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Food and Culture in Europe, Part I

Food and Culture in Europe, Part I

My first meal with Paola’s family in Italy was memorable. When Paola leaned over to me and said, “the more you eat, the more they’ll like you,” I had no worries. I was seventeen, in love, and hungry. Two hours later I was the only one left eating when Paola leaned over and whispered, “I think you can stop now.” I guess they liked me.

One culinary adventure led to another and here we are almost forty years later continuing our search for great travel experiences and new culinary adventures. Join me as I wander through some of my favorite books about food and gastronomy in Europe. As a geographer my interest is in the history and geography of food and how food relates to culture. So if you are preparing for an ExperiencePlus! bicycle tour, hiking tour or walking tour in Europe or are just wandering vicariously in your armchair over the winter, you’re likely to find something here to entertain and inform you.

Food in History, Reay Tannahill (first published in 1973 but still a classic)

We are culture bound in so many ways. But food traditions constrain us far more than most other cultural constraints. In short, old habits, especially those related to food and eating, die hard. Just how you set the table or the order in which you eat (does the salad come first or last? Vote with our online, one-question survey) are cultural habits you learned (and then forgot, perhaps) from your mother and grandmother. They in turn learned from their mothers and grandmothers, and on back to the Middle Ages.

If you are interested in the broad span of food throughout history Reay Tannahill’s book Food in History, first published in 1973 is still a classic. You’ll likely remember the nursery rhyme, “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old?” This describes the daily fare for the Medieval peasant, especially in northern and central Europe where firewood was abundant and the stew pot (pot-au-feu or stock pot) was always on. According to the season it gathered vegetables or dry legumes such as lentils, or barley, rye and kernels of wheat.

On a holiday or on a Sunday the stew pot might absorb a chicken, quail, rabbit or other game animal while the wealthier classes might eat roasted meats along with their stew or “frumenty” mixture made by thickening stew with barley or other grains. Tannahill takes you from the ancient through the Medieval period and into the present by explaining how the eating habits of Western Europe developed, although Tannahill writes little of “nouvelle cuisine” which we have come to know so well in the last forty years.

What is Nouvelle Cuisine? Food Renaissance or Revolution?

My Encyclopedia Britannica defines “nouvelle cuisine” as a style of French cuisine that :

“developed in the 1960s and 1970s that stresses freshness, lightness, and clarity of flavour. . . . Foods are lightly cooked; vegetables are crisp, meats and poultry are served rare, and fish is barely cooked through. . . Luxury is achieved through meticulous preparation and imaginative presentation and through the liberal use of truffles, caviar, lobster, duck, squab, and delicacies among fruits and vegetables. Kiwi fruits, raspberries, mangoes, and other exotic fruits are frequently combined with meats and seafood, and fruit-flavored vinegars are a popular seasoning.”

In short, the nouvelle cuisine of the last fifty years consisted of new ingredients prepared in new ways just as the first nouvelle cuisine which developed during the Renaissance. This food “Renaissance” in 15th century Europe arose as a result of increased trade, the importation of spices from the orient and the creation of a bourgeois class through commerce. The result was a major change in how Europeans ate.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, for example, food no longer came just from the village and nearby forest into the stew pot but it might come from throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The Renaissance table, especially for the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie was literally a wide selection of dishes, meats, cheeses, vegetables and breads served all at once on one large table. I like to think of it as a huge, sit-down buffet.

It took two more centuries, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, however, to give us European cooking (namely French and Italian) as we now know it. This was literally the “nouvelle cuisine” that we inherited over the last two hundred years and which has gone through various iterations in time.

For a wonderful introduction to the “first” nouvelle cuisine in France in the 15th and 16th centuries and its development through the 19th century you’ll find this volume fascinating: French Food: On the Table, On the Page, and in French Culture, Edited by Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss (New York: Routledge, 2001).

The biggest change from the Renaissance cooking happened in the early 19th century in France. The lead essay in the Schehr and Weiss book is by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. She writes about “A Cultural Field in the Making: Gastronomy in Nineteenth-Century France,” and describes the process by which 19th century French gastronomy became “codified” making it part and parcel of the French national identity.

Until the French revolution French food continued to be served in 15th century style. Tables were densely set, banquet or buffet style (see the photo accompanying this review). Diners simply reached for whatever they wanted to eat. Ferguson writes about how this changed when the Russian ambassador to France in 1810-11 introduced the “Russian style” of dining. By serving meals one course and one dish at a time, order was created out of chaos. All of a sudden the “royal style of dining” in which the King ate whatever he wanted, became more democratized with all diners being served the same portions at the same time on a single plate. This, indeed, was a revolution in dining that, through the writings of French chefs and “gastronomes” of the period became the accepted “nouvelle cuisine” of 19th century France.

Ferguson’s essay is the introduction to this volume. If you are interested in French food and French literature, you’ll find enough to satisfy you here all winter long. Philip Hyman expands on the “nouvelle cuisine” concept in his essay about Antonin Carême, author of l’Art de la Cuisine Française. Carême’s book provided a critical bridge to the 17th and 18th centuries of French cuisine, identifying everything that was wrong with the cooking of that period and updating French gastronomy to become the standard by which all cooking is judged.

The other essays presented by Schehr and Weiss are wide ranging beginning with Pierre Verdauguer’s essay on “The Politics of Food in Post-WWII French Detective Fiction,” (yes, he writes at length about food in George Simenon’s Maigret detective stories; see my review on Simenon). The essay entitled “The Betrayal of Moules-Frites: This Is (Not) Belgium” presents Belgium as a sub-region of France in-so-far as food is concerned, further widens the range. And if you are interested in French film, Dana Strand’s essay addresses bread as a symbol of French culture across three generations (“Film, Food, and ‘La Francité:’ from le pain quotidien to McDo.”)

This last essay title reminds me of the only time in my life when I’ve been asked if I wanted to “super-size” my order. It was at an auto-grill on the French autoroute. The young woman at the cash register asked me this in French. It took me a minute to understand the cross-cultural marketing question. Was this the 21st century “nouvelle cuisine?” I recovered in time to respond, “no, merci.”

(I must apologize to all of you because I can’t remember the accepted term in French to “super-size” something). Anyone remember? Send me a note (rick@experienceplus.com) and I’ll update my essay!


  • Food in History by Reay Tannahill (first published in 1973).
  • French Food: On the Table, On the Page, and in French Culture, Edited by Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Happy cuisine!