Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Michelin Guide photo courtesy of the Michelin Guides
A Brief History of Modern European Cuisine
The roots of modern European cuisine go all the way back to ancient Rome and the Renaissance… many of the Roman recipes and ways of food preparation can still be found today, in modern homes and restaurant tables.
I happen to love raw clams and will tolerate raw oysters if, like the oysters beloved in ancient Rome, they are bathed in mignonette sauce with drops of Tabasco added. And what is mignonette sauce and Tabasco? It is a sauce very similar to the mixture of garum – a spicy brine made from fermented fatty fish like sardines and mackerel -- with chopped shallots and additional spices, used by Roman cooks of the aristocracy to disguise the poor flavor of oysters imported from Northern France and the English Channel in pitch-lined barrels, pickled in vinegar. A modern version of a garum equivalent can be found on the shelves of any Asian grocery as a Thai Nam Pla and Vietnamese Nuoc Mam fish sauces as well as the Filipino Patis.
In England they still cube meats to make stews and pies, the same treatment given to meat by Europeans of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Roast Beef is still served thinly sliced as it was served from the kitchens of King Henry VIII. And a heavy seasoning of garum, onions, mustard seed, garlic and ground dried sweet peppers i.e. paprika, is found in a Roman beef or lamb stew as well as in a modern Hungarian gouliás (goulash); only in the goulash case, the garum has been substituted by tomato paste and the mustard seeds by caraway seeds. In both Roman and modern recipes cubed meat, which is usually an inexpensive cut, is cooked for a very long time at low temperature until the meat starts falling apart.
The Roman influence can also easily be recognized in two of the earliest recipe books “The Forme of Cury” by the royal cooks of Richard II, a Medieval recipe compendium, and a few years before that Guillome Tirel, also known as Taillevent, had published a French recipe book “Le Viandier” using similar recipes and advice such as fish or meat in aspic, custard tarts and the importance of heavy seasoning.
In the early 16th century, the French culinary culture was heavily influenced by the refined cuisine of Renaissance Italy, while the rest of Europe was still eating Medieval fare similar to the cruder dishes the Roman legions had consumed. It was in Italy that the first actual cookbook was printed with advice about ingredients, methods of preparation, healthy eating, and enjoyable living.
By the 17th century, the gastronomic focus had moved solidly to France fueled by the culinary excesses of the royal courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV. By that time, chefs de cuisine have started to be recognized as legendary figures with a deep knowledge of how to create excellent dishes that not only tasted good but also looked interesting. Very fascinating to note is that until then, men were the only ones considered to be the very best cooks and all the cuisiners serving aristocratic houses and the court were men. A feminist of sort for the period, Madame du Barry, brought the first prominent female cook to the attention of Louis XV who, up to that point, had refused to accept the fact that women could be exceptional cooks as good as men. In recognition to her skill la cuisinière was awarded the Cordon Bleu, the Royal order of Saint Esprit.
Today, Le Cordon Bleu is a renowned network of educational institutions dedicated to providing the highest level of culinary and hospitality instruction through world class programs.
The 18th century brought in the writings of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer by profession but gastronome at heart. His musings, Physiologie du Goût, i.e. The Physiology of Taste, was published in December 1825, two months before his death.
In 1832 when Otto, born Prince Otto Friedrich Ludwig of Bavaria, the son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was installed to the Greek throne as the first modern king after the war of liberation from the Ottoman Empire, he brought as part of his retinue “one master cook, one pâtissier, a master saucier, a soup maker and a master beer maker”. Descendants of these culinary specialists are still found in Greece as the Fix (Fuchs) beer making family and the Zonars pastry shops and restaurants -- Karolos Zonars, a scion of the Viennese pâtissier that came to Greece with Otto, had gone to the United States in the 1930s and became a chocolatier before returning to Athens and opening his eponymous pastry shop and restaurant.
