History of European cuisine and gastronomy

Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Bruce Lee

We present a summary of the history of gastronomy in Europe, which appears very different to the subject of European food. In fact, throughout history, the daily cookery of ordinary people is simpler and less varied than that of the rich. Here, we discuss the cuisine of the upper classes as it appears in the cookbooks of the time. These historical cookbooks present us with a cuisine that is roughly equivalent to that of the three-star Michelin restaurants of today.

We grouped periods accordingly: Medieval cuisine and Renaissance cuisine share similar characteristics, specifically in their use of spices; the cuisine of the 17th and 18th century shows a clear change from that past, where the French Revolution marks an important separation before the development of the cuisine of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy of the 19th century.

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1 - Roman Times

The Roman diet evolved over the course of centuries. In the time of Virgil and Cato, frugality was a virtue to most Romans and they often ate placenta (gruel containing different cereals), fruits, vegetables, olives, and cheese. Wealthier Romans of during the times of the Empire preferred more luxurious and exotic food. The colonies of the Roman Empire were heavily-influenced by the diet of their subjugators.


The Romans preferred boiling and stewing their meat (methods which symbolized refinement, culture, and wealth) over roasting since smoke and fat were reserved for the Gods. Roasted meat was nature untransformed, like raw food which was considered barbaric and impoverished. The Romans had a taste for rich and well-cooked food; sweet-and-sour sauces made of honey, fruits, vinegar, garum (nuoc mam), seasoned with herbs (cumin, rue, coriander, mint, oregano) and spices and thickened with flour. They often ate meatballs accompanied with glazed sauces, which was practical because they dined lying down. Common spices included pepper, ginger, asafoetida, spikenard, saffron, and cardamom. They only used olive oil in cooking. Recipes listed just oil, either pure oil (oleo puro) or virgin oil (olei floris). The Romans designated places of origin for olive oil, as the French now do for wine. The best quality and most expensive olive oils were called oleum viride (first-press green oil). For Apicius, the best olive oil came from Liburnia (modern-day Croatia). He even gives a recipe for transforming simple olive oil from Spain to that from Liburnia.

Cooks and books

Roman cuisine is discussed in the Treaties of Agriculture (Cato, Varro, Columella), the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, in quotes from philosophers, satirists, novelists (Seneca, Horace, Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, Apuleius) and The Banquet of the Sophists by Athena.

Only one known cookbook has survived: De Re coquinaria by Apicius, written around 400AD, with a supplement of the 6th century. Ironically, the renowned cooks of ancient Rome were often Greeks.

The kitchen

The coquus (cook) prepared the meal in the culina (kitchen), which was usually a narrow, smoky room located near the latrines (for water) and the caldarium, room with a hot plunge bath, (for embers). There was no chimney.

The dishes were cooked on a brick work surface covered with coals, predecessor of the traditional stone-built stoves. For the less wealthy, there is only a brazier or a cooking area bounded by stones. The coals were bought from the baker, the blacksmith or taken from the bathhouse.

This setup allowed:

When baking was needed, either claypots (clibanus) were used or dishes were brought to the local bakery. Baking bread at home was rare.

The meal

It was divided into three parts: Gustatio or appetizer, composed mainly of eggs, salads, and moretum (cheese seasoned with herbs and spices), Prima mensa composed of vegetables, meat and fish, Secunda mensa or dessert, composed of fruits, cakes and olives.

The meal was eaten in the dining room (triclinum). Diners ate lying down (until the 8th century in France, 10th century in Byzantium) on 3 beds covered with cushions arranged in a U-shape. There were no knifes, forks and spoons and diners used their hands. The leftovers were tossed on the ground as an offering to the dead; these were swept up at the end of the meal.

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2 - Middle Ages and Renaissance

Over the next millennium, the art of cooking evolved tremendously. The elites from subjugated colonies ate like the Romans, but the Franks and Germanic people from the time of Clovis brought an appreciation for meat. Medieval cuisine started to diverge from Roman principles: vegetables were eaten less and less, bacon and lard replaced olive oil (but the Church decreed that fasting was required 150 days a year), spices became more varied. In the 15th century, a taste for sweet and sweet-and-sour took root in Europe and flourished a century later.

