Gastronomy | The French get forked

Italian champions (center)

Equipped with only knife and spoon, diners stared eagerly into a bowl of seafood broth at a 16th century wedding dinner reenactment last month, wondering how best to proceed without their pronged cutlery companion.

Organized by Hong Kong wine distributor Cottage Vineyards, in partnership with Bellisima Italia, the October 28 wedding dinner was an occasion for three Italians to set the record straight on their country’s contribution to French culinary tradition. But what started as an exploration into the roots of Franco-Italian food culture soon turned into a night of lighthearted rivalry between the two cultural titans.

The dinner was a tribute to Caterina de’ Medici and the culinary novelties she brought to France during and after her marriage to Henry, Duke of Orléans, on the same day, 484 years ago.

Hundreds of years later, the contribution of Caterina has been enshrined in legend for the Italian people. The young bride is said to have insisted on bringing three of her own chefs to France, where in 1533 they debuted previously unknown ingredients such as basil and artichoke.

But Caterina is also credited with having introduced – or at least popularized – the use of the fork among the French aristocracy, in what would be described today as a feat of cultural diplomacy.

Resisted for centuries by most of Western Europe, the fork was unpopular for its resemblance to the Devil’s pitchfork and later because of its effeminate reputation among the continent’s ruling nobles. Something changed around the time of Caterina’s ascension to the French throne.

To mark this revolution in dining etiquette, guests at last month’s dinner were denied a fork for their seafood broth, just as the ancestors of the Duke of Orléans would have been.

During the Renaissance era, the cultural superpowers of France and Italy imprinted an indelible mark on western civilization, including notable contributions in art, architecture, literature, etiquette and culinary tradition.

A Renaissance woman herself, Caterina belonged to a powerful lineage of part political dynasty and part banking family that ruled and financed from its Tuscany heartlands. She was the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the de facto ruler of Florence and one of the most enthusiastic patrons of the early Renaissance period.

Pierazzuoli and Colette Lam

Implicit in the tone of the dinner was the idea that at least some of France’s cultural heritage – particularly in the areas of dance, art and cuisine – can be traced back to Italy, and that much of this began with the legendary Caterina.

“Tonight is about strong characters and the how the character of Caterina de’ Medici made history for Italy and France,” said Sarah Negro, deputy consul general at the Consulate General of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau, who attended the dinner on behalf of Bellisima Italia. “Caterina was responsible for bringing cultural [items] to France, which later became a part of the cultural heritage of both countries.”

Recalling Caterina’s extensive contribution, Negro said that the young bride was not merely seeking home comforts in Paris, but understood the power of cuisine as an instrument of diplomacy.

“This was a strategic wedding for political reasons between two very powerful countries in Europe at that time, […] but it was also a cultural marriage,” she said.

An initiative dedicated to the promotion of Italian culture and lifestyle, Bellissima Italia is Italy’s answer to the popular Le French May. Though it includes some 50 events spread across the two Special Administrative Regions, only one this year was held in Macau.

“I am proud to say that, for once, we successfully copied the French,” joked the consular official, comparing the young Italian initiative with 25-year-old Le French May.

Negro was joined by two other champions of Italian culture, Guiseppe D’Angelo – a chef formerly based in Moscow and Singapore but now working in Hong Kong – and jovial winemaker Dario Pierazzuoli.

Pierazzuoli said that the evening was not only about commemorating Caterina’s influence on French culinary culture, but also about a plate of cabernet grapes that she received as a gift from the French court.

He was at the dinner to promote the wines of his two Tuscany-based estates, Tenuta Cantagallo and Le Farnete, which are being exclusively distributed in Hong Kong and Macau by Cottage Vineyards. Among them was a Vin Santo del Chianti Montalbano, an amber-gold, traditional Italian dessert wine, known as the Italian “wine of hospitality.”

“Vin Santo [meaning Holy Wine] is considered the wine of hospitality […] because in the past each family only produced a very small amount and it was offered only to the best of friends.”

Here too the Medici influence can still be felt in Tuscany. It was in this central region of Italy that the world’s first law to protect quality wine-growing areas was implemented in 1716, decreeing “one and only one bottle of wine per vine.”

The many-coursed, long evening of copious food and wine was rounded by operatic performances by Colette Lam and the good-natured jesting of Pierazzuoli.

As the forks were finally distributed to the dinner guests – just in time for a plate of Italian pasta – the winemaker instructed, “We can use the fork to eat the pasta and the knife if somebody doesn’t like the wine.”

florentine style

CATERINA DE’ Medici is said to have had an insatiable fondness for spinach and her trusted Tuscan chefs were instructed to include it in her meals whenever possible. Her love for spinach became famous among the French and they subsequently dubbed any dish containing spinach as ‘Florentine style’. Today, dishes such as eggs Florentine and quiche Florentine still bear the title inspired by Caterina.

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