Most of the Western world’s cooking is based on French sauces.
Before the French Revolution, France had a highly-developed aristocracy. These had homes with great kitchens and great chefs who had lots of helpers, so the aristocracy got used to very labour-intensive sauces. And not just them: the wealthy merchant class with upper-class aspirations and more ready cash than the aristocracy could easily cadge places at the table. Consequently, you had large group of what we could now call “foodies” who were used to good sauces with their meals (without having to do any of the work to put those sauces on the table, bien sûr.)
After the Revolution several things happened:
- Many of the great aristocratic homes were either closed down or couldn’t afford to keep large kitchen staffs going;
- Many kitchen people including the chefs were thrown out of work;
- The haute bourgeoisie couldn’t cadge a great meal as easily, both because there were fewer homes left, and because it was politically incorrect to hang with these people.
As a result, restaurants were “invented”
- The kitchen staff and chefs needed somewhere to work and make a living by practising their trade;
- The haute bourgeoisie wanted somewhere to eat the highly refined meals they had gotten used to.
Before this, sauces could be quite complex, as the chefs in the great homes had many, many staff working under them. But the restaurants, which had to be viable businesses, couldn’t have as many staff. Sauces had to be simplified (a startling statement; given how complex French sauces are now, what were they like before?) But on the other hand, chefs in restaurants were now competing for the business of restaurant diners, whose tastes then as now have always been fickle and craving something new and different.
To resolve these conflicting needs — simpler sauce production, plus a broad range of sauces, the French chefs evolved a base of 4 or 5 basic sauces (depending on whose list you go by), each of which could be varied by the addition of a few elements to create a completely different sauce.
French sauces are cooked at a much higher temperature than they are served at.