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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Catherine de Medici. Italy’s Greatest Gift to French cuisine?

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated 2017.
Catherine’s marriage to Prince Henry.
This painting was made some 17 years after the actual wedding.

Catherine, the most influential Italian 
in the history of French cuisine.
Medicis, Catherine de - Catherine de Medici (1519–89).  Catherine's influence on French cuisine was a side-effect of her marriage, in Paris, at age 14, to Prince Henry, also age 14; Henry was the son of King Francis I of France. That marriage changed French cuisine forever, and Catherine’s and her Florentine family were directly responsible.
Catherine came to France accompanied by a retinue of Florentine chefs, cooks, market gardeners and vintners; a wedding gift from her father Lorenzo de' Medici, the absolute ruler of Florence. At that time, Florence was Europe’s undisputed center of fine cuisine.  Catherine’s chefs brought much more than pasta; they brought new soft drinks such as lemonade and orangeade; her market gardeners brought many different herbs and vegetables including a love for basil.  The vintners also brought new eau de vies, fruit brandies, and new methods of wine production.  The French eau-de-vie, called Marc is a direct relation to the Italian Grappa.
Grappa from Piedmont, Italy,
At the same time, all of Europe was slowly awakening to many more different herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables that the conquistadors had brought back to Spain.  Catherine’s Florentine chefs took what they had brought with them and also began working with the new arrivals from the New World; to that, they added all the wines, cheeses, fruits and vegetables they found in France. The combination created a culinary revolution in France.  Like it or not Catherine’s arrival from Italy was directly associated with the foundations of much of modern French cuisine.

Portrait of Catherine de Medici in her later years.
Photograph courtesy of Cea.

For the French and Italian kitchens, the two countries borders were always mutually beneficial; recipes, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and vines have been taken by both countries, improved upon and then returned. Then finally France took some of Italy and kept it. (In1860 Napoleon III claimed parts of the Duchy of Savoie and the City of Nice. Parts of these new France territories would become the French departments of Savoie and Haute-Savoie. These additions to France were part of an agreement where France supported the unification of the rest of Italy).
Catherine’s Prince Henry would become King Henry II, and when he died in a jousting accident, Catherine became the power behind the throne of France. Her three sons would become the next three kings of France, more on that later.

The Château de Fontainebleau today.

Under Catherine de Medici and King Henry II  in the 1550’s the royal couple expanded the royal hunting lodge of Fontainebleau. With King Henry’s death, Catherine added much more to it using Italian painters and others to make this the largest royal French Chateau with 1,500 rooms   The Château de Fontainebleau is 55 km (34 miles) from Paris and 75 km (47 miles) from The Chateau of Versailles.  (The Chateau of Versailles was another Royal Hunting Lodge that was added to by King Louis III and then again by Louis XIV who made the Chateau the site of the Government of France in 1682).
                                  Catherine loved intrigue
Despite Catherine’s contributions to the dinner table, she is not a popular figure in French history. She was directly involved in the planning of the 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre; on that day thousands of Protestants were murdered.

Representation of Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre
Photograph courtesy of summoning_ifrit
Catherine was long-lived; she lived through the reigns of four monarchs, her husband’s and then three of her son’s.  While her husband King Henry II lived Catherine was sidelined in favor of his mistress; however, when Henry died Catherine became an absolute dictator. Catherine ruled through her sons but not just from behind the scenes.  Catherine also took whatever she wanted from anyone and payment would not be requested! See the paragraph on the Château de Chenonceau below.
Catherine de Medici’s Château de Chenonceau
Photograph courtesy of Roger Wollstadt.
The Château above was built across the River Cher in the Loire Valley and belonged to the Mistress of Catherine’s husband, King Henry,  Diane de Poitiers. After Henry’s death, Catherine took the Château de Chenonceau from her husband’s former mistress and in 1559 and made it one of her royal residences. Today you may visit it, it is Indre-et-Loire in the region of the Centre-Val de Loire. The Chateau is 234 km (146 miles) from Paris,(one hour and fifty minutes by train) 33km (21 miles)  from Tours and 115 km 72 miles from Orleans. In France, the Chateau de Chenonceau is the second most visited chateau after Versailles.

Catherine de Médicis died in 1589
Catherine de Médicis was buried alongside her husband Henry II in the Basilique de Saint-Denis; the traditional burial place of the Kings of France since the 6th century.  For the visitor wishing to see the Basilica, it is just a ten-minute journey by metro, from the center of Paris to the metro station of Saint-Denis.

Catherine and her husband's tomb.
In the Basilique de Saint-Denis.
Photograph courtesy of thatgirl.
Catherine died just eight months before her third son King Henry III was murdered. Henry III had no descendants, and the throne passed to King Henry III of Navarre (1553-1610), who became King Henry IV of France (1589-1610) the first of the Bourbon Kings of France.
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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu.
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2017

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