Italian by birth and French by royalty, Caterina (Catherine) de’ Medici notably impacted the French royal kitchens and French cuisine, as we know it today.
The influential queen is attributed for many gastronomical introductions between France and Italy – and is said to have brought many Florentine dishes to the attention of Renaissance France.
The relation between Caterina de’ Medici and French cuisine
Caterina de’ Medici was born in Florence on April 13, 1519. She was a member of the powerful Italian Medici family and became the queen of France through her marriage to King Henry II. Caterina and Henry were married on October 28, 1533, both age fourteen. The couple had a total of ten children, six of whom survived infancy.
The great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent brought a cortège of Florentine chefs with her to France. These chefs were trained in the intricacies of Renaissance cuisine experts in preparing Italian delicacies that are now considered the hallmark of French culture.
Some historians say that before Caterina came to France, French table manners were still very crude compared to Italy. Forks were not commonly used and knives, spoons and finger-foods were the norm. Food was served that was easily speared on the point of a knife, eaten by hand, or could be placed on a slice of bread and swallowed easily. Utensils and cups were shared, and soups and stews were drunk straight from the bowl.
If you ask Italians, Caterina introduced cultural innovations from the Italian Renaissance that marked the beginning of a refinement in the culinary arts of France, yet the French would say that these innovations were already taking place prior to her arrival.
Cultural innovations introduced by Caterina in French cuisine
She is said to have established all sorts of new dining practices: plates, table decorations, and individual cutlery. Napkins were progressively utilized by the upper classes to protect the delicate tablecloths that adorned the tables, as well as their own clothes.
Caterina decorated her tables elegantly with flowers, table ornaments and silver forks, (which had long been used in Florence, but were almost rarely 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. Caterina brought in 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 – to enhance the visual side of the experience.
Caterina created cuisine fads such as fruit sorbet for example (after they were served at her wedding banquet).
Flavors from the Italian kitchen
The Italian princess introduced many flavors to the French menu. She is said to have brought artichokes, cabbage, truffles, caviar, mushrooms, figs, white beans and Italian wines to the French table. Her chefs shared their skills in making breads, cakes, and pastries – and in preparing fresh vegetables.
Caterina’s cousin, Marie de Medici married Henry IV of France – and her chef ‘La Varenne’, took inspiration from her Italian kitchen. He wrote the famous book Le Cuisinier Francaise (The French Cuisine), which discussed the many culinary developments that had been made due to Italian influence thanks to the Medici family’s culinary encouragement.
With the arrival of the Italian princess, French cuisine slowly moved away from silk-road spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg) and turned to local herbs (rosemary, sage, oregano, basil). Caterina recommended that savory and sweet flavors be separated (during Medieval times, sweet and savory shared the same plate). Rather than smothering food with spices, French cooks attempted to enhance natural flavors 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 included 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. Today, many French dishes with spinach in it are known as ‘Florentine style’ (ouefs à la florentine or poulet florentine, to name a couple) and according to some, is merit to de’ Medici.
It is believed that the famous French delicacy ‘Crêpe’ takes its name from the Crespelle alla Fiorentina – in Renaissance times it was known as “pezzuole della Nonna” (literally, “grandmother’s cloth”) where Italians stuffed them with Ricotta and – you guessed it – spinach!
Carabaccia was another of Caterina’s favorite Tuscan dishes. This unique onion soup is found in French cuisine today known as ‘Soup d’Oignon’.
Duck à l’orange was much appreciated at the Medici court in Florence and some say that Caterina’s chefs brought this dish with them from Italy. In Florence, the orange duck was known as Papero al Melarancio.
Colorful, soft, and delicately flavored, macaroons are perhaps one of the most famous and treasured desserts from France. Not all historians agree on the fact that macaroons were created by Italian monks in the Middle Ages and that Caterina’s pastry chefs brought them over to France from Italy, where they had been produced in Venetian monasteries since the 8th century.
Salsa Colla (literally translating to “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 always accurately) credited with introducing Italian cuisine and dining innovations to France, via the Italian cooks who followed her there after her marriage.
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, Caterina’s philosophy of dining became wildly popular among the wealthy upper class, and some of her favorite ingredients (spinach, garlic, caviar and truffles) became central to the French palate.
With the facts we do have, it is believed that 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 flavors.