Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen, and a 3-course meal in the evening like the Bourgeoise.
Although we all experience a 3-course meal from time to time, this kind of dining experience was once a privilege for a small demographic; an elite dining experience for a wealthy minority with access to the most cash and the best chefs.
In tough economic times, it now begs the question: Is the 3-course meal becoming too ‘bougie’ for the table? – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/sep/09/good-food-west-virginia-supper-club
The Perfect 3-course meal.
It’s quite personal. Everyone has their idea of the perfect 3-course meal and this will probably change with the seasons. However, we can all agree on one thing: a 3-course meal consists of a starter/appetiser, a main course and, finally, a dessert/sweet.
Despite the 3-course meal being an irregular event these days, in favour of Spanish-style, multiple tapas courses, we still speak fondly of being notably satisfied following a comfortable dessert.
This organisation of carefully prepared premium ingredients evolved through the monarchy and the bourgeoisie, culminating in extravagant presentations and complex techniques.
Persian polymath, Ziryab, has been credited with the invention of the 3-course meal but since the first millennia, there have been significant developments which have taken food to another level.
There is no doubt that Ziryab (Ali Ibn Nafi – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziryab ) shook the Arab world with his expertise and ingenuity, creating a type of deodorant, inventing an early toothpaste that actually tasted good, styling hair and popularising wine drinking – kudos for that one.
He revolutionalised local cuisine by introducing new fruits and vegetables such as asparagus and insisted that meals be served in 3 courses, served on leathern tablecloths, consisting of soup followed by a main course and then a dessert.
However, a lot has happened over the last thousand years, and whatever Ziryab created in the kitchen, the French mixed in with a touch of class – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_cuisine .
The Main Course.
In westernized cultures, the courses are usually eaten in the afternoon or evening – later in Spain – and the standard sequence that we have grown to love was heavily influenced and choreographed by – yep, you’ve guessed it – the French.
One of the earliest recipe collections was Le Viandier – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Viandier – written in the 1300s by an unknown author, it was largely overlooked until the 1950s. It is the earliest and best-known collection of recipes of the Middle Ages and is the first ‘Haute Cuisine’ cookbook.
At this time, French cuisine was still largely influenced by foreign cuisines from surrounding Germany, Spain and Italy and the book provided the first detailed description of an ‘entrement’.
3-course meal of entertainment.
For those who haven’t heard of an ‘entrement’ before, it basically translates as ‘between servings’. As you’d expect from medieval times, the menu was a tabula rasa of ideas which didn’t necessarily consist of edible courses. Between courses, you could expect musicians, actors, dancers, allegorical food scenes, different foods within food, a brightly coloured porridge, and models of buildings that functioned as wine fountains.
It was nothing new to medieval France as entrements had been documented as far back as the Roman Empire – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_and_dining_in_the_Roman_Empire .
Entrements were a weird and wonderful course for the diners which often culminated in something that took longer to prepare than the main course.
The English equivalent of an entrement was a subtlety. Subtleties were void of actors but, if you recall the nursery rhyme, “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, whereby “four and twenty blackbirds” were released from a pie, this is, literally, the sort of English entrement you’d experience at a medieval banquet.
Creativity baked in a pie.
Between courses, live birds were slipped into a baked pie through a hole at the bottom and unleashed on unwary guests as they removed the crust. With this kind of jovial performance, it’s little wonder why the population of Medieval Europe was subject to diabolical disease carried by animals – it’s genius though.
And if you think live birds from food were a novelty…
As with anything, the English bourgeoisie couldn’t resist the delight of imaginative tomfoolery at the dinner table and, to expand on the idea of live birds flapping in food, in 1626, King Charles I surprised his French wife with a giant pie. On this occasion, upon removal of the crust, instead of animals escaping from food, an 18-inch dwarf named Jeffrey Hudson appeared wearing a miniature suit of armour…!
The dwarf was provided as a gift from the King and, likewise, Queen Henrietta Maria was delighted – as you would be.
And I conclude the story of the ‘entrement’ with nothing less than bewilderment by suggesting that you simply couldn’t make this stuff up, let alone suggest that dwarves should occupy an area surrounded by pastry and presented as a keepsake.
The 3-course meal transformation.
Thankfully, the French finally got a grip on mealtimes by the mid-17th Century when chef and author, Francois Pierre La Varenne, decided to revolutionalise Medieval and Renaissance cookery.
Natural flavours were in with herbs and peppers along with newly introduced vegetables such as cauliflower, peas and cucumber. Rich spices were out along with living creatures appearing in food, in favour of carefully prepared meats and the finest fresh produce.
La Varenne was a systematic planner who worked with strict rules and principles to ensure that the whole dining experience was like a well-oiled machine.
La Varenne introduced us to bisque and bechamel sauce, he preferred to cook with butter instead of lard and he banished the Italian taste for mixing sweet and salted, emphasising the importance of separating between salt and sweet dishes.
It was this shift away from foreign influences that eventually lead to the development of an indigenous French style of cooking that mainly consisted of a cheese and wine culture.
And it’s this knowledge of French cuisine that has been adopted and adapted over the centuries to contribute significantly to Western cuisines today.
Influenced by traditional French cuisine, Haute Cuisine interacted with the development of fine dining in 20th-century Britain – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_dining
Using specialist chefs, early Haute Cuisine used fine ingredients found outside of the region and was elaborately prepared by the kitchen hierarchy.
Consisting of elaborate preparations that served small, multiple courses, food was meticulously created with simplicity and certain refinements to ensure that wealthy guests were appeased with a taste of opulence consisting of decadent sauces such as butter, flour, and cream.
The Final Course
In the 1960s we witnessed smaller menus and less food on the plate with the appearance of Nouvelle Cuisine. In 3-courses or more, and inspired by regional dishes, Nouvelle Cuisine placed emphasis on natural flavours using the finest, freshest ingredients.
Today, all this history has culminated in a knowledge that the best chefs now harness the power to provide banquets or BBQs, 3-courses meals or corporate canapes.
The champions of the kitchen have the privilege to draw influence from every aspect of culinary history, and despite the extravagance, the opulent surroundings and medieval ingenuity, the best chefs will all agree on one thing: the basics are what make ordinary ingredients the perfect 3-course meal.