A HISTORY OF FRENCH COURSES: An overview

This is the first in a series on the history of French meal courses. The next is on the soup course.

Before proceeding, in future posts, to examine the history of individual courses in France, it is useful first to look at the general concept over time.

The Romans had a relatively set series of courses for their main meal and there is some evidence that traces of this survived, for at least a time, in early France (for details, see this earlier post). But by the late Middle Ages, when detailed records again become available, no discernible order appears in meals.

In the thirteenth century, two French kings tried to regulate excess in meals. Their statutes mention no courses at all, just two or three dishes, sometimes specified (bacon pottage, for instance) and dessert, indirectly referenced as tart, flan or cheese. A rare cookbook written around this time, the Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes, lists foods only by type, not by any meal order.

The first major French cookbook, the Viandier, appeared in the fourteenth century and very approximately suggested courses in the order of its groupings: pottages, roasts and entremets, followed by pottages without meat. Note however that if the French word potage later meant “soup”, here it refers only to various dishes made in a pot, many of which are far more like stews or even purees than anything like a soup. While this may in fact have evolved into the later soup course, at this point, it would be more accurate to refer to it as a “stews” course. Nor is it certain that the work even intends to refer to an order of service.

A household manual, the Menagier de Paris, provides the most complete list of courses we have from the fourteenth century. The author provides twenty-four very different menus, of which this is one example:
First service. A German brewet, heads of cabbage, a sorinque of eels, turnips, beef pies, large meat.
Second service. The best roast one can get, fat geese in dodine sauce, fresh water fish, blancmange, an arboulastre [herb omelet?]. Nordic pies, crepes, larded milk, milk tourtes.
Third service. Capon pies with dodine sauce, rice in mouthfuls, boar tail in hot sauce, lechefrite and sugared darioles.
Fourth service. Frumenty, venison, gildings, overturned eels, roast breams.
Boar's head as an entremets.
Flandrin has tried to demonstrate some unity in these menus, but unconvincingly. The one organizing detail here is the numbering of the services (or dishes – mets).

The work also includes two menus for weddings, which are only slightly more organized. One is of pottages, sea fish, freshwater fish, entremets, roast, dessert and (exceptionally separate here from dessert) an “exit” (issue) of hypocras and mixed wafers. Again, the pottages here are not soups and the roasts are more complex than simple roasted meat or fish. Another is of pottages, roasts (here mainly roast birds with some sauces), entremets, dessert and the issue. These are somewhat closer to later menus and it may be that what ultimately became common was derived from what had initially been more formal menus.

The recipes which follow are organized as pottages, roasts, fish, eggs, entremets, and sauces, suggesting that pottages, roasts and entremets were a standard basic pattern at this point. (The dessert course could be very similar to the entremets course, so those recipes sometimes appear in that section, as with frumenty.) This closely resembles the standard services found centuries later; but there is almost no evidence going forward that this pattern was widely applied in the first centuries that followed.

In the next century, Chiquart offered various menus in his Du Fait De Cuisine (1420). While several include brewets (which can be considered a form of pottage) in the first service, they also include a variety of other foods there as well. Conversely, brewets also appear in later services. The highly corrupt fifteenth century edition of the Viandier – the first to appear in print – only hints at an order of courses, except for the roasts, which appear again in their own section. The very upscale menus appended to the same edition show no consistent order at all. And a number of surviving bills, if they are not broken down into meal services, often show mainly roast meats, with a few pies or other variations, but no hint of anything like a pottage, for instance.

All this suggests that the pattern found later on already existed but was only applied in very formal cases, and not even always then.

The 1883 editor of a long Latin poem describing a feast in 1546 names the services as the starters (entrées), the roasts and entremets, and the desserts  (In the original, they are the first, second and third "tables".) Each of these is very varied and complex, and the starters include what the editor interprets as "stews, hams, hors d'oeuvre, fricasees, hot pies, salads and meat jellies". While it is uncertain if some of these could be considered pottages or soups, it is clear that the first course is made up of very varied dishes.

