Life and Times
Francois Pierre de la Varenne was a French chef who practised in the first half of the 1600s.
Varenne established the foundation for what would became one of the basics of French cooking: to complement, and not to hide or imitate flavour.
In fact, he is said to represent the starting point of French cooking. He codified and defined the point in time where a medieval style of cooking, which had been more or less universal amongst the aristocracy throughout Europe, was replaced in France by a new, uniquely French way of cooking.
Varenne didn’t do this in isolation. There already was a direction happening around him. Sweet was being separated from savoury. Spices such as cardamon, nutmeg and cinnamon were being taken out of savoury main courses and relegated to sweets. Roux was being used for sauces instead of breadcrumbs. Varenne rode this trend away from the past and made it a decisive break.
Varenne raised vegetables in importance. He used new world foods such as Jerusalem Artichokes (which he referred to as “Topinambours”), and gave the first recipes in print for that other new world food, turkey (“dindons”.) Béchamel Sauce is often attributed to him.
His motto in food was “Santé, modération, raffinement” (health, moderation, refinement.)
In his first cookbook, Le Cuisinier François, published 1651, Varenne listed recipes in alphabetical order, as opposed to by meal or course, though he did group together recipes for fish, eggs, meat-free times of the year, etc. He provided no measurements. The book is written in a surprisingly charming, warm fashion, with lots of tips about what to do if a fish is too large, or if you have to delay serving a dish, etc.
He gave several recipes for food wrapped in greased paper and baked in ashes. Wrapping food up in something and baking it in the ashes of a fire or hearth was traditionally a method just used by the poor, who might not have many if any cooking vessels, and some recipes from the time of hearth cooking call for the cook to avoid getting the food smoky. Varenne, however, seems to call for the cooking method both to slowly concentrate the flavours (as opposed, say to boiling, which would leach flavours out), and to impart a smoky flavour that he seemed to want in some dishes.
No one is certain where or when Varenne was born. He is presumed to have been born in Chalon-sur-Saône, Burgundy, France, either in 1615 or 1618. He died in Dijon in 1678.
Varenne possibly got his start at cooking as a young boy in the kitchens of Henri IV (14 December 1553 to 14 May 1610). Henri at the time was married at the time to his second wife, Marie de Médicis (1573 – 1642) , later grandmother to Louis XIV (1638-1715.)
By 1644, it’s assumed Varenne was working for the Marquis d’Uxelles. In 1651, he wrote his first cookbook, “Le Cuisinier François.”
In 1653, Le Cuisinier François was translated into English and released as “The French Cook”, thus becoming the first French cookbook translated into English.
In the 1664 edition of his book “Le Cuisinier François”, it says that at the time of its first edition in 1651, Varenne had worked for the Marquis d’Uxelles for 7 years; consequently it’s assumed he worked for the Marquis from 1644 to 1651. Some sources mistakenly name the Marquis d’Uxelles at that time as Nicolas Chalon du Blé (1652 – 1730), made a Marshall of France in 1703. Merriam-Webster, however, has it right: the man Varenne would have worked for was the previous Marquis d’Uxelles, Louis Chalon du Blé (died 1658), who was also Governor of Chalon-sur-Saône.
The La Varenne Cooking School, named after him, was founded in 1975 by an Anne Willan at the Château du Feÿ in Burgundy, France.
1651. Le Cuisinier François
1653. Le Patissier Français (attributed to but probably not actually by him)
16xx. Le Confiseur François (attributed to but probably not actually by him)
1668. “Le parfaict confiturier”
The Bibliothèque nationale de France offers Le Cuisinier François for both online reading and downloading in various formats (link valid as of May 2015.)
 Louis XIII became King in 1610. But Marie de Médicis (not to be confused with Catherine de Medici), his mother, served as regent from 1610 to 1614 as he was very young. Even when he became King, she still attempted to run things until he started trying to put her safely out of reach in 1617 in the château de Blois. Louis XIII reigned until his death in 1643; his son, Louis XIV, was king from 1643-1715.
Note that Varenne’s full name and title includes “Sieur.” This was a title, usually inherited, for a person who owned a castle or a small fief.