Food, Wine, & France: A taste of history

French gastronomy defines standards for haute cuisine worldwide, yet France itself has had many cuisines. Professor Emeritus of History Bert Gordon takes us on a historical tour of the country’s food and wine culture.

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By Bert Gordon

Ever since Bert Gordon debuted his course on cuisine history in 1971, Mills students and alumnae have learned the pleasure of gastronomy infused with insights from history. Gordon retired from full-time teaching at Mills College in May, becoming professor emeritus of history. But the Mills community will continue to have opportunities to enjoy the banquet of knowledge he offers: he’ll teach cuisine history again in spring 2019, and from September 24 to October 8, 2019, he’ll guide a tour in France, “Eat Your Heart Out! Paris and Burgundy,” organized by the Alumnae Association of Mills College. For more information about the AAMC tour, visit

Gordon first studied food history as a graduate student and, while a Mills professor, became one of the leading scholars in this field. His publications on the topic include “Food and France: What Food Studies Can Teach Us about History,” a special issue of French Historical Studies that he coedited in 2015. He has also written on the history of chocolate in France, England, and California. His next book, War Tourism: Second World War France from Defeat and Occupation to the Creation of Heritage, will be published by Cornell University Press in November.

France has long been known as a gastronomical epicenter. Even if its pre-eminence has been increasingly challenged in recent decades—for example, in the famous wine competition in 1976 known as the Judgment of Paris, where California wines were rated equal or superior to their French counterparts—France’s influence remains strong in today’s culinary world. French continues to be the language of gastronomy through its widespread use in restaurants and cookbooks. In 2017, France was the country with the second greatest number of restaurants holding the highest rating—three stars—from the prestigious Michelin Guide. With 26 such restaurants, France was just behind Japan, which led with 28—but one of Tokyo’s 3-starred restaurants was that of the late French chef Joël Robuchon. Of course, the Michelin Guide itself is French, indicating a continuing influence in the language and aesthetics of gastronomy. In November 2010, UNESCO added French gastronomy to its list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage.” Indeed, the word “gastronomy” owes its popularity, if not its origins, to a poem by Joseph Berchoux, called “La Gastronomie,” published in France in 1801.

France, however, has many cuisines. Aristocrats in medieval Gaul staged elaborate banquets in Roman Empire style to show off their status, imitating the banquets described by the first-century Roman writer Petronius in his Satyricon. Medieval courses were brought out all at once; diners ate them with their hands. Poultry and birds were favored because they flew and were thereby perceived as being closer to heaven. Swans and peacocks, dressed in their skin and plumage, were sometimes featured, but were stuffed with the more tasty meat of goose or chicken. Foods varied according to the seasons, with feasts usually following the autumn harvest. The relative scarcity of food during winter and early spring found expression in the early spring Lenten fasts. Following a meal, dragées, or candies, made from sugar cubes or hardened honey might be served along with cheese and spicy wine, such as hippocras (spiced wine). From these the dessert course evolved.

Haute cuisine emerged with cookbooks published in the late 17th and 18th centuries by François Pierre La Varenne and François Massialot, among others. They moved away from the Medieval combination of sweet and salty flavors within the same dish and argued for foods to reflect their origins in nature more than the elements of magical transformation often favored in earlier texts. Sweet flavors were moved exclusively to desserts at the end of the meal. The style of simpler, lighter, and the style of simpler, lighter, and more natural foods was called “nouvelle cuisine” as early as 1742 in a cookbook by Menon (the pseudonym of an otherwise unidentified author). As the monarchy grew in power, Paris—with markets at Les Halles and the rue Mouffetard, among other locations—replaced the rural aristocratic châteaux as the center of French culinary culture.

Associated with the rise of haute cuisine was the spread of restaurants, taking off toward the end of the 18th century and growing in substantial numbers with the rise of an increasingly influential bourgeoisie during and after the French Revolution. The original meaning of the French word “restaurant” was not a place but a bouillon: a soup or broth with meat consumed for medical purposes—in other words, a “restorative” to recover one’s health. A Monsieur Boulanger is sometimes said to have opened the first restaurant, where these bouillons were served, in 1765. Previously, dining outside the home had occurred at inns with fixed times and fixed menus or in the shops of traiteurs (caterers). In 1782, Antoine Beauvilliers established La Grande Taverne de Londres, generally agreed upon as the first luxury restaurant, in Paris. With the abolition of guilds during the French Revolution and the increased bourgeois clientele, restaurants surged in popularity. At a restaurant, as the gastronomic writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in The Physiology of Taste, “A man might dine at whatever hour best suits him, according to the circumstances in which he is placed by his affairs or pleasures.”

Another key to the modernization of haute cuisine in France was the dissemination of the fork, whose history goes back to the Eastern Mediterranean-Persian world of the sixth or seventh century B.C. France’s King Louis XIV (who reigned 1643-1715) had resisted using the fork, but its use spread rapidly after his death.

