It is well known that the Italian language has its roots in the fourteenth-century Florentine that was spun so sublimely by Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, the fathers of Italian literature. But Italy's cuisine – and, by cuisine, we mean not only an organic way of coordinating ingredients, but also a pleasure-filled world of manners and etiquette, rituals and charms – owes much to a Florentine woman too, who hailed from the family that made Florence the cradle of the Renaissance and envy of the world. This woman, who enchanted the world with beauty and magnificence, was Caterina de’ Medici.
Caterina was born in Florence in 1519. It wasn’t long before her betrothal to Henry II of France, arranged in the name of Franco-Florentine relations, required that she move to Paris, where she quickly proved her wit, open mind, supremely refined yet extravagant taste and her great love of gastronomy. She demanded that a brigade of cooks and bakers cross the Alps with her and follow her into France: the footsoldiers with whom she pursued her culinary mission.
Caterina’s most famous legacy is the introduction of the fork, which she had grown up using in cultivated Florence: until then, even the most sophisticated European courts in Europe had eaten with their hands. She also introduced the French cooks to recipes that would become cornerstones of Gallic cuisine: a sauce as fundamental as Béchamel, developed from Florentine salsacolla; crêpes, which everyone considers to be quintessentially French, come from one of Florence’s old grandmotherly recipes, crespelle. She imported the humble carabaccia, the Tuscan onion soup which in French hands became the urbane soupe d'oignon; the liver paté, which in Florence is most often found on crunchy bread, started the French tradition of paté de foie; and the lively, lip-smacking ratatouille is nothing more nor less than the vegetable stews that Caterina would have eaten in Florence. And Caterina’s love of anitra colla melangola, the duck in orange sauce, proved infectious, inspiring France’s equal love of duck-based dishes.
But in truth, Caterina codified many more dishes, making them famous. Of these, a special mention should go to certain pâtisserie, such as profiteroles, sorbet and zuppa inglese. Thanks to Caterina, it became customary to serve sweet treats to round off a meal. She never stopped at merely appreciating the quality of a dish: she always sought to understand it in its entirety.
In her early years at the French court she struggled to produce a child, which drove her to look for the aphrodisiac in different natural ingredients: her beloved onions and artichokes as well as cardoons, shallots, courgettes and mushrooms. By the end of her life, Caterina had given birth to 10 children. But her legacy is not limited solely to the table and hospitality. A woman of immense style and sophistication, obsessed with hygiene and looking immaculate, which was, of course, vital to her relations both private and public, she accustomed the ladies of the court to wearing underwear, and the men to using lotions and perfumes. Deeply intolerant of bad smells, whether from mouth or body, she threw herself into a successful career in cosmetics. Florence was one of the cities at the forefront of perfumery, and in Paris Caterina introduced a lotion based on bergamot (which was later to become Eau de Cologne) and the famous “Eau de la Reine”, an essence extracted from the roots of the iris, the symbolic flower of Florence that grows all over the Tuscan hills. Not only that, she also defined and codified numerous recipes for body creams.
The reason why Caterina’s “teachings” had such an impact is partly because she was operating in one of the most receptive cultural contexts in history. The Renaissance put humans and their work at the centre of the world, where they had not been since antiquity. Baldassare Castiglioni’s treatise “The Book of the Courtier”, written in 1528, defined the rules for how to be a perfect courtier and thus win good standing at the court of the French king. In 1551 the Florentine Giovanni della Casa addressed the concept of etiquette in his “Il Galateo”, including good table manners. The word galateo is used in today’s Italian to mean all the norms and precepts of politesse.
Caterina died in 1589 at the age of seventy. Legend has it that her death was due to indigestion caused by onion soup. Thanks to her, the concept of gastronomy came to be thought of at least partly as an art form, an idea to which we all owe something. After Caterina de’ Medici, we would never again talk about food without thinking about what it means socially, historically and culturally.
Love is a treacherous emotion. You will do far better without it. Certainly, we Medici have always done so.
C. W. Gortner - The Confessions of Caterina De’ Medici