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Tastes of the Pyrenees, Classic and Modern by Marina Chang (Hippocrene Books, February 2003. $24.95 hardcover) is as much a book for reading by those who love food and the lore that accompanies the food of any region, as it is a cookbook. Each recipe is preceeded by text that would stand on it's own. The introduction is followed by some 50 odd pages of text about the region and its wines. The text posted below is from the section Defining the Pyrenees, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author and publisher.

Voyages of Discovery and the Modern Era

The defeat and expulsion of the Moors from the Peninsula in January 1492 sparked the voyages of discovery to the New World later that year, opening new vistas of cuisine for all of Europe. Columbus had been entreating Ferdinand and Isabella for their patronage for years, and the culmination of the Reconquista allowed the monarchs to refocus their energies on his proposed explorations. Among the new foods that Columbus and other explorers brought to Europe were maize (corn), potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, peanuts, tomatoes, capsicum peppers, chocolate, vanilla, green peppers, and turkeys. Potatoes, a staple of the region today, were originally consumed mostly by animals. They were banned at one time in Burgundy because some thought that potatoes caused leprosy, and were not accepted for human consumption in France until the mid-eighteenth century.

Despite the potential availability of so many new food products, most medieval fare tended to consist of the most readily available local foods. In addition, the church calendar determined days of meat eating and fasting (abstaining) from all products of land animals, including eggs and milk. The original stock pot (pot-au-feu) provided an ever-changing broth that was enriched daily by whatever vegetables happened to be in season or the luck of the hunt. In Roussillon such dishes were called ouillade. Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spanish cuisine had little upper class cooking and Catalonian cuisine had apparently declined with the region?s economic and political fortunes. Except for the Spanish court (which ate varied and highly seasoned foods) most everyone was likely to eat a salad and a version of an olla podrida -- a thick meat stew to which was added garbanzos, cabbage, carrots, or squash and cooked in a three-legged earthen pot. Even today a stew of the omnipresent rabbit is a mainstay in rural areas. On Friday, the main course was lentils; on Saturday boiled bones; and on Sunday pigeons. In coastal areas, seafood was abundant, common fare, and salted cod (bacalao) was available far from the coast.

Many believe that the arrival of Italian-born Catherine de Medici in France in 1533 was pivotal to the development of France?s culinary arts. De Medici and her cooking staff introduced delicacies previously unknown to the French, as well as strict etiquette policies. French royal cuisine became much more refined in the mid-seventeenth century when it became known as the grande cuisine. Changes included vegetables (green peas, asparagus, carrots, artichokes) becoming food in their own right, the use of flour and butter roux as thickening agents, and the growing importance of soups. Indeed, the earliest collections of French recipes (which reflected the diets of aristocrats and nobles) were essentially devoid of vegetables because physicians believed they had little nutritional value. Nevertheless, vegetables in the south of France, including the Pyrenean region, have always had a more important role than they do in northern regions. These refinements were codified by the chef Pierre Francois de la Varenne in Le Cuisinier François (1651), in which he created sauces that later would become the basis of haute cuisine. During the ensuing century, improvements in cooking spread from the nobility to ordinary people. Cookery books such as La Cuisinière Bourgeoise by Menon (1746) became popular with housewives. The medieval menu consisting of meat and bread survived in many parts of Europe and North America through much of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, cooking in France had been elevated into food for philosophy as well as nutrition for the stomach. Frenchmen in their inimitable manner became convinced that in matters of taste, France was superior to all nations and cultures. Truffles became fashionable in France in the nineteenth century, although the hills and forests of the Pyrenees region have provided a wide variety of fungi that the locals have consumed with alacrity since time immemorial?cepes, yellow chanterelles, saffron milk caps, and morels.

By the early nineteenth century the French meal had evolved into three courses: appetizers and main dishes; 'afters' or puddings and savories; and pastry. Marie Antoine Carême set the standards for classic French cooking with a five-volume publication, which was later modernized and perfected by Georges Auguste Escoffier. Catalonia experienced a renaissance, and its cuisine benefited from French and Italian merchants and the immigrant restaurateurs who fed them. The first relatively modern cookbook -- the anonymous La Cuynera Catalana -- appeared in Barcelona in 1835. Basic foods throughout Europe slowly improved with the development of scientific agriculture in the eighteenth century. Successive modernization of transportation has enabled cooks in recent times to employ a wider variety of fresh products that are produced far from her or his home. Developments in preservation technologies such as canning and freezing have improved cuisine, as well as the manufacture of stoves that provide even heat.

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