In 1563, when Charles IX wanted to limit luxury in meals, he ordered that there only be three services: the starters (entrées), meat or fish and the issue (here substantially the same as the dessert). The king does mention pottages as one sort of starter, but along with fricasees and pastries (basically meaning savory pies at this point). Over a decade later, Bodin, in criticizing luxury in dining, referred to “an ordinary dinner of three services, consisting of a boiled, roast and fruit” course, the fruit here again referring to dessert. Admittedly, both texts offer an idealized view of what a meal should be and in fact Bodin complains that no one wants to accept such limits. But they do show that the basic idea of a full meal remained both limited and fluid, and that the idea of a standard service beginning with a soup or pottage was far from established.

Salads and hors d’oeuvres
In the seventeenth century, a new element appears more frequently: salads. But period accounts still show uncertain organization of meals. And so one supper from 1656 consists of a salad, olives and oranges, a large tourte and three large squabs. In 1655, Nicolas Bonnefons offered the outline of a meal for twelve at the end of his Les délices de la campagne:
First service
Four pottages and four entrées 
Second service
Four "strong pieces" (court-bouillon, a piece of beef, or a large roast), with salads
Third service
Roast game and poultry and a small roast.
Optionally, in the middle of the table, melons, different salads, oranges and lemons, liquid jellies in small marzipan holders
Note that the pottages here are only part of the first service and that no entremets course per se appears.

At the same time one sees signs of the earlier fourteenth century sequence not only persisting (or reappearing?), but expanding slightly. In l'Art de bien traiter (1693), the author offers various sample menus with sometimes obscure sequences, but talks generally of "pottages, entrées, roast meats, salads and entremets". The concept of entrées seems to have first appeared in the sixteenth century; salads had certainly been eaten in the past, but were most noted on menus starting in the seventeenth century.

Accounts of upscale meals roughly follow this sequence, but begin to introduce a new concept: the hors d’oeuvres. An architectural term originally applied to details “outside the main work”, this began to appear as an integral part of meals. And so in 1698, the Marshal of Bouffiers served royal visitors both pottages and hors d’oeuvres, then “other” entrées (here still meaning starters), followed by roasts, entremets and dessert (“fruit”).

What appears here is a core sequence very like that for fourteenth century weddings, but with salads and hors d’oeuvres sometimes worked into it. One meal for Louis XIV reverses part of this, offering hors d’oeuvres before pottages, both part of the first service, then a second service of roasts, a third of entremets and a last one of fruit and candies.

In the eighteenth century, the same general pattern held. A period cookbook outlined some sample meals, one starting with a first service of both pottages and entrées, a large entrée; a second service of roasts, entremets and hors d’oeuvres; and a third service of fruits and preserves (that is, dessert). When meals were larger, they were often expanded by removes (relevés) and so in a meal for Louis XV in 1757 the courses included entrées, removes, large entremets, roasts and small entremets. Or one could simply expand the number of dishes in each course. And so a very long menu from 1788 for Marie-Antoinette consists of four pottages, two large entrées, sixteen entrées, four hors d’oeuvre, six dishes of roast and two moderate entremets.




Interested in the history of the food of Paris? Visit the Paris Food History site.



Restaurants
By the late eighteenth century, the first restaurants had appeared and courses were increasingly codified as menus became standard. A menu from Véry, one of the first great restaurants, from 1791 or 1792 lists pottages, fish entrées, [untitled] meat entrées, roasts and salads, entremets and desserts. In 1803, the English traveler Francis Blagdon reproduced the full menu of Beauvilliers, another of the first great restaurants. This included courses for pottage (which Blagdon now translates frankly as “soup”), hors d’oeuvres, beef entrées, pastry entrées, poultry entrées, veal entrées, mutton entrées, fish entrées, roasts, entremets, and dessert. In 1814, when the Guide des Dineurs gathered the menus of all the most well-known restaurants into one volume, most followed roughly the same pattern as Beauvilliers, including servng hors d’oeuvres after the pottages and breaking the entrées out by type.

