Some people entirely understand a topic. Patrick Rambourg is one of them. French cooking no longer holds any secrets for him. He watched it with attention, in his parent’s restaurant in Sarthe (France) in La Ferté-Bernard, then he studied it learning to become a cook. After 10 years of cooking in different restaurants in Paris, more years teaching theory and culinary practice in cooking school, he wanted to satisfy his feeling of missed training and his curiosity, and began university study where his knowledge of French gastronomy and his passion for history came together, especially in medieval history.
« French cuisine left its imprint on world culinary history from the 17th century to the 20th century, especially because the role of the chefs. They knew how codify their culinary practice, but also how to stay open to innovations for example, “Nouvelle Cuisine” in the seventies, seen now as classical.
Because they were able to codify and translate their skills, this ability was understood by the general public in France and in foreign countries. And as a result, that’s foreign chefs now study French gastronomy.
Another important point is the primacy of French civilization and language. It was important and it helped the diffusion of French gastronomy that French was widely spoken in foreign castles. So cooking, language and culture all worked together and now history remembers such notable chefs as Antonin Carême, Auguste Escoffier and many others.
The political history of a country has also something to do with the diffusion of its culture. In contrast to Italy and Germany, France was unified early in its history and the centralized royal power brought together in one place the political, economic and financial power, and maybe, it’s because French cooks could develop and keep French civilization bright. In fact, the evolution of table manners in France goes together with evolution of social class. Let’s talk about spices, for example. In the Middle Ages, spices were very expensive and used only by the upper classes. When spices were less expensive, the upper class didn’t use them anymore but preferred sugar, new and very expensive, which was used as drug before it became a foodstuff, then later a sweet bringing pleasure. Different social classes don’t eat the same food, and the evolution of taste shows how the society changes.
One of the constant rules of French cooking is how it always looks for the taste of food. In the 17th century people talked about the right taste of food; in the 20th century, about the natural taste of food. 300 years of difference but almost the same speech, but during this time, people didn’t always eat how they said they eat. Sometimes, gastronomic speech is discussed, but not always practiced in the kitchen.
It’s also another important idea in the meaning of French gastronomy, how it can impose itself through a discussion. And sometimes, especially in the 17th century, discussion was more important than the practice itself, leading to a dispute between ancient and modern, in culinary as in other arts, because in France, cooking is an art. It’s really an interesting question, because, in fact, if we look in ancient cookbooks, we can see clearly that there was not a lot of difference between so-called ancient and modern practices; the difference was only in discussion and in opposition between these schools of thought.
French cook is a reducing expression. The high French cook was, first, a Parisian cook, as all France was only Paris. But from the 19th century, regions began to react and to want to show their regional identity. And in this regional identity was culinary specificity. Cookbooks were a good way to show this identity toward local cuisine. It happened so especially in border regions as Provence and Alsace, regions with many foreign contacts. It good to read such books, we get some surprises… Who knows today that Alsace produced foie gras (goose and duck liver)? Another surprise: a region like Brittany, open to the world because of its sea coast, developed a very slight culinary identity. Perhaps it is because the people of this region were very poor for such a long time ?The discussion is open and there is a lot of research to do…. «
After reading these reflections of Patrick Rambourg about French cooking, you will now know more about his preoccupations. He studied the Saint Jacques confraternity’s meals for the pilgrims in medieval Paris, the evolution of Parisian cuisine since the end of Middle Ages, but also jugged rabbit (the most ancient recorded French recipe), the evolution of taste, Vatel, medieval fast-food, steaks and sauces together, feasts, the taste of sugar in Middle Ages…. as you can see if you have a look on his important bibliography.
He was vice-president then president of the association of Friends of Jean-Louis Flandrin; he was also a student of Jean-Louis Flandrin for several years, and now he presents regularly his studies in seminars and symposia. Actually, he teaches the history of cooking, of gastronomy and of wine in France, from Antiquity to Today at the University of Paris VII - Denis Diderot in Paris and in other places.