Oldcook: History of European cuisine and gastronomy - Conical cup with polychrome decoration, Maison des Chevaliers de Pont St Esprit

Conical cup with polychrome decoration (middle of the 14th century) Maison des Chevaliers de Pont St Esprit
Photo: Jacques Bouchut


In medieval times, meat became the central part of the meal (replaced by fish on days of fasting when meat was prohibited by the Church). Meat and fish were roasted or boiled, served with a light and acidulated sauce. It was also common to cook them in the tart or sweet-and-sour sauces with verjuice or vinegar, sugar or fruits and seasoned with spices.

The meals generally followed dietary requirements of the times as well as social class structures (poultry and fruits for the elite, root vegetables and dark bread for the poor). Spices, a sign of luxury and good nutrition, are preferred to herbs.

Common spices included: cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, nutmeg, mace, pepper, long pepper, Cubeb, grains of paradise, cardamom, and saffron.

Cooks and books

Over a hundred books on medieval cuisine were written in Europe between the 14th and 16th century. We know of a dozen cooks from these times, such as Taillevent, Maestro Martino and Maître Chiquart.

The kitchen

The kitchen was separated from the living quarters for fire safety. Dishes are prepared in the fireplace. The medieval cook was able to roast meat on spits and simmered sauces over dying coals. Nice houses are equipped with ovens, but the baker’s oven was often used to bake the pies and tarts of medieval cuisine.

The meal

The ceremonial dinner was comprised of 5 services with several different dishes per service (which we now call service à la française). Diners ate the dishes placed before them. 1st service (light wine, fruits, soup), 2nd service, 3rd service, entremets (blanc manger, pies, disguised foods, poisson en 3 manières et couleurs, coq heaumé), dessert (dariole, fruit pies), issue de table (hypocras, waffles, marzipan, nougat), boute-hors (wine and spices).

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3 - The 17th and 18th century

Gastronomy evolved slowly. Despite the fact that the cooks of the time of Louis XIV opposed old cuisine and promoted nouvelle cuisine, changes were slow and varied from country to country.


Medieval and Renaissance tastes remained popular in Europe. French cuisine distinguished itself by rejecting these tastes. But this rejection was more in words than actions. The cooks of the Grand siècle promoted natural flavours, undercooking to respect the product, yet developed standard culinary preparations: stocks, meat juices, and coulis.

The French rediscovered the delights of offal and vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, mushrooms, peas, cauliflower. Roux and emulsified sauces (beurre blanc, hollandaise) arrived, along with coffee and cacao.

Cooks and books

Books published in France.

In the 18th century, more cookbooks are published that break from the tradition of old to promote the new cuisine classique:

Italy, which was a large source of cookbooks in the 16th century, continued to publish cookbooks: L'arte di ben cucinare by Bartolomeo Stefani in 1662, I libri di cucina by Guiseppe Lamma, end of the 17th century. It differed little from the cuisine of the past century.

The kitchen

Rudimentary stone-built stoves arrived in most kitchens. It is an early version of the furnace and stove. It was made of brick and sometimes covered with earthenware. The first kitchen brigades were developed.

In the dining room, we began to use a dining table, a permanent fixture of the room. Earthenware and porcelain adorn the table because the precious dinnerware (tin and silver) had been given to swell the State coffers between 1689 and 1759.

Oldcook: History of European cuisine and gastronomy - Oval dish 18th century, Bishop of Valencia (France)

Oval dish with the coat of arms of Alexander Milo of Mesme, Bishop of Valencia, 18th century. Collection Musée des beaux-arts et d'archéologie de Valence, Drôme (France)

In England, the first solid bottles were made, which now allowed the preservation of wine and the creation of Champagne. The technique of a second, in-bottle fermentation was discovered first in Holland and later in France. In England, the first restaurants opened for business.

The meal

Service à la française continued throughout Europe. In France, the meal began to be divided between sweet and savoury dishes. The order of dishes became more standard: appetizer or soup, main course, entremets and dessert.