Note that with the restaurant, the roast course began to be displaced in importance by the so-called entrée, which was no longer just a starter, but often effectively where one found most of the meats. Otherwise, the mention of "pastry entrées" highlights an item which had persisted since the Middle Ages, even if it is never called out as a separate course: the savory pie. This had been a fundamental part of dining for centuries and only began to fade in this century. At Beauvilliers, the course still included some savory pies, but also a number of vol-au-vents, the closest modern equivalent (with pâté en croûte) to the savory foods served in pastry for centuries. This medieval touch would persist through much of the nineteenth century, but disappear, as a separate item, by the twentieth.

Private dining remained more varied and retained some features of earlier menus. This was true even as, before 1840, fashion shifted service from the long-standing "French" style - serving all the dishes of a course together - to what became known as the "Russian" style (service à la russe), in which dishes were served successively (as is standard today and probably was standard from the start in restaurants).

In 1842, the great chef Marie-Antoine Carême included a long list of model menus in his
Le Maître d'hôtel français, This begins with a long look at menus of earlier eras, analyzed from Carême’s (often disapproving) view as a modern (for his time) chef. He then provides numerous menus mainly meant for very large meals. The biggest differences between these and the restaurant menus is that he continues to include removes (mainly of fish), as well as what he calls “large pieces” (grosses pièces, full roasts of a sort not appropriate to restaurants), along with the pottages, entrées, roasts, entremets and desserts found on restaurant menus as well. In these, he also does not break the entrées out by type.

But in describing the Russian style of service, he writes: "First, one serves the oysters; the soup is followed by the hors-d'oeuvre; then the cold entrée; after that comes the large pieces; then, come the entrées of fish, of poultry, of game, of butcher's meat, and the vegetable entremets; then, the dish of roast with salad. The service ends with the sweet entremets, the jellies, the creams and the soufflés." He preferred however the old French style, which he found "more elegant and more sumptuous".

In the same year, a far simpler work intended for a general audience laid out a standard service for twelve, showing a more bourgeois application of the French-style service:
First service
Two soups, two removes and four entrées, six hors d'oeuvres
Macon or Burgundy wine
Second service
Two dishes in the middle, roast and fish in court-bouillon, eight entremets
Bordeaux wine
Dessert
Two pièces montées [ornate, decorative desserts], eight assorted dishes; compotes, fruits, etc.
Fine wines
In 1868, the Baron de Brisse published 366 menus for private use. These are not divided up into courses, but tend to begin with a soup followed by fish, meat, one or more small dishes probably meant as an entremets, and dessert. They implicitly follow the (by then standard) Russian style. These are modest meals and appear to reflect the most common usage at this point.

Meanwhile, restaurant menus shrank from the multipage pamphlets
most common at the start of the century to one page. When Van Gogh drew a sketch on a menu at a Bouillon – one of the earliest chain restaurants – he inadvertently preserved a rare menu from 1886. The order on this one page document is as follows: soups, hors d’oeuvre, fish, entrées, roasts, vegetables, salads, desserts. The entrées at this point are no longer broken out into different sorts and would not be even in more upscale menus. The one big absence here is of the entremets course, which persisted on most other menus. Some menus now began to start with oysters; exceptionally, some include the remove courses better known from private dining, and sometimes (as was more common later) “cold meats”.

Twentieth century
The biggest change in the twentieth century, virtually from the start, was the inversion of the hors d’oeuvres and soup courses (potage at this point can be safely translated in that sense). Another innovation was that the cover charge, which had existed in France long before the restaurant and was probably in fact charged in the nineteenth century, but never appears on menus, now became a standard item.

