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The Legend of Catherine Medici

An important figure in French cuisine and culture. 

By Jessica Herbst

Have you ever wondered about France and Italy’s shared culture and how they are both renowned for their excellent cuisine? Besides their geographical closeness, many point to Catherine Medici as the reason for this cultural resemblance. As queen consort of France, wife of Henry II, and mother to Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, she remains one of the most famous women in history. 

Catherine travelled to France for her wedding in 1533 and brought a large party of courtiers with her. In order to preserve her Italian culture, or possibly just in an attempt to avoid homesickness, Catherine’s travel party included servants, artists, dancers, musicians, dress makers, cooks, bakers and pastry cooks. Food and festivities seemed to be important to her, so it is no surprise that Catherine’s Italian entourage brought the influence of the Renaissance with them. Specifically, the secrets of Italian cooking.

But who was this woman who Italianized and revolutionized French culture? Born in Florence in 1519, Catherine was the daughter of the ambitious Lorenzo Medici. Her uncle arranged for her to marry the future King Henry II when she was fourteen years old. Catherine eventually grew to have a lasting influence in French politics and culture, and she eventually gained the nickname “The Italian Queen of France” due to her pro-Italian positions. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy of Catherine’s contributions is introducing the fork to the French court. The fork made its first public appearance in France during Catherine’s lifetime, and forks eventually became common enough to be a publicly accepted dining utensil. 

If you’re wondering how the French dined before the 16th century, only knives and spoons were commonly used at mealtimes. When those utensils were absent, people often used bread or their hands to scoop up their food. Among well-born Italians, however, the wedding fork was already a common item. Therefore, it is highly likely that a fork would have made its way from Catherine to the hands of the French court. But what did the French think when they first saw a fork? Well, no matter what they thought at the time, this new eating utensil would later become a symbol of the French upper class.

Other aspects of Florentine elegance that Catherine instilled into French culture include detailed table settings, embroidered handkerchiefs, perfumes, glazed earthenware, side-saddle riding and even fireworks.

Additionally, seen by some as Catherine’s most original contribution to French culture, elaborate and expensive magnificences functioned as displays of political power that brought together events of music, dance, theatre, fashion and banquets.

Dishes that are popular in French cuisine can find their roots in Florentine cooking, introduced by Catherine and her party of cooks. At a 2019 conference, Catherine de’ Medici: 500 Years of Italian Hospitality, the presenter Massimo Bocus, executive sous chef and vice director of the Apicius International School of Hospitality of the Florence University of the Arts, describes some of these influences: French onion soup originated from the Florentine carabaccia, Béchamel finds its origins in salsa colla, and duck l’orange was inspired by the Tuscan papero alla melarancia. 

Moreover, French cuisine could not be fully Italianized without the introduction of spices. Spices were commonly used in 16th century France to mask the flavor of certain foods. Catherine is credited for introducing spices to enhance flavors in French cuisine rather than hide them. 

Recently, many have tried to disprove her influence. Various myths about her culinary contributions continue to circulate. However, the legend of Catherine Medici still stands that she single-handedly influenced French cooking and helped to establish France’s national cuisine.

Whether her story simply exaggerates fact or contains elements of fiction, there is no question that Catherine has made her mark in the history of France. She exists as a multidimensional figure whose image has been formed and reformed over the course of the past five centuries, from ruthless queen to unparalleled hostess. It is clear that her impact goes much further than just cuisine. Ultimately, she remains a powerful female figure who largely contributed to the shared cultural history between France and Italy.