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4 - Cuisine classique

What we call cuisine classique is in fact a mixture of aristocratic and French bourgeois cuisine. This type of gastronomy became the culinary standard in Europe during the 19th century up to the beginning of the 20th century.


Cuisine classique is the traditional cuisine with which we are familiar. It is a mix of sophisticated recipes and local dishes. Heavily-influenced by the broths invented during the 17th century, cuisine classique produced new basics that are still in use today: mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery), espagnole (mirepoix + broth), demi-glace (espagnole reduced to a jelly), glace (demi-glace reduced to the consistency of honey), fish stock, veal essences. Béchamel sauce was invented in 1735.

The 18th and 19th century brought forth grand restaurants and luxury hotels as well as the first food writers (Grimod de la Reynière, Brillat Savarin). The invention of the automobile in the 20th century encouraged culinary tourism (Michelin Guide) and popularized regional foods.

At the beginning of the 20th century in France, nostalgia for the simple country life, fuelled by a growing backlash against decadent city life, lead to the rise of regional cuisine. This brought a new interest to local foodstuff and traditional regional fare. From an economic perspective, restaurants serving local fare thrived; regional cookbooks flourished (over 500 books were published in the last 20 years of the 20th century); in 1909, food products began to be protected through the creation of a certification system, afterwards called appellation d'origine controlée (controlled designation of origin), first for wines then extended to other foods. In 1935, the French government created the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) to regulate all French agricultural products. In 1992, the European Union and its member countries followed suit with the creation of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) to safeguard their regional foods.

The influx of food from the New World (potatoes, tomatoes, beans) signalled a silent but widespread culinary revolution. Desserts are transformed by the arrival of cacao, coffee, vanilla, and pineapple.

Cooks and books

The 19th century is called the Golden Age of French Gastronomy. The turn of the century heralded the first food critics (L'almanach des gourmands de Grimod de la Reynière, 1802) and the first food writers (Physiologie du goût de Brillat Savarin, 1825). Shortly thereafter, the first celebrity chefs spread the influence of French cuisine internationally: Antonin Carême codified French cuisine in his four-volume work which culminated in his masterpiece L'art de la cuisine française au 19e siècle (1833). Carême spent two years in London cooking for the prince regent of England and worked also in St Petersburg, Vienna, and Aix-la-Chapelle. Almost a century later, Auguste Escoffier modernized Carême’s work in his Guide culinaire (1903) and reorganized the workforce in kitchens of the luxury restaurants and hotels all over Europe. Escoffier spent a part of his career working in the luxury hotels of Europe (Savoy and Carlton in London, the Ritz in Monte Carlo and Lucerne). Urbain Dubois, royal cook to the Prince of Prussia, popularized service à la russe (La cuisine classique en 1856, L'école des cuisinières en 1876). French cuisine becomes the standard for great cuisine in Europe.

In Italy, despite the strong influence of French cuisine, cookbooks begin to discuss regional cuisine:

The kitchen

The invention of the coal-burning stove and the arrival of copper and tin made it easier for cooks to do their jobs.

Antonin Carême created a standard kitchen code which is adopted by the luxury hotels and restaurants. His work is furthered by Auguste Escoffier, who organized kitchen staff into the first brigades. Several techniques changed cooking methods and methods for food preservation: cork stoppers (1700), corkscrew (1750), the cast iron stove with ventilation hood, canning (Appert, 1749-1841), the freezer (1845), refrigerator (1933), pasteurization (1860).

The meal

The arrival of restaurants makes service à la française impractical. Service à la russe, what we know today, becomes the standard: courses are brought to the table sequentially and diners eat the same dish together.

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5 - Nouvelle cuisine

It is a cuisine that is still being defined. Do we have enough perspective to discuss it? Here is what we know: in the 17th century, cooks began to reject the traditions of old and discussed a new approach to cuisine that utilized the growing culinary methods at their disposal.

