Le Cordon Bleu : Ladies in the Kitchen !
Greek and Roman Cuisine
The Demiourga, who were female cooks in ancient Greece, had free access to the kitchen. Their role was to produce sweets, and to do the baking. In the Roman culture however, ladies were banned from the kitchen ! For a very long time afterwards, the whole concept of cooking was a purely male affair.
English, Dutch and French cuisine
Cookbooks were exclusively written by men, and for men. It was not until the Victorian England era that women again took to the power of the pen, to revolt against the (mainly French) cooks, who made careers in the noble families. With pen, but also with knife and spoon, the ladies stubbornly defended the traditional English cuisine.
In the Netherlands, preference was given to a lady cook over a male cook.
In France, male Chef-cooks were commonplace until well into the 18th century.
France : The Order of the Holy Spirit
In 1578, Henry III created a decoration, la Medaille de l'Ordre du Saint-Esprit (Medal of the Order of the Holy Spirit), to unite the most important leaders of the Catholic party against the Protestants.
When Louis XIV came to power, the medal was worn as a Malta cross on a light blue ribbon (un cordon bleu).
Even though the original order disappeared after the French Revolution, for the next two hundred years the honor remained one of the highest accolades in the French aristocracy. It was also the forerunner of the French Legion of Honor !
Le Cordon Bleu (the Blue Ribbon)
It was very exceptional that Madame Dubarry, the mistress of Louis XV, had a female Chef-cook.
This lady cook must have had extraordinary culinary gifts, because in 1769 Louis granted her the ribbon of the Order of the Holy Spirit !
For him, it was probably a question of combining the pleasant with the even more pleasant...
The Link with Gastronomy
According to legend, it had become customary for the members of the very exclusive club of "Saint-Esprit" to meet regularly. During these meetings they were given a dinner, with the most sophisticated dishes.
Over time, the culinary part became increasingly important, and the guests tried to outdo each other with gourmet recipes. Thus their menu's became legendary !
Thanks to the female cook of Madame Dubarry and the gourmet Louis XV, the title of "Cordon Bleu" was transferred exclusively to top female cooks, and contrary to the modern interpretation, it is never used for male cooks !
The Role of the Female Cook
In the 19th century, and with the coming of the wealthy bourgeoisie , there was less room in the kitchen, and less budget for the expensive male Chefs and their brigades.
This started the rise of the French and English "Cuisinières " (female cooks).
These ladies were usually of rural origin, and they brought with them a wealth of regional traditions and refinement.
Even today, the most famous chefs still draw from this culinary treasure. For instance, the famous Cuisine Lyonnaise actually stems from the female cooks of the Lyonnais silk weavers , dating from the 14th century.
They were called les Mères de Lyon (the Mothers of Lyon) !
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