Le cuisinier françois – or, research avoidance techniques part 96

by Nick

Over the last few weeks, one of my many distractions from getting any real work done has been coming across a mid-seventeenth century French recipe book on Early English Books Online.

The French Cook

Le cuisinier françois, by François Pierre La Varenne, was first published in 1651 in France, then translated into English in 1653 as The French Cook. I was quite surprised by the date it was translated – I know from many readings of Pepys that French tastes became rather fashionable after the Restoration (although even Pepys seems to have had doubts about black patches – I always smile at how faintly disapproving he is of Montagu’s racy fashion sense, despite tending to follow his lead not long afterwards). But I hadn’t appreciated that there was a market for this sort of publication during the Protectorate.

Here is a bit of context from Wikipedia about the culinary revolution that was underway at the time:

The seventeenth century saw a culinary revolution which transported French gastromomy into the modern era. The heavily spiced flavours inherited from the cuisine of the Middle Ages were abandoned in favour of the natural flavours of foods. Exotic spices (saffron, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, nigella, seeds of paradise) were, with the exception of pepper, replaced by local herbs (parsley, thyme, bayleaf, chervil, sage, tarragon). Sweet and sour flavours were banished, and any trace of sugar (considered a spice in the Middle Ages), outside of desserts, was considered bad taste. New vegetables like cauliflower, asparagus, peas, cucumber and artichoke were introduced. Special care was given to the cooking of meats in order to conserve maximum flavour. Vegetables had to be fresh and tender. Fish, with the improvement of transportation, had to be impeccably fresh. Preparation had to respect the gustatory and visual integrity of the ingredients instead of masking them as had been the practice previously. A saying by Varenne sums up his philosophy on this subject : “When I eat cabbage soup, I want it to taste like cabbage.”

The cookbook is a real joy to read. It goes through various seasons of the year and works its way through what can be done for various courses and for various types of food. It reminded me a little of Jamie Oliver in its cheerfully imprecise directions – not quite “take a handful of this” or “a wodge of that”, but close enough in the brief and warm tone with which its recipes are set out. Some of the recipes are beyond me purely down to techniques that I can’t recreate in my tiny kitchen. For example there is a pudding that requires caramelising using a heated shovel from the fire, and some other dishes that require hot coals. I didn’t think my puny kitchen blow torch would cope with either of these…

But I did try recreating a few other recipes. Here are a couple of the ones I ended up trying.

Salmon stewed – this was quite filling and the cloves and capers gave it an interesting taste – I think western cuisine these days is more used to slightly different flavours with salmon, eg lemon and coriander or dill. I think this recipe is still a bit of a hangover from medieval cooking styles.


Compote of pears – this was rather nice. Basically spiced pears in red wine, by another name, and a good wintery dish.


I searched around for a starter but thought I would spare myself “potage of tortoise” and other such delicacies…