It is difficult to try to define Parisian gastronomy because the capital devours with gourmandise wines and exotic delicacies. However, it is in the bakery that one really feels the beating heart of the capital. Cradle of the “baguette” which was invented in the XVIth century, it will migrate to the province only towards the middle of the XXth century. As to Parisian patisserie, it exalts light pastes and embraces evocative names such as “Saint-Honoré”, “Paris-Brest”, or “Opéra”. It is also adorned in nobleness and tradition, much like the famous “macarons” of the “Ladurée” shop at rue Royale since 1867…
From a historical viewpoint, the real boom in French and Parisian cuisine takes place during the reign of the absolute and centralist monarchy, which reached its peak under Louis XIV in the XVIIth century in Versailles.
At that epoch, the one-upmanship in dishes and preparations is a reflection of the pyramid-like structure of politics, with the Sun King installed at the top. Thus, lavish meals, stage-managed to great effect, become a means of glorifying the sovereign.
The reign of Louis XIV, from 1643 to 1715 established the importance of “etiquette” which represents the set of rules defining the procedures and hierarchies in force at the court as well as good wining and dining.
In this context, the Duke of Saint-Simon, chronicler of life at the court, pays tribute to this monarch with the vast appetite, who encourages service in the French manner, thus all the dishes are served at the same time, with guests arranged around the table according to a precise table plan, to which the Sun King adds an unbelievable amount of decorum. Hence, Saint-Simon writes about Louis XIV: “In everything he loved splendor, magnificence, profusion. This taste, he turned it into maxims through politics, and inspired him in everything at his court”.
In 1651, La Varenne publishes his work “Le Cuisinier français”, which introduces a new conception of culinary art. One hundred thousand copies of this book are printed, which constitutes a record at that epoch!
As to François Massialot, he structures the recipes and proposes a French model transposable to the dining rooms of the middle-classes and foreign courts, namely through his renowned book “Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois”, published in 1691.
According to Anthony Rowley, author of the book “A table!”, there is no doubt that Louis XIV bestowed on gastronomy its national supremacy. He is also responsible for cultivating the art of conversation at table. As a matter of fact, in France, people appreciate not only the pleasures of fine dining but also that of talking about it, a practice that often surprises foreign visitors.
Under the old regime, the Court of France is the crucible for “la Grande Cuisine”, with dining becoming a means of government and of exercising political influence. That was the case for instance during the amazing banquet given by François I in 1520, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, to convince Henry VIII of England to become his ally against the emperor Charles V.
After the revolution, this tradition endures, namely under the First Empire, when emperor Napoleon I addresses these words during a sumptuous dinner: “Gentlemen, France has been saved by you!”. Even today, through diplomatic receptions, the art of fine dining contributes to exerting the influence of France over the whole world.
Afterwards, the great turning point in Parisian gastronomy is due to the French cook Beauvilliers who, in 1782, opens the first true restaurant in Paris: “La grande taverne de Londres”, on the Rue de Richelieu.
This great restaurant, the first of its kind in Paris, is constituted of richly decorated rooms, elegant lounges, a perfect service and mostly an exquisite cuisine as well as an admirable cave. Endowed with an excellent memory, Beauvilliers is capable of recognizing his guests and guiding them in their choices. He had been the Chef of the Count of Provence, hence, he greets his guests with the sword on the lap and the official uniform (officier de bouche de réserve). He remains for more than twenty years unrivaled for the Parisian upper class. In 1814, he publishes “L’art du cuisinier”, where he writes about cooking, the order of dishes and service.
After the success of Beauvilliers, the concept of restaurant largely evolves between 1790 and 1814, when the great cooks from aristocratic houses find themselves out of work after the nobles flee abroad; therefore they decide to open their own restaurants. As such, under the influence of the French Revolution, the Grande Cuisine makes its way to the general public.
Where taste is concerned, French seasonings such as shallots and spring onions, but also anchovies and, above all, the famous truffle replaced spices as of the XVIIth century. The contrast between savory and sweet remains one of the main characteristics of French taste until the XXth century, after the introduction of sweet in the French cuisine in the XVIth century under the Italian influence. However, it is first and foremost the use of butter, first used in Italy in fine cooking, that becomes the distinctive trait of great French cuisine.
Hence, the France of the Third Republic (1870-1940) is marked by a rich and bourgeois cuisine, consisting of never-ending banquets and menus. This tradition carries on to the seventies, until the emergence of the “nouvelle cuisine”, which strives to be natural, dietary and original. This is due to two food critics, Christian Millau and Henri Gault, who call upon chefs to innovate, lighten their sauces, preserve the flavor of the produce and be more receptive to foreign cuisines.
This period is characterized by great chefs who left their marks on the gastronomy of the country and even worldwide for some people: Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, Alain Chapel, André Pic…
After one generation characterized by excesses, too much innovation that killed innovation, the great French cuisine initiated, towards the end of the eighties, a return to authentic regional produce, without abandoning the lessons in finesse taught by the nouvelle cuisine.