THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Vincennes | Rendezvous with Rousseau-3 — Company of the Cauldron

Let them eat … chestnut cake!

A significant event was the founding in 1512 of the curiously named company of the cauldron by Giovan Francesco Rustici in Florence. The motto of the company was l‘arte si fa a cena (the art of dining). It innocently sought culture and conviviality, good taste and simplicity, frankness and friendliness. Rustici was a painter and sculptor, friend of Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo de Vinci and cousin to Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement). At small banquets the members of the company, which included the imaginative gastronome del Sarto, had an obligation to bring a dinner of their own invention and if two had had the same thought they were sentenced to a penalty.

By the mid-1600s, with Catherine de’ Medici ensconced in Paris as crown consort then regent, this new attitude to food became an aristocratic obsession. It spread through the same courts that had produced the recipe-collecting chefs. The Castillian, Catalonian, Neopolitan, Sicilian, Tuscan and Venetian styles, among others from the Iberian and Italian regions, penetrated the French court with chefs, confectioners and pâtissiers trained in the emerging style, that would soon became known as the classical manner, later to be called haute cuisine.

The de’ Medicis – Catherine and fifty years later Maria, Queen to Henri the fourth – are believed to have been the instigators, following the sentiments of Pope Clement. He would have luxuriated in the extravagances taken at the grand banquet for Maria‘s wedding, where the cornucopia of flavours and architectural displays of food epitomised the Tuscan attitude to food. Within five generations a dominant aristocratic paradigm was created, the chefs of the aristocracy bringing exquisite care and infinite attention to detail in the provision and preparation of food.

There has always been a close relationship between traditional food preparation and high culinary expertise in Europe. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie always made sure they had access to fresh produce and artisanal products, particularly charcuterie, while the peasantry and poor were left with staples – milk, butter, buttermilk, cream and cheese, legumes, root and leaf vegetables, the bits of animals that were not favoured by the rich, small game (songbirds, hares, rabbits, squirrels), bramble fruit, forest herbs, field and forest mushrooms, forest nuts and flour from rye and spelt grains, and then later, when they were introduced from America, beans, chillies, corn, potatoes and tomatoes, and of course rice from Asia.

Now, if you look at the number of genuine recipes that are based on local produce and traditional methods you will see that they out-number by a huge margin haute cuisine dishes, and sometimes when you look closer at haute cuisine recipes you see they are reinterpretations of traditional dishes.

Soups and stews predominate among traditional dishes, many made with leftover and preserved food, products of the mother of invention because waste is never allowed or tolerated. Dairy and meat based sauces, by comparison, were the preserve of the chefs who worked for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Then there was the baking tradition, for centuries, as Diderot lamented, a simple household activity. Breads were made from fermented doughs. Pouch-shaped and thin breads, pastries and pies, and small and large bread rolls were designed to hold food. It was pragmatism versus idealism.

There is no longer an argument about the origins of pâtisserie. All you have to do is look through the history of Anatolian cuisine, and its relationship with the Levant and north Africa. By the time the Seljuks and Ottomans came along, pâtisserie was established throughout the eastern and southern Mediterranean Basin. The Viennese might have seduced the French and the Danes with their methods, but all they had done was adapt a baking tradition thousands of years older than the Ottomans who had claimed it before them.

Yet there is no argument against pastry as a component of haute cuisine, in the same way that sauces have remained haute cuisine, whether they are savoury or sweet. Most pastes, sauces and stocks are reductions, one of the first skills the modern trainee chef is taught, yet the majority of trained chefs are unable to make a simple sauce when they take up their first employment.

The majority of chefs who join restaurants have no true understanding of traditional food produce and artisanal products, which is why the clever chefs always steal from the traditional schools, from the people who slave day in and day out all day long to produce exquisite breads and cakes and pastries and preparations with meat and vegetables and herbs and spices that are simplicity defined.

… continued in part 4.