How has historical factors affected food in France, Italy and Britain?

[1] The variety of foods throughout our history – why has it turned out this particular way? 

I have always been passionate about cooking as well as history. Those who know me well, recognise the fact that I was sitting on the fence when I was thinking about what to do with my main two passions in life. From the blogs you have previously read, they have been individual articles regarding history or food (the food profiles), but this time round, through deep inspiration from family and friends, I have decided to marry the two components together. The accolade should really go to them here, with many brainstorming ideas that really helped! Anyway, I will use historical factors that have affected these European countries including France, Italy and Britain, specifically because I am partly Franco-Italian, and partly because I was always intrigued to discover the history behind the food itself in all of these places.


French cuisine 


[2] An exmaple of the type of food you might find at a top-end French restaurant. 

When you enter in a typical French restaurant around the world, you see pieces of nicely sliced poultry, roasted vegetables, all neatly presented and a generously drizzled sauce to enhance the flavours. This was down to an evolution of processes and influences. This all started with the legacy of Catherine de Medici during the 15th to 16th century, who introduced many of her native Italian and Renaissance traditions to France. [3] Despite the chaos found during the period of the Wars of Religion, where Catherine was juggling between the powerful forces of the Catholic House of Guise, the French Huguenots and the weary eyes of other European countries, by introducing highly-skilled Italian chefs in France, this significantly improved the level of food and ingredients, into a more elegant affair [3, 4].


Furthermore, the Ancien Régime saw many skilled craftsmen plying their trade in what was known as haute cuisine, where there were guilds mainly around the city of Paris [5]. This was significant, as this allowed different entreprises to, on the one hand, sell crops or raw materials and the other, to sell ready made meals, almost like a modern catering business we have right now with many top restaurants. Moreover, the chefs would have to follow particular traditional methods of cooking aimed at pleasing the King himself – of which, three virtuous chefs have revolutionised the style and ideals of French cooking; de la Varenne, Carême and Escoffier.


One of the chefs to change French cookery was Francois-Pierre de la Varenne. During the 1600s, he introduced his philosophy of santé, modération et raffinement or health, moderation and refinement [6].  This was significant, as it was believed de la Varenne changed the way of presentation and simple use of ingredients. He was also perceived to have invented the béchamel sauce and some type of papillote [6]. A béchamel sauce is essentially a savoury roux sauce that can be used for vegetables or meat dishes. Equally, a papillote is a way cook an ingredient, say fish or vegetables, wrapping it up in a piece of paper. This is primarily aimed to preserve its flavours by slow cooking.


The next most important French chef was Marie-Antoine Carême. Having been living under the chaos of the French Revolution, Carême preferred to use his nickname “Antonin” – probably because of his first name sounding a lot like the Austrian queen, Marie-Antoinette [7].  He tried to modernise the mode of cooking, by introducing many reforms like white uniforms and tall chef hats. This was important, as this promoted cleanliness and professionalism [7].


Finally, the most significant French chef to grace its gastronomy has been Auguste Escoffier. Like Carême, Escoffier worked in many countries throughout various wars namely the Napoleonic Wars, through countries of the Congress of Vienna and the Franco-Prussian War in this case [8]. Escoffier is remembered as the main pioneer to revolutionise the usage of the menu itself, the mode of cooking and organisation within the kitchen and the restaurant themselves. This was significant, as using faster service or service à la Russe and à la Carte menu, this brought more efficiency and authenticity within the restaurant and kitchen together [8]. Instead of using overly extravagant garnishes, Escoffier tried to simplify the amount of things occurring on a plate of food. By doing so, he tried to promote the idea of seasonal ingredients and the use of lighter sauces to further satisfy his customers. More importantly, Escoffier introduced separate and individual stations within the kitchen, for example, starters, mains and desserts, essentially to further increase the efficiency of the service even more [8].


Italian cuisine 


[9] The traditional ingredients that are found in many rustic Italian dishes. 

We then move onto France’s south-eastern neighbour, Italy. Until Italy’s unification in 1861, Italy was always separated into many provinces or city-states – due to political, commercial or religious reasons. However, the type of food still remains different by regional Italian food since the ancient Roman times. I remember once watching Jamie Oliver’s show on the television, and he would make gnocchi with these grandmothers in the middle of the streets. One thing that striked me and the host himself, was the fact that every street all had an individual sauce to prepare their own pasta, rather than a common one representing the region as a whole. Bolognese over here, with cream and mushrooms over there, with anchovies and capers down there…a true mosaic. Perhaps that is the true beauty of the cuisine itself, a lot of chefs and cooking shows always reiterate the fact that a dish must be cooked with fresh ingredients. Bring out the flavour. Make it with passion. I can almost hear Gennaro Contaldo (part of the Two Greedy Italians and Jamie Oliver series) say it time and time again.