The term nouvelle cuisine was first coined in 1973 in a Gault Millau article titled Nouveau Guide Gault et Millau: Vive la nouvelle cuisine française. Ten Commandments for nouvelle cuisine were declared, the most important of which are: a rejection of long-cooking times, heavy sauces, spices and marinades that mask the natural flavours of the foodstuff. New techniques are embraced, food-pairing conventions are challenged (red wine/red meat, white wine/fish, lamb/beans), and new products, cooking techniques, and presentations are welcomed.

Gault Millau contributed to the popularization of celebrity chefs, who are often the disciples of Fernand Point (of La Pyramide in Vienne, France): Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, Paul Haeberlin, and the Troisgros brothers. In 1976, over a hundred chefs are listed in the guide under the school of nouvelle cuisine.

Nouvelle cuisine from the years 1970 to 1980 did not break completely from so-called cuisine classique. While Bocuse and his contemporaries promoted la cuisine du marché, respect for the product, and lightly-cooked sauces, their recipes were still similar to those found in cuisine classique. The discovery of Japanese cuisine by these chefs helps them transform the old cuisine, characterized by fonds de sauce (gravies) into something new: they reduce cooking times, pay more attention to the dietary needs of diners, emphasized artistic dish presentations and describe dishes in their menus with extensive details on the provenance of ingredients (while reducing the portion size, opponents say).

Believers in modern cuisine classique, champions of local food, and promoters of nouvelle cuisine find common ground in their beliefs and join forces to oppose the growth of fast food and junk food, symbols of the changing modern diet and the development of food industry.

A breakthrough in gastronomy is led by European chefs born in the 1950s and 1960s: Marc Veyrat develops emulsions, replaces gravies with infusions, and introduces wild herbs from the Alps to the world of gastronomy. Michel Bras and Régis Marcon combine local food with innovative culinary techniques. Olivier Roellinger introduces flavours from the Orient. Pierre Gagnaire and Catalan chef Ferran Adria, with the help of findings by scientists such as Hervé This, work to understand the molecular structures that create the unctuous, the rich, and the crispy on the human palette. Their work is named molecular gastronomy.

A silent revolution in cuisine spreads in the 21st century: more humane working conditions in professional kitchens, the rise of women to the rank of great chefs (Hélène Darroze, Anne Sophie Pic, Reine Sammut). The authority of restaurant guides is challenged: Alain Senderens hands back his three Michelin stars at his restaurant Lucas Carton to simplify the menu and reduce the bill. To improve profitability, many chefs branch out from their Michelin-starred restaurants to start inns, bistros, or second restaurants without stars.

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To illustrate the evolution of techniques, foodstuff, and tastes related to the culture of each period, here are 4 recipes for hare, one each from Roman Times, the Middle Ages, the 17th century, and modern times for you to compare and contrast.

1- Aliter leporem ex suo iure:
Other recipe, Hare cooked in its own juice
Apicius, De re coquinaria, Book VIII, VIII - 6: Roman Times

Clean the hare, debone, truss, and place in a large pot, add oil, garum, stock, a bouquet of leek, coriander, and dill. While this cooks, put pepper, lovage, cumin, coriander seeds, root of asafoetida, dried onions, mint, rue, and celery seeds in a mortar-and-pestle and grind, moisten with garum, add honey and cooking juices and work together with defritum (cooked grape must, reduced by half) and vinegar. Boil sauce and thicken with flour. Untruss the hare, cover with sauce, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

2 - Civé de lievre ou de connin:
Civet of hare or rabbit, Le Ménagier de Paris, 116: 14th century
Start by splitting the chest of the hare, and if it is freshly-slaughtered – one or two days prior – do not wash but place on the grill (or on a spit) and sear over hot coals. Cook the onions and add them to the hare (which has now been cut into pieces) in a greased pot (or cast iron skillet) and fry while stirring constantly. Grill and burn the bread and soak in meat stock with vinegar and wine. Beforehand, crush ginger, grains of paradise, cloves, long pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon; these spices should be crushed and diluted with verjuice and vinegar, or meat stock. Remove and place them aside. Crush the bread, soak with stock, and pass through muslin. Cook the stock, the onions and grease, the spices and the burnt bread with the hare. Ensure that the civet is well-browned, sour like vinegar and moderately salted and spiced.