Modern cuisine got a major improvement under chef Auguste Escoffier who, together with famous hotel manager César Ritz, created and named numerous dishes at the Savoy, Europe's first true luxury hotel, for some of the most notable regular female guests such as the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, lyric soprano Dame Nellie Melba, and Lillie Langtry; a few of those recipes are still used in restaurants worldwide, as in “Pêche Melba” a dish made up of skinless very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a sugared purée of raspberry. He wrote a cookbook “Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery” which is, even now, considered a seminal work to be studied by any cook, professional or not.
The most influential restaurant guide, Le Guide Michelin, was not published until 1904, when the Michelin Tire Company gave it away free, as a premium to the purchasers of their tires; it was a list of French provincial restaurants so that drivers would find good food when driving through the provinces. Now, Michelin stars as well as other Michelin awards are given to restaurants on a world-wide basis. Each country has a book referred to as Le Guide Rouge i.e. the Red Guide that bestows to the better restaurants awards, not only stars but also forks -- 5 forks is the highest award meaning a high-priced luxury establishment, and the Bib Gourmand -- named after Bibendum, the official company mascot for the Michelin Group -- a just as important rating as the stars, that recognizes restaurants that serve very good food at moderate prices.
The very early guides were just a list of good restaurants outside Paris and their addresses. Michelin started with the single star-rating of restaurants in France in 1926 and two- and three- star ratings commenced in 1931 by sending anonymous inspectors to evaluate the establishments. The Michelin stars currently mean: single star “good cooking in its class”; two stars “excellent cooking worth a detour”; three “great cooking worth of a special journey”. Every restaurant that is reviewed is considered, as long as the establishment is deemed by the anonymous raters of high enough quality, based on Michelin’s five restaurant rating criteria: quality of product, mastery of flavor and cooking technique, harmony of flavors, consistency of dishes tasted during an inspector's visits and finally, the personality of the chef represented in the dining experience.
Each March, the entire culinary world becomes involved in speculation as to who gains a star… who loses a star… who remains as a starred chef. Only about 150 chefs worldwide have received three Michelin stars and, even fewer, multiple stars for a number of restaurants under their leadership. Bernard Daniel Jacques Loiseaua was a French chef that committed suicide when rumors were printed in a local newspaper that he was losing one of the three stars his restaurant had attained.
Present day Master Chefs with multiple restaurants no longer rattle pots and pans on the stoves of the restaurants that bear their name. They are business persons first; they have chefs de cuisine and line cooks and other culinary specialists doing the actual work. What they do is develop the recipes and the “look” of the dishes they serve in their restaurants, train key staff in the kitchen, deal with bankers and architects and decorators, and direct a cadre of purchasing agents, advertising agencies and public relations publicists.
If you ever get into the actual kitchen of a 5-star hotel or a Michelin-stared restaurant you will probably find somewhere, a thick loose-leaf tome of very detailed recipes of ingredients and execution, plus photographs of what a finished dish should look like. I saw such a book in the kitchens of the Hôtel de Crillon, in Paris, when Christian Constant was Head Chef, and another at the Royal Garden, in Honk Kong, and one at the kitchens of the Sala Rim Naam of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. It is part of the myriad details that can make or break a Gordon Ramsey or an Alain Ducasse or an Elena Arzak when they manage multiple stared restaurants on a world-wide basis.
By the end of the 20th century, the culinary focus has moved from France to other parts of the world. Nowadays, Spain is considered as important for gastronomic excellence and innovation as France and so is East Asia; mostly Japan, Thailand and Eastern China. They have become the focus of modern gastronomy for lighter but exceptional food preparation of many starch- fish- pork- and vegetable- based dishes.
Sushi, has become a major culinary trend around the world. Dim sum are served in every major world capital. The Indian continent is contributing culinary variety with classic dishes that were first brought to Europe by the colonials of the British Empire. A few African dishes are starting to appear in Europe as well, brought by the heavy emigration out of the African continent of individuals looking for a better life.
As travel to other parts of the world became easier, faster and less taxing, the culinary horizons have constantly expanded and “exotic ingredient” availability has increased. What used to take months and considerable expense and discomfort to attain by using trade routes like the Silk Road to the Far East or the Transiberian Railroad, can now be achieved in a very few hours flight. From a culinary point of view, we are all better off for it.
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