The regional differences in every dish can be brought out in…well, the regions itself. Take for example, three fundamental Italian regions that is almost always on the menu. Bolognese, Napolitana and Firenze. Bologna has always used more meats in their dishes; Napolitana uses anchovies, garlic, chilis and capers more readily as it is more southern and influenced; Florence has always used tomato, basil and maybe even cream or chicken stock as key components to many staples found in pasta or pizza. But why do Italians eat pizza, tortellini, pasta, bread based foods? Who is it influenced from? 

Many history books have analysed the importance of the great Marco Polo, who travelled the distance to China and brought back many replicas of the technology and foods he had found. I was brought up to understand that the navigator had copied the Chinese version of dumplings, rice noodles and pizza and brought it back to his homeland. However, recently and interestingly enough, many different archaeologists have argued amongst them about the feasibility of this myth of the great Venetian traveller, where some even stated that there was a huge possibility that Polo had compiled many false stories and facts of the East in his work, “A Description of the World” and “The Travels of Marco Polo”. 

Whatever the truth, there can be no denying of the importance of the trade and commerce that the Venetians and Genoese merchants had brought back to the Italian cuisine. During the 11th to 15th century, both of the regions had the benefit to be bordering the sea, with many trade routes connecting to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic itself. This was significant, as this meant that many key ingredients such as wheat for Italian staples, wine, salt for food preservation and flavouring, and most of all, the use of chili, that we associate with some parts of Italy like Sicily and Sardinia [10, 11]. For example, the Spaghetti Siciliano has olives, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and red pepper flakes – a true summery feel to it, that resonates its rich past under Venetian and Genoese rule. 


British cuisine 


[12] Arbroath smokies – a way of preparation passed down since the Vikings times.  It doesn’t always have to be about fish and chips! 

You may wonder why I have decided to explore British cuisine, but after all, this is the marriage of food and history. Britain, as we know it today, is England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland [13]. The Romans, German tribal unit or Saxons, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans have all set their footprint one way or another. What must be said is the different types of foods and processes that each type of people brought to the fore.


Apart from constructing important roads that connected major cities together, the Romans brought with them various ingredients to British cuisine. Major ingredients included cherries, cabbages and peas [13]. Instant ideas of fruit cakes or puddings, traditional cabbage and peas sides to a large pot of Lancashire stew sounds readily and typically English.


Then you have the Germanic tribe, the Saxons. Apart from being a conquering tribe, the Saxons brought many herbs to flavour and marinate stews [13].


The Vikings were a tough nomadic bunch, known for their travels to America in what is known as Newfoundland in Canada today, and infamous their brutal methods of burning houses when invading a country. However, they did bring two major cooking methods in smoking and drying fish and meats [13]. For example, the Arbroath smokie in Scotland is an example of the true flavour of the Vikings. Or the York Ham that is smoked with the sawdust of oak tree that you find so readily in Christmas [13].


The Normans, under William the Conqueror, did bring many modes of ‘Anglicisation’ in terms of social and political ways throughout the British Isles. Nevertheless, what we might not know is that the Normans encouraged the consumption of wine and many common meats such as mutton and beef, together with citrus fruits particularly oranges and lemons [13].


During Tudor times and through to the great success of the British Empire, many more ingredients began to flood in due to many commodities found in trade. There were ingredients from all over the world; spices from the Far East, sugar from the Caribbean, coffee and chocolate from South America, tea from India, potatoes from America [13]. This feat in empire-building can be best illustrated in one of the most famous British classics – the Christmas pudding. Originally, when the Christmas pudding was invented in the 14th century, it was based on the usage of beef and mutton with fruits, an almost Moorish type of dish. Despite the ban by the Puritans in 1595, the revival by King George I in 1714 made it quite similar to the ones consumed currently [14]. Certainly, there are many ingredients such as sugar, cinnamon, raisins and other dried fruits. This is significant, as this shows and celebrates the fruitfulness that the British Empire has brought in abundance.  

In conclusion, history, as we have seen, does certainly play a role within each country’s food. France has seen many Italian influences introduced by Catherine de Medici, the genius of de la Varrane, Carême and Escoffier, all play a massive role to shape the modern French fine dining that we find in many top Michelin-starred restaurants nowadays. Equally, with the commercial strength of the Genoese and Venetian trade merchants, together with the continuing importance of the different regions of Italy since the ancient Roman times, each part of the country is unique in preparing its famous staples and dishes. Finally, Britain has been more influenced by its rulers throughout history, each bringing their own brand of cooking and ingredients to the British palette. Moreover, the success of the British Empire has brought more vibrancy and exotic ingredients to modern British dishes as we have seen in the Christmas pudding. Thank you for reading, and as it is soon time for me to return home and maybe work, I will try my best to update my blog as much as possible in the near future. I hope to incorporate more of history and food articles in my blog, so if you did enjoy your read, do stay tuned and all the best! 🙂

















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