French cuisine would not be what it is today if it weren’t for the influence of Italy, first and foremost through the culinary icon Catherine de Medici. Catherine, a Florentine who married into French nobility at the age of 14, had a profound influence on the Renaissance in 16th century France, specifically on French haute cuisine and entertaining. This plump young lady, who was later nicknamed “The Italian Grocer”, moved to Paris to wed King Henry of France, and while she shared no influence during his lifetime, the era following his death in 1574 was named “The Age of Catherine de’ Medici” because of her political influence during her 3 sons reigns and perhaps also due to her contributions to French Gastronomy.
When Catherine moved to France, she brought with her a crew of friends, servants, cooks, and waiters who can be held responsible for the French/Italian fusion. This group was responsible for exposing the French to new vegetables such as Savoy cabbage, broccoli, peas, boiled and fava beans, parsley, and artichokes. They also introduced new fruits including apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, figs, and melons. And while Italian chefs from her crew introduced secret recipes such as canard a l’orange (duck in orange), Catherine herself was responsible for a different idea of separating sweet and salty as well.
While this gluttonous lady was not very popular with the French, they particularly liked the desserts that she brought with her. In addition to breads, cakes, pastries, and marmalades, her ice cream and flavor ices, also known as sorbets, were a huge hit among the French. In fact, ice cream was a favorite among them as it was difficult to produce and ice was limited, causing it to originally be limited mostly to the wealthy. Other rich delights that she exposed to her new country were butters and truffles; aspics, a gelatin made from meat stock; and béchamel and other sauces. Another rich recipe that was introduced to the French was carabaccia, or onion soup.
Along with the food, Catherine brought a new elegant style and refinement to the table. She believed in a more lavish, gluttonous style of entertaining that included a more proper, civilized table setting. In fact, before Catherine only 2 utensils were utilized. It is she that introduced the fork to the French dinner table. She also brought more luxurious dishes and glasses so that the format of events was more proper. Venetian crystal glasses and fine silverware had been unheard of before Catherine de Medici graced them with her presence.
While Catherine may not have been the most admired individual in the French court, her presence without a doubt inspired and influenced French cuisine and affects meals served even today.