Christian Coulon, anthropologist and emeritus professor from Bordeaux, is strongly opposed to the mystification of the so-called “eternal cuisine of the regions”. The latter was actually invented in the 19th century with the rise of bourgeois tourism and folk nationalism. Montaigne, who reflected on everything that aroused curiosity in his time, was no longer in this world when the great regional takeoff began. This does not mean that in antiquity there was no gastronomic sensibility. On the contrary, there was and there is clear evidence of this since the Romans, but it was not a matter that was cultivated precisely by the peasants engaged in other things, among them their livelihood, which consisted simply in feeding themselves.
The sensual pleasure of eating above the gastronomic discourse in the author of the ‘Essays’
The “eternal regional cuisine” would become much later the great engine of any culinary trend not only in the neighboring country. Instead, years would have to pass, something that takes away the “eternity” that is wanted to be granted through key Renaissance figures such as Montaigne. This one liked to eat for simple pleasure, not to feed a gastronomic discourse. The proof of this is that the major references to food are not in his celebrated “Essays” but, for example, in the Journal of travel to Italy through Switzerland and Germany, rich in numerous physiological details exposed so crudely that its scholars they believe it was not written with the intention of publication. For him, eating was not only about that, but about discovering the dishes that nature offers, filling the body with sensations and opening the mind to conversation. The table for an old-fashioned sage was a place of sociability where the wine lets go of the tongue and the dishes offer the opportunity to talk about economics. With a more current sense, he wrote that it is up to the good taste and appetite of each to regulate the pleasures of the table, contrary to what the old medicine came to remedy in an authoritarian way. You have to try everything, we could say, but it is the body itself that establishes a healthy balance with food. The austere Montaigne was also an Epicurean, but served sparingly.
He eats what he has in the château’s pantry and particularly enjoys the peasant dishes of his childhood, whole wheat bread, bacon and garlic. His aristocratic condition allows him access to meat, especially preserved in salt and seasoned with fatty sauces and spices. But unlike the fashion of the time, he prefers fish. He ends up getting fed up with oysters and melons that have just arrived from Italy, a country that set the standard for the French court in the 16th century. He also appreciates the artichoke that comes from Rome like the rest of the vegetables. He really likes wine, preferably white or claret of the year. Drink a bottle with every meal, but cut it with a third of water. Taking into account its Bordeaux origin, this could seem scary if we take it out of the context in which the character moved and that the circular tower where he spent the hours could give, due to the ethyl effects, too many turns around his head. His moral about wine is well known: no one should drink it before they are eighteen years old and it should be done moderately until they are forty. From that moment on, one can devote oneself to enjoying it, since “Dionysus is that good god who restores happiness and youth to the elderly to men, and who softens and softens the passions of the soul just as fire softens El Hierro”.
In Montaigne, sensual curiosity flourishes above the gastronomic discourse that the defenders of “the eternal regional cuisine” have wanted him to grapple with because of his status as Southwestern French. With an immoderate Adamist ambition in any healthy diet.