News | February 21, 2023

400 Years of French Gastronomy Books to Auction


Almanach du comestible, nécessaire aux personnes de bon goût & de bon appétit, Paris, Desnos, 1778-1779

Christie’s is inviting foodies and collectors to explore four centuries of gastronomy and its history through a selection of books from the library of Baron Pierre de Crombrugghe.

Cooking and the culinary arts have always been the subject of poems, treatises and educational works. But it was not until the 19th century that the concept of gastronomy emerged in earnest. The Baron's library displays a number of themes that are inextricably linked to the culinary experience and the way it has evolved throughout history. Its shelves provide a rich menu of treatises on how to cut meat, poultry and fish, as well as texts on truffles, oysters and baking.

There are also books explaining how to make iced desserts, tea, coffee and chocolate, and how to set the table and fold napkins. This collection of nearly 200 works is estimated at around €1,500,000.

The highlight of the library of Baron Pierre de Crombrugghe is the Cuisinier Taillevant, ou le Viandier, the first known illustrated cookery book. This rare incunabulum, written in French, was published in Lyon in around 1495. Decorated with a large woodcut depicting a cook at the stove and bearing the name of the head chef under Kings Charles V and VI of France, the Cuisinier Taillevant is the ultimate reference work on French medieval gastronomy. The volume for sale is the only surviving complete copy.

Half a century later came the Livre fort excellent de Cuysine tresutille, a culinary bestseller before its time. Containing over three hundred recipes, it had considerable influence throughout the Renaissance period. The copy at auction is one of three listed from the edition published in Lyon in 1542. It is the only copy to remain under private ownership.

Escoffier Auguste, Manuscrit de la 2e édition du Guide Culinaire, écrite en collaboration avec Emile Fetu de Septembre 1905 à Janvier 1906

Escoffier Auguste, Guide Culinaire, 1905-1906

IBN BUTLAN, ELLUCHASEM, Elimithar,Tacvini sanitatis, 1531

 Ibn Butlan, Tacuini sanitatis, 1531

Le Cuisinier françois, a 1651work by François Pierre (also known as La Varenne)

Le Cuisinier françois, 1651, by François Pierre (also known as La Varenne)

Livre fort excellent de Cuysin, Lyon, Olivier Arnoullet, 29 octobre,1542

 Livre fort excellent de Cuysin, Lyon, Olivier Arnoullet,1542

TAILLEVENT, Guillaume TIREL, dit (vers 1310-1395), Le cuisinier Taillevant, vers 1495-1496.jpg

Guillaume Taillevent, (c.1310-1395), Le cuisinier Taillevant, (c1495-1496)

Le Platine en françois, printed in 1505, is the French version of a treatise on cooking and dietetics published in Rome in 1474 by the humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina. De honesta voluptate et valetudine is a monumental work that had a very wide intellectual impact during its time. It revolutionised cooking by combining the joys of eating with dietetic rules. It would become Taillevent’s most formidable competitor, and its reign went on to span more than a century.

It was not until Le Cuisinier françois, a 1651work by François Pierre (also known as La Varenne), that the customs inherited from medieval cuisine were brought to an end and the foundations of modern French cuisine were laid. Now presented for sale, this volume included for the first time a number of recipes and procedures that are nowadays well-known to modern readers, such as the first recipes for snow eggs and puff pastry.

Cuisine and medicine frequently appear alongside each other in treatises on the art of living well, which is why the library of Baron Pierre de Crombrugghe includes a 1531 edition of Tacuini sanitatis by Ibn Butlan, a doctor from Baghdad. This richly illustrated volume comprises almost 300 woodcuts, which depict familiar scenes of gluttony, inebriation, food platters and even kitchen utensils.

In 1687, in Le bon usage du thé, du caffé et du chocolat, pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Nicolas de Blégny extolled the therapeutic virtues of “exotic” drinks – tea, coffee and chocolate – recently introduced to France. This much sought-after treatise was published at the same time that the first cafés were opening their doors in Paris.

One of the most extraordinary items in the collection is a second edition of Escoffier’s Guide culinaire, a substantial five-volume working manuscript. Following the original edition published in 1903, Escoffier began work on a new, expanded edition of his pioneering work, still considered the cornerstone of French cuisine to this day. Sauces, desserts, hors d'oeuvres, soups, pâtés, roasts: everything is accounted for in the thousands of recipes he wrote up based on his experiences at the Savoy and the Ritz. For Auguste Escoffier, cooking, “while an art, will become a science and will have to submit its formulas – still too often based on experience – to a method and a precision that will leave nothing to chance.”

His guidance modernised gastronomy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, culinary books and treatises were aimed at elites, be they royal, princely or aristocratic. From the 19th century onwards, publications gradually diversified and were aimed at a wider audience.