History of Paris Cuisine at the Conciergerie
It is no secret that France is a gourmand’s dream come true. And the capital city of Paris is where so much of that history has taken place. Now, at the formidable Conciergerie, you can visit an exhibition telling the story of the legacy of food in France. It’s called Paris: Capital of Gastronomy, From the Middle Ages to the Present Day. The show is open from April 13 to July 16, 2023.
The exhibition may seem like an odd offering for the Conciergerie, which most people will remember only as the place that imprisoned Marie Antoinette before she met the guillotine. But this massive Gothic castle is embarking on a new way to engage with visitors to the city and locals alike. They are now offering deep dives into the history of Paris, and they kick it off with this delicious slice of the French past!
Let’s use this exciting exhibition to look at the history of gastronomy in Paris, the city that has brought us so much of the cooking tradition and even invented the restaurant.
Paris: Capital of Gastronomy, a Review
When you visit Paris, you’ll quickly discover that we love our cuisine. And why shouldn’t we? This city has one of the most vibrant food cultures in all the world. But it wasn’t always that way. We built that tradition and reputation over centuries.
Today, of course, there are many cities vying for that top spot in global gastronomy — places like Tokyo, New York, and London. But Paris is still a viable contender for the number one, and this is the city that cast the mold by which all other food capitals must be judged.
In many ways, this is where the idea of gastronomy was born. And so where else to discover the roots and development of gastronomy than in Paris? The Conciergerie has stepped in to deliver visitors just that.
Being the Conciergerie, you can expect high production value for Paris: Capital of Gastronomy. It all takes place in the Salle des Gens d’armes — the largest of all non-religious Gothic halls in Europe. This gives the entire presentation an undeniably grand feeling. To top it off, everything is presented with a strong sense of spectacle.
As for structure, the museum tells this story by breaking up the displays into five distinct topics: the reception of dignitaries, the central role of Paris in French cuisine, the birth of the restaurant, French baking (including those delicious pastries we are so known for), and the role of Paris at the crossroads of a larger gastronomic tradition.
The Great Receptions of Paris
Being a capital city for so long, Paris has played host to countless dignitaries both foreign and domestic. That means bringing the best and brightest culinary masters into the city to cook for kings and queens.
The entire exhibit begins with a reconstruction of the banquet held by King Charles V of France to welcome the Holy Roman Emperor in 1378. During this time, the courses of a meal were served all at once (service en confusion) except for dessert. The Conciergerie presents some of the original menus for the night, which include such delicacies as stuffed figs covered with gold leaves and eels sweetened with mud. Magnifique!
That tradition of holding grand receptions only grew through the intervening centuries. There was the time that Paris officials welcomed Queen Catherine de Medici in 1549, or when there was a celebration for the full recovery of Louis XIV from illness in 1687. Then there was the massive marriage banquet for Napoleon and Marie-Louise in 1810 at the Tuileries Palace, a party that cost more than four million francs (at the time, a mason’s wage averaged around 4 francs a day).
These events are captured by the exhibition, which brings us into the 20th century with the dinner for the relatively new Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 held at the Louvre.
Because Paris has such a long history of royal dinners and grand banquets, the art and science of cooking has always been important here. Great chefs were needed all the time, and they brought their various expertise with them. Through these celebrations, the roots of gastronomy took hold in Paris, as well as the expectations and rhythms of big meals.
The Belly of Paris
Long before Emile Zola coined the idea of the “belly of Paris” in his 1873 book Le Ventre de Paris, the city was seen as a giant with an endless appetite. That metaphor extends to every part of French society, but it also includes the literal appetite of its people.
For much of French history, Paris has served not only as a capital but the definitive hub of all things cultural. Food is no exception. Trends have always lived and died based on their acceptance by Parisians. No, Beaujolais wine doesn’t come from the city, but it’s because Paris fell in love with this wine that it now has such a prominent place in the world of fine dining. The same can be said for every other food France is known for.
Part of this has to do with the size of Paris’s population compared to the rest of the country (especially in the past). It also has to do with the city’s importance in the politics of the continent as a whole.
That size and importance has always been a draw, attracting people from the French countryside and far beyond to come and see what the city might offer them. They have brought with them their own food traditions, their own spices, their own serving customs. That has led to a thriving, cosmopolitan atmosphere for innovation to flourish.
The Restaurant history
Restaurants were born in Paris, and so it is no wonder that we remain a culture filled with cafés, bistros, and high end establishments. The outdoor seating and zinc countertops of Paris cafés can be seen at the Conciergerie's presentation of this history.
Restaurants were not invented wholecloth in France. The Ancient Egyptians had places you could go in public to buy a cooked meal, just as Classical Greece and Rome had vendors offering food and beverage. The same is true in ancient India and China.
In Europe, there was also the long tradition of the inn, where you would get a place to rest as well as a warm meal — even if options were nonexistent.
But France is where the modern restaurant as we would imagine it began to take shape. In the Middle Ages, a visitor to Paris would find inns and taverns with a great variety of food on offer. They could also get take-out of savory pies, roasted meat, or even more grand options (if they had the money).
The cabaret also feature heavily in this story. Appearing around the end of the 1400s, they gave you options for food to order, would charge you based on what you ordered (rather than a generic price for a meal or an alcoholic beverage), and had tablecloths. For the following centuries, they were seen as the superior place to gather with people.
By the 18th century, some cabarets began to serve as music venues as well as eateries, leading to the reputation they have now (most dramatically influenced by Le Chat Noir in Montmartre).
In the 1780s, this idea finally coalesced into the modern restaurant, and soon they were officially recognized by the government. Their number’s exploded in the wake of the French Revolution
Bread and Pastry in Paris
There are few if any cities that can rival the amount of bread and pastry inventions that Paris can lay claim to. Much of this is thanks to the influence of one man: Antonin Carême — known as the king of chefs and the chef of kings.
Paris itself proved a particularly great place to set up shop as a baker. With the advent of the 17th century, the introduction and wide availability of brewer’s yeast made baking easier than ever, and the eating of bread was already a daily ritual for virtually everyone. All those baker’s began to experiment, and by 1858, early sociologist Frédéric le Play noted 70 varieties of “fancy bread.”
During that same time, the pastry began its rise to prominence. As in other parts of Europe, pies began in France as bread-covered, savory servings of meat or cheese. But aristocrats had access to sugar, and they had servants tasked with making the most out of this mouth watering ingredient.
By the 19th century, the pastry chef had broken out of the nobles’ estates and became the world-famous figure of the pâtissier.
Paris: The World in One City
Something that helped jumpstart French cuisine and that continues to redefine it in the 21st century is the wide range of influences that mix here. In the Middle Ages, it was the blending of many European traditions. But today, it is a truly global style that learns from food traditions in every corner of the world.
Tasting Everything Paris Has to Offer
Exhibitions like this remind us why Paris is such a treasure for arts and culture. The art de vivre is alive and well here in the place that created it.