The most surprising survival was of the entremets course, which goes back to the Middle Ages. Many restaurants still included this until the Fifties. When present, it typically covered the more complex desserts, as opposed to fruit, nuts, biscuits and sometimes ice creams which would be found under the desserts heading. This was not universally true; some restaurants had only the desserts heading early on. But it was common enough not to be exceptional until mid-century. In some cases too a cheese course could be listed just before the dessert course.

Otherwise, several other courses began to appear on some menus, depending on the establishment. For a long time, eggs or omelettes could follow the soup course. Cold dishes or cold meats could come towards the end. Grillades – grilled foods – are sometimes listed separately.

In terms of other meals, glimpses peek through anecdotally. In his Dictionnaire universel de cuisine pratique (1905), Favre writes:
An academic dinner, even in its simplest expression, must include two soup selections, one thick and the other with a consommé base, hors d'oeuvre, fish, a garnished piece of butcher's meat, a poultry entrée and a roast of game or vice versa; vegetables, hot entremets, ice creams and pastry; for dessert, fruit and petits-four. The four grand cru wines are indispensable: Bordeaux, Burgyndy, Spain and Champagne.
One writer in 1914, pleading for a simplification of formal banquets, wrote: "Nothing is scarier than sitting down to a banquet of 6 to 7 francs a head, and reading a menu made up of two soups, entrée, fish, sherbet, roast, poultry, foies gras, salad, ice cream, treats and at least three wines!"

In his Modern French Culinary Art (1966), Pellaprat argues for simplification in elegant banquets. He states:
At the beginning of the twentieth century, …. the menu, even at a banquet, was something like this: one soup, thick or clear; one fish dish; one remove or entrée; one roast, usually accompanied by a salad; one vegetable dish; one side dish, hot or cold, followed by an ice; dessert.
Then goes on to present simpler menus from the second half of the century, such as this from 1959:
Foie gras parfait
Sole soufflé Abel Luquet
Saddle of lamb Antonin Carême
Cointreau sherbet
Cold sliced Nantes duck with orange
Selection of cheeses
Omelette Duc de Prasliin

Beneath the rarefied names here, the basic sequence resembles that in restaurants, with an hors d’oeuvre, fish, meat, the refinement of sherbet in the middle of the meal, poultry, cheese and what is effectively dessert.

Otherwise, the sequence at restaurants did not greatly change towards the end of the century, except that the entremets course had disappeared. Meanwhile, in 1981, a restaurant at Roissy already listed plats (plates) instead of entrées: hors d’oeuvres, soups, fish, plates, salads, cheese, dessert. (The term appears to have begun as plats du jour, but simply became a standard course.) This substitution – echoing the displacement of the roast course earlier by the entrée – would become more apparent by the next century, but was not yet common.

But as late as 1998, the basic menu for the venerable Pied de Cochon offered hors d’oeuvres, eggs, fish, entrées, vegetables, cheese and desserts – that is, a sequence that had existed for decades.

Today
Trying to track traditional meal orders to standard menus in Paris today is much complicated by two elements: an increasingly casual approach to dining and the matter of fact Americanization of French menus.

Increasingly today, the word plat has displaced entrée, which frequently has returned to its primitive sense of an “entry” or starter. And so a very common sequence is of an entrée, a plate and dessert. This may include variations such as a salad or cheese course. Frequently, too, “hamburgers” and “sandwiches” appear as separate courses, as do “pasta” and even (in English) “snacks”.

More upscale restaurants may stay closer to tradition. The very elegant Taillevent lists (on its English menu) Starters, Fishes [sic], Meats and Desserts. But some other top restaurants list no categories at all or use eccentric headings verging on poetry.

Traces of the traditional courses remain in general usage. But as in much else about modern Parisian dining, rules are disappearing or even being consciously subverted. It takes some effort to tease out the influence of a sequence that was barely glimpsed in the fourteenth century, only became stable in the eighteenth and was not truly codified until the restaurant became established.

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