If you visit Italy and compliment the food, someone will invariably say, “Well, we taught the French to cook, you know. They ate like savages before we saved them.
The story goes like this:
Catherine de Medici was the daughter of the Duke of Urbino, of the powerful Medici family of Florence. Two of her uncles became pope, and in 1533 she was married to Henri, Duke of Orléans, the future king of France.
Florence was then the home of the Renaissance, the beating heart of European culture. The sophisticated Catherine brought with her an entourage that included her talented Italian chefs. During her long reign as queen, Catherine’s court developed the first haute cuisine in France.
Many foods owe their place on the French table to Catherine, such as artichokes, broccoli and peas. Well-known dishes like onion soup and duck with orange are of Italian descent. Catherine even introduced the fork in France! (And women’s panties – what doesn’t this woman does?)
Is it true?
It is difficult to separate myth from reality.
For centuries, Catherine has been credited with improving French cuisine. For example, at 18e century, the famous French food writer (and royal chef) Marie Antoine Careme praised Catherine’s influence. And it is true that the fork had been little used in France until the arrival of Catherine, and it probably influenced its adoption.
On the other hand
Catherine’s parents died when she was just a baby and she was only 14 when she married Henry. Her uncle, the Pope, who negotiated with the King of France to arrange the marriage, died shortly after its consummation (and never delivered the dowry he had promised.) It is doubtful that Catherine arrived with a large entourage, so some of the claims made about him are probably myths.
And did the French eat like savages before Catherine? It is unlikely – the court of Henry’s father, Francis I, was one of the most sophisticated in Europe; even Leonardo da Vinci was a member.
While Catherine as Queen likely introduced certain foods to France, she was certainly not responsible for all that was claimed for her – the unlikely long list includes aspics, bechamel sauce, cakes, vegetables confits, cream puffs, custards, ice cream, lettuce, macaroons. , milk-fed veal, melon, parsley, pasta, puff pastries, dumplings, sorbet, spinach, sweetbreads, truffles… and even tobacco.
Historians are divided on the issue of ladies’ breeches.
And the answer is…
Did Catherine de Medici really teach the French to cook? The evidence is mixed, so it depends on how you look at it.
Ask an Italian.
Keith Van Sickle divides his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the recently published book An insider’s guide to Provence and bestsellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are we still French? Read more on Provencal life.