Cookbooks, including Antonin Carême’s Art de la cuisine française au XIXe siècle (1833) and Auguste Escoffier’s Guide culinaire (1903), helped develop and codify French haute cuisine. Carême focused on sauces, such as espagnole, velouté, and béchamel, still known today. Escoffier worked in collaboration with César Ritz in developing luxury hotels and is known for the creation of desserts like Pêche Melba and Crêpes Suzette. Escoffier’s work in hotels such as the Carlton in London helped link haute cuisine with restaurants in luxury hotels. Beginning in the 1920s, the world of the French restaurant was enshrined in the Michelin Guide’s restaurant rating system. As elsewhere in French life, state legislation played a key role in the protection and preservation of French haute cuisine. For instance, the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, first adopted in Bordeaux in 1855, requires AOC-certified wines to be produced in specific ways in designated geographic areas.

In contrast to the haute cuisine served in restaurants, cuisine bourgeoise developed as a style of home cooking generally for families with cooks. Advances in agriculture during the second half of the 18th century brought improvements in the breeding of pigs and other livestock. Along with the introduction of potatoes from the Americas, these advances increased the quantity of food available to the middle and lower classes. Les Halles attracted a new bourgeois consumer and also helped supply the new restaurants. In 1820, Paris had one butcher for every 2,400 inhabitants; the corresponding figure for 1847 was one for every 1,800. New dining times corresponded to the interests of the bourgeoisie. Service à la française, in which dishes were served all together on a large table in the salon, was replaced by service à la russe, with dishes presented one at a time in a salle à manger, or specific dining room in the home.

Cuisine populaire, or working-class cuisine, developed wit industrialization in the late 19th century. This cuisine, in both bistros and homes, may be best understood in terms of the foods of the French provinces, with their many differing wines and cheeses, as well as charcuterie, candies, and pastries. In 1958, the American expatriate writer Waverley Root published The Food of France, in which he divided the country into three domains determined by their cooking fat: the regions of butter, lard, and olive oil. The butter zone embraces Paris, the wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, the alpine regions to the east, and the northern coastal areas of Brittany and Burgundy. Lard is the base of the foods of Alsace and Lorraine, while oil is the base in Provence, Gascony, and the Basque country.

Burgundy, the region where I will guide a tour for the Alumnae Association of Mills College next year, is noted for both its wine and its food, with the most Michelin-starred restaurants outside Paris. Boeuf bourguignon, beef stewed in côte de Nuits or côte de Beaune red wine, may be Burgundy’s best-known dish. The beef is from Charolais, an area in the eastern part of the region. Other famous foods from Burgundy include poulet de Bresse, chicken from the town of Bresse, found on many restaurant menus throughout France, and moutarde de Dijon, mustard from Dijon. Escargots à la bourguignonne (Burgundy snails) are made with parsley butter, served in their shells, and eaten with a small “snail fork” or a toothpick. Burgundy wines date back to antiquity, the best known being the dry reds made from pinot noir and whites made from chardonnay grapes. More wines from Burgundy are now legally protected by AOC designations than are wines from any other French region. With some 400 types of soil producing different grapes, Burgundy wines are known by their terroirs, or areas of origin.

In the years following the Second World War, increased automobile usage made the regions and their cuisines more accessible to visitors from inside France and abroad. What is often considered “nouvelle cuisine” took off in the 1970s to describe a simplification of food preparation styles with shorter cooking times to render more intact their natural flavors. Steam cooking, the use of the freshest possible ingredients, shorter as opposed to longer menus,and the use of microwave ovens, for example, characterized nouvelle cuisine.

Today, there is no one “style” that has succeeded the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s. French cuisine will most likely continue to assimilate cultural influences from elsewhere. Grangousier, the fictional glutton in François Rabelais’ 16th century Gargantua, dined on couscous, a North African dish. With somewhere between six and eight million Muslims in France, including increased population of second- and third generation families, the availability of halal (Arabic for “permissible”) foods ha grown. Noting an assimilation of Muslim with other styles of popular French foods, the New York Times reported in 2010 that some French supermarkets were devoting entire aisles to halal products, including chicken sausage, paella, pizza bolognaise, and lasagna. French charcuterie and catering brands introduced halal foods, and Evian was placing a halal stamp on some of its bottles “to reassure its Muslim clientele that the bottles had never been in close contact with alcohol, which would render the water haram, or unclean.” A new generation of halal gourmets, according to the Times, was now being called “beurgeois,” a play on the words bourgeois and beur, slang for “Arab.”

And, as elsewhere, fast foods have gained popularity in France. To make its menus more attractive to local clientele, McDonald’s added salads, fresh fruit, sandwiches on baguettes, and AOC cheeses. Hamburgers, having been elevated in status by Michelin-starred chefs, have gained popularity. McDonald’s has also adjusted its hours to more closely match mealtimes in France, which, despite some slippage, are still more regular than those in America. Not surprisingly, there has been resistance against “imported” fast foods as well as “foreign” influences.

The identity of people in France with their foods has a long history and will continue into the future, though the specifics will likely evolve. To cite one instance, some have referred to a new style of “bistro cuisine” that combines regional foods and the nouvelle cuisine of 40 years ago. Undoubtedly, Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism, “Tell me what you eat; I will tell you who you are,” will remain, as will the staunch defenders of la cuisine française. ◆