“La Buona Forchetta” (The Good Fork)

The saucepans were overturned-to paraphrase biographer Jean Orieux-in 1533 when Catherine de’ Medici arrived in Paris as the 14-year-old Florentine bride of Henry II, the future king of France. What Orieux was referring to in his biography of Catherine de’ Medici was the Tuscan cuisine that sheinsisted on serving in her French court. Not only did she introduce dishes and vegetables that were to become the staples of modern French cuisine, but she even brought manners to the table, starting with the fork.

Until the sixteenth century, most European table settings included only spoons and knives. In France, there were often only communal knives. A fork was considered an unnecessary and even effeminate luxury when one had fingers.

In the Middle Ages, food was cooked in just two ways: boiled or roasted. Think thick medieval gruels, much like a Tuscan pappa, or whole roasted beasts, with meat and vegetables usually cut into convenient ‘finger size’ pieces or even mashed before serving (teeth were not of the healthiest standards), so that much of what was eaten was easily managed with hands and perhaps a spoon-no fork necessary.

The English word ‘fork’ and its Italian counterpart, forchetta, both come from the Latin word for a pitchfork, furca, a correlation that perhaps delayed its entry into table etiquette by a couple of centuries. The first forks, likely used in ancient Greece and Rome, had just two tines, much like today’s carving fork. They began re-appearing in Europe via Tuscany and Venice around the eleventh century. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that fork-use in Italy was in full swing, with its epicentre in Florence, the most culturally advanced city in the Western world.

Florentine paintings such as Botticelli’s Nastagio degli Onesti show that forks were a commonplace habit at the time. Commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent as a gift for the Pucci family in 1483, the work consists of four large panels depicting one of the heroes of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The fourth and last panel is still in the Pucci family private collection and depicts the well-dressed guests of Nastagio’s wedding banquet dining with forks.

By the sixteenth century the fork was a staple of Italian table etiquette, but it still took some time for it to catch on in the rest of Europe. In 1611 when an Englishman brought over a fork that he had seen on his travels in Italy, there was wild opposition to its use: it’s pitchfork-likeness was enough to cause uproar amongst clergymen who believed that God’s food should be touched only by human fingers. It was a habit not fully accepted in English society until as late as the eighteenth century.

The French, on the other hand, caught on to the fork a little earlier than the English, perhaps because of the gastronomic trendsetter that Catherine de’ Medici was. The forks, like Florentine sorbetto, were initially adopted only by the wealthy, following suit from the fact that the Royal French court were using them.

Forks were even created from beautiful materials from bronze to ivory, luxurious objects in their own right. For example, in Florence’s Bargello Museum, the Sala degli Avori (‘Ivory Room’) houses some wonderful examples of antique Italian cutlery, including an ivory and iron cutlery set of a knife and a folding fork. This special cutlery was carried in a little box known as a cadena by the individual who was to use it; the members of Catherine’s entourage were known to carry them.

The French table was changing, and as Catherine transformed everything from the orders of the dishes at a meal-no longer was everything from dessert to roasts to be brought out at the same time-and separated sweet from salty, so, too, did she change the appearance of the dishes at the table. With a complete set of cutlery for each person at the table, food could be served in larger pieces, to be cut and eaten delicately. Small bites of food were picked up by the tines of a fork rather than by stained hands.

As the Italian trend spread, the next century saw forks popping up on wealthy tables throughout France and Spain, then gradually to northern Europe. Catherine, that stubbornly Tuscan buona forchetta, had changed French cuisine forever, beginning with what the great French chef, Raymond Oliver, called the Revolution of 1533-her arrival in Paris.