It is surprising how an Italian woman can greatly influence and modernize the French cuisine.
Despite my fair share of efforts into the eating habits of my French husband and our household,
the woman I am referring to, is not me.
Some 15 years ago, right after settling in the South West of France, I traveled for the first time
to Saint Emilion and bought myself a whole box of macarons. They are not as colorful, as the
popular ones for sale a bit everywhere in France – and now abroad too.
This particular macaron is made today with a recipe that hasn’t changed since 1620.
Behind them is the influence of pastry chefs and bakers who came to France along Catherine de
Médicis who left Florence at the age of 14 to marry Henry de Valois and eventually became
queen of France in 1547.
Catherine was born in a rich family of Florentine merchants and bankers. Her parents died
within the first month of her life, so that the most influent figures in her upbringing were two
Popes, members of her family: Giovanni de Medici, known as Pope Leo X and later on, Giulio de
Medici, elected Pope with the name of Clement VII. The latter not only interceded with King
Francis I of France for her to marry his second son, but also celebrated the wedding in Marseille
She brought to the kingdom of France a rich dowry of gold coins and pearls.
And possibly, an even more interesting cultural treasure in various fields: from the art of the
table and the cuisine, to fashion and perfumery (a fragrance concocted for her with bergamots,
l’Acqua della Regina, still available for sale today!), her influence is still undeniable today!
When she left Florence for Marseille, she knew it was a one way journey and she brought with
her as much of Florence that could be transported: from fashion items (she loved hunting and
horse riding and for that she introduced underwear that allowed women to ride amazon style,
and compensated her short size with high heels) to food and books of recipes, not forgetting
the people who had the know-how to execute them.
Meals at the French court of Catherine included the ancestors of unmissable classics: onion
soup, known then as carabaccia, and vegetables with béchamel sauce, salsa colla (it was made
using olive oil instead of butter). She loved broccoli, peas, artichokes cooked in wine and a
classic of the French south west: asparagus!
Her tables were decorated with precious cloths and the fork started appearing by the side of
individual plates not just as a tool to portion food but to eat it: forks were common across the
Alps, but had not reached French tables yet. Meals started being served in course and savory
and sweet were offered separately.
French cuisine, that was still following on the medieval tradition, was brought forward into the
renaissance by the Italian taste of a woman who enjoyed a good meal, sometime a little too
much to the point of paying for her sins of gluttony.
Isn’t it peculiar to think of a woman of the 16th century as a very modern one? She would have
not made the pages of history if it wasnt for her inner strength, endowed with a fine intellect
and enormous intelligence that allowed her to rule France more or less indirectly, for three
During those years, France went through mysterious deaths, all in all poisoning was an Italian
tradition back then, and wars of religions.
Her contemporaries have been quite hostile reporting about her. Only more recently, with the
perspective of time, historians have rehabilitated the memory of this woman, who tried to keep
up the dialogues among various factions, brought the court of France on the road for over two
years and influenced European monarchies, behind the French borders.
So, going back to my macaron, they were first introduced to the royal table without a precise
name, during the week-long celebration that followed the union between Catherine and Henry
II who really liked this crispy biscuit that still didn’t have a creamy filling (that will arrive only
four centuries later!). The name followed in 1552 when French author François Rabelais
associated the sweet with its creators, the Italians, those eating maccheroni, with no
And one last thing about her: while speaking French, Catherine never lost her Italian accent.
Just like me!
By Simona PALENGA, Villandrauts own 21st c. Italian Queen
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