced an alphabetical list of recipes and gave several cross-references. And, even more significant, he projected a personal vision of how haute cuisine should be nurtured.
Such standardisation in fact meant that the rules that held sway in the preparation of food for centuries were changed from end to end. Taking their cue from La Varenne, French chefs gradually reduced and then entirely eliminated the use of Oriental spices that had dominated medieval cooking - notably, ginger, nutmeg, coriander seeds, cumin and cinnamon. They replaced them with indigenous herbs such as thyme, chives and parsley. Only one Oriental spice - pepper - retained its importance and indeed came to occupy a place of favour next only to salt.
Likewise, the new chefs, inspired by La Varenne's works, jettisoned the older practice of including sweet dishes in every course. These were relegated to the end of the meal. Sweetness itself was redefined. Sugar replaced honey. Moreover, the earlier staple of sweet-andsour preparations - honey mixed with vinegar - made way for a single ingredient: butter. The use of oil and lard was also discarded.
The use of butter meant that the importance of sauces increased manifold. Earlier they were served separately as relishes to heighten the flavour of a dish. Now they were an integral part of it. La Varenne's successors found new ways to thicken meat and fish stocks. They mixed flour and powdered walnuts in the broth. These sauces, noted a food writer in 1670, were so succulent that they "could bring those on death's door-step back to life".
Another notable feature of La Varenne's culinary revolution was the elimination of big birds - such as the peacock - that dominated the banquets of the aristocracy. They gave way to veal, lamb, fowl, game birds and especially pork and beef.
Similarly, vegetables that were regarded in the Middle Ages to be fit for consumption by coarse and lowly peasants now found a place of pride in haute cuisine. They included peas, spinach, asparagus and artichokes. So did certain fruits - scores of varieties, for example, of pears and strawberries.
And finally, again under the influence of La Varenne, chefs laid emphasis on the freshness of ingredients and on the need to retain their 'central taste' i. e. their intrinsic flavour. As one mid-17 th century food writer put it: "A cabbage soup must be completely infused with the essence of cabbage, a turnip soup with turnip. "
(This is the second of a six-part series on gastronomy in French literature and culture)
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