The Medici influence on French Culinary Art

She Legends
5 min readSep 8, 2020

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Caterina di Medici was born in Florence on 13 April 1519 and was a member of the powerful Italian Medici family. She became the queen of France through her marriage to King Henry II.

Her impact was notably felt in the French royal kitchens.

The influential Italian is attributed to many gastronomical introductions between France and Italy — including bringing many Florentine dishes to the attention of Renaissance France.

Catherine, the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, brought with her a cortege of Florentine chefs. These chefs were trained in the intricacies of Renaissance cuisine — experts in preparing Italian delicacies that are now considered the hallmark of French culture.

Elegance and design

Before Caterina came to France, French table manners were still fairly simple compared to Italy. Forks were not commonly used. Knives, spoons and finger food were the norm. Food served was easily speared on the point of a knife, eaten by hand, or placed on a slice of bread and gulped down. Utensils and cups were shared, and soups and stews were drunk straight from the bowl.

Caterina introduced cultural innovations from the Italian Renaissance that marked the beginning of a type of refinement in the culinary arts of France. She established all sorts of new dining practices, including plates, table decorations, and individualized cutlery. Napkins were also progressively utilized by the upper classes to protect the delicate tablecloths that decorated the tables, as well as their own clothes

Caterina decorated her tables with flowers, table ornaments and silver forks (which had long been used in Florence but were almost never found on French tables.) The use of forks (and Italian table manners) quickly spread to wealthy French families who were eager to adopt this new Italian trend.

The Italian princess also brought delicate crystal glasses, glazed plates, and embroidered tablecloths. Prior to Caterina — ladies only entered the dining room on special occasions. With her arrival, women became a part of the feast for the first time. Dressed in all their finery, they enhanced the dining experience. Caterina created cuisine fads such as fruit sherbet (after they were served at her wedding banquet) ice cream and sorbet.

The Italian princess introduced many flavours to the French menu.

She is said to have brought artichokes, cabbage, truffles, caviar, mushrooms, figs, Italian wines and white beans to the French table. Her chefs shared their skills in making bread, cakes, and pastries — and how to prepare fresh vegetables.

La Varenne

Caterinas cousin ‘Marie de Medici’ married Henry IV of France, and her chef Varenne, took inspiration from the Italian kitchen. La Varenne wrote a famous book: Le Cuisinier Francaise, which discussed the culinary developments in France that had been made thanks to the Medici family’s culinary encouragement.

Italian innovation

With the arrival of Catherine, French cuisine slowly moved away from silk-road spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg) and turned towards garden herbs (rosemary, sage, oregano, basil). Caterina recommended that savoury and sweet flavours be separated (during medieval times, sweet and savoury had shared the same plate) and rather than smothering food with spices, French cooks attempted to enhance natural flavours instead.

Soon, meat was served in its own juices and fish was served in sauces that were created with fish stock. Other Italian dishes that Caterina introduced to France include Spinach, Crêpes, Soup d’Oignon, Macaroons and Béchamel sauce.

Legend has it that Caterina loved spinach so much that she insisted it be included in every meal and even today, any dish with spinach in it has become known to the French as ‘Florentine style’.

Crêpes or Crespelle?

The famous French delicacy ‘Crêpes’ takes its name from the Crespelle alla Fiorentina — in Renaissance times, it was known as pezzuole della nonne (literally, “grandmother’s cloth”), unlike the French habit of eating crêpes sweet — Italians stuffed them with Ricotta and (you guessed it) spinach!

Carabaccia was another of Caterina’s favourite Tuscan dishes. This unique onion soup is found in French cuisine today under the name ‘Soup d’Oignon’.

Duck à l’orange was much appreciated at the Medici court in Florence — Catarina’s chefs brought this dish with them from Italy. In Florence, the orange duck was known as Papero al Melarancio.

Macarons

Colourful, soft, and delicately flavoured, macarons are perhaps one of the most famous and treasured French desserts. But these delicious treats are actually Italian!

Macarons were created by Italian monks in the Middle Ages. Caterina’s pastry chefs brought the Macaron to France from Italy, where they had been produced in Venetian monasteries since the 8th century.

Béchamel Sauce

Salsa Colla (“glue sauce”) was the Italian prototype of Béchamel Sauce. In Renaissance times, the common population did not have the luxury of modern refrigeration and therefore, they rarely used milk in their recipes since it spoiled quickly. Only the noble-born families could use milk in their sauces, so it is very plausible that Caterina’s chefs did indeed bring Béchamel sauce to the French kitchen. During Caterina’s reign, bread was replaced as a thickener by the lighter roux, flour and butter combined with a meat stock. The roux still remains part of the repertoire of French chefs today.

The Italian princess Caterina di Medici is frequently (if not accurately) credited with introducing Italian cuisine and dining innovations to France via the Italian cooks who followed her there.

How influential was Caterina?

While many historians argue as to whether Caterina was really that pivotal to furthering the evolution of French cuisine, it is not possible to deny the gastronomic mark she left on her adopted home country's culinary culture.

In addition to leaving her stamp on fashion and society (thanks to her we have high heels and underpants), Catarina’s philosophy of dining became wildly popular among the wealthy upper classes, and her favourite ingredients (spinach, garlic, caviar and truffles) became central to the French palette.

Caterina started a Renaissance trend of perfection in culinary service in France. Her court introduced refinements in table etiquette, sophisticated utensils, and a complex dining ritual that was further elaborated over the following centuries, turning the French dinner table into a mesmerizing art of beautiful presentation and contemporary flavours.

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