3 - Lapereaux ou lapin en casserole
Young rabbit or rabbit in casserole
Pierre de Lune, Le cuisinier, Traité des potages de la 3e saison: 17th century

Quarter the rabbits, lard with fatty bacon, sear in a skillet with melted lard; place in a terrine with stock and a glass of white wine, a herb bundle, pepper, salt, a little bit of orange and fried flour.

4 - Civet de lièvre
Curnonski, Cuisine et vins de France (1947-1974): 20th century

1 hare, 1dl cognac, 1dl oil, common condiments, 60g shredded or ground lard / bacon, 30g lard, 250g bacon from pork belly cut into large cubes and blanched (lardons), 200g sliced mushrooms, 30 baby onions, 10g flour, 16 croûtons, 2 bottle of good red wine, 1 bouquet garni with a lot of thyme and 1 sprig of wild thyme, a few fried buttered croutons as desired.

Cut the hare into pieces and marinate for a minimum of 12 hours with salt, pepper, usual herbs and condiments, cognac and oil, turning often during the marinating period.

Drain the pieces on a towel; pat dry. Heat the lard and 5cl of oil in a sauté pan. Add and sear baby onions, mushrooms, lardons. Remove and reserve in a bowl. Add ground lard and flour, allow to brown lightly.

Add the pieces of hare, and coat well in the roux. Cover with good red wine; bouquet garni, garlic.

When the hare is three-quarters done, transfer the pieces to the bowl containing the onions, mushroom, and lardons. Rinse the pan with a little red wine if necessary. Pass the sauce through a chinois. Bring to a boil once again. Taste. Thicken with blood and crushed liver. Return the hare pieces to the pan and finish cooking. Season to taste. The civet should be well-cooked, better to be over-cooked than under-cooked.

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Epices in European cuisine

Spices have been used in European cooking from the Antiquity until just after the Renaissance. With the advent of cuisine classique, the use of spices began to disappear. However, spices were rediscovered at the end of the 20th century thanks to the influence of Asian, North African (Maghreb), and Mexican cuisines.

The Romans and Gallo-Romans

Spices: pepper, ginger, asafoetida, spikenard, saffron, cardamom. Sweet-and-sour sauces with honey, fruits, vinegar and garum (nuoc mam), herbs and spices (cumin, rue, coriander, mint, oregano), thickened with flour.

Clovis (500) to Charlemagne (800)

Clovis follows the taste of the Romans. Charlemagne marks the beginning of the culinary preferences of the Middle Ages. Cloves and verjuice (juice of unripe grapes) are introduced. Garum disappears. Sauces are thickened with bread. Moorish Andalusia (9th-13th century).

Andalusians share a similar cuisine to the Romans

Spices: cinnamon, pepper, saffron, ginger, musk, amber.
Sweet-and-sour sauces with honey, fruits, vinegar or verjuice, and murrî (vegetable-based garum), herbs (cumin, rue, coriander, mint, sumac).

Middle Ages to the Renaissance throughout Europe (13th-16th century)

Spices: cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, nutmeg, mace, pepper, long pepper, cubeb, grains of paradise, cardamom, saffron.
Mustard and acidulated sauce, sweet-and-sour with verjuice or vinegar, sugar or fruits. Few aromatic herbs are used.

The Reign of Louis XIV (17th century)

Europe: see Middle Ages
Spices: pepper, nutmeg, cloves, amber, musk
Arrival of aromatic herbs and bouquet garni. Sauce thickened with flour, arrival of butter and crème fraîche.

Cuisine classique (19th-20th century)

Almost all spices disappear from cuisine except for pepper, nutmeg, cloves. The tradition of cooking with spices is lost.

Nouvelle cuisine and modern cuisine

We rediscover spices thanks to the influence of Asian, North African (Maghreb), and Mexican cuisine. New spices are introduced: peppers, Sichuan pepper, pink peppercorns.

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Histoire de la cuisine et de la gastronomie en Europe