Notes from France: A History Lesson About Food

April 26, 2007 | Written By:

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

Jean is attending the 2007 International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice and the Environment in the Loire Valley of France. Her entries will be posted throughout the week.

Let me share the history lesson we had Wednesday — a history lesson about food.

Many say that is was the influence of Catherine de Medici (of Italy) and Anne de Brettonnne (of Brittany) during the 16th century that changed the French culture of food,  moving France from its medieval customs to customs more common to the Italian court — that is, sparking the French food renaissance.

Prior to this time, eating among the gentry was completely communal in almost every sense; people had neither their own forks nor their own napkins. They ate with their hands and wiped those dirty hands on the table runner.

The year 1580 marked the introduction of the individual napkin — more likely to protect the lace table cloths of that period (another Italian influence?) than for sanitary reasons.

The plates consisted of very thick slices of bread served on very thin pewter plates. At the end of the meal, the bread (now heavily soaked in sauce) went to the servants. (Someone said this sounds like it might have been better than a modern school lunch!) The servants got fed, farmers and peasants did not.

Our guide explained that the Italians living in the French court during the 16th century found the French food very heavy, so they brought fresh fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and watermelon, along with sorbet. Perhaps there is another lesson here — to include more fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals.

With the backdrop of the Ch’teau d’Ussé (the “Sleeping Beauty Castle“) and Chenonceau, this history lesson really came to life.

Tomorrow’s lesson will come from a French school, where we have been invited for lunch.

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