Situated in Western Europe, France borders with Luxembourg and Belgium in the north, Germany and Switzerland in the East and Spain and Italy in the south. It has a wide range of geographical contrasts from fertile plain to mountain ranges and two coastlines - to the west on the English Channel and Bay of Biscay and to the south on the Mediterranean - 5,500 km in total, all of which contribute enormously to the nature of its cuisine.
Prior to the 1500s, three important factors to affect the cuisine of this region are the invasions of Celtic Gauls, c1500 to 500bc who partitioned the land and introduced farming; the take over of the Romans in 56 BC who, together with the Greeks, introduced cheese-making to the south of France; and the Moors' invasion of France in 718 AD, who are responsible for introducing goats to the region (via Spain). The Moors' influence extended to the types of ingredients and cooking methods, and the first French cookbooks c1400 are said to have mimicked the Moorish palate.
The foundation of modern day French cooking was laid in the 1500s when the benchmark "haute cuisine" was introduced into the French courts by the Italian Catherine de Medici. Of course it has been perfected by chefs through the ages, however it was during this period that Italian influences changed the culinary course of France not only in cooking methods but also in the ingredients used and the way food was served.
The Florentine chefs who came over with Catherine were more skilled than the French chefs and introduced the use of ingredients such as butter, truffles and artichokes as well as techniques and chic dishes such as aspics. They also introduced the contrast between savory and sweet.
By 1652 the subtly of French cooking had taken root. No longer were spices were used to disguise the taste of food but rather to compliment it and the use of truffles and mushrooms had gained favour as flavour enhancers in dishes. Heavy sauces traditionally made with bread as the thickening agent, were superceded by stocks or lighter sauces which were made using the roux method and meats were often served with their own natural juices.
It was also at this time that the French chef La Varenne wrote the first French cookbook to present recipes in alphabetical order and to include instructions for cooking vegetables.
By the late 19th century France adopted the method of serving food called Service à la russe, where dishes are prepared and plated into individual portions before being served to the diner and a series of dishes are served in succession. Prior to this, service à la française was used, where each course was made up of a large number of dishes from which the diners served themselves, much like our modern day buffet.
Unfortunately, the eating of this fine food or Haute Cuisine was a luxury enjoyed by a minority until the 20th century. When the Bastille was stormed in 1789, about 75% of the French population were farmers who relied on bread and cereals as the staples of their diet and even by the mid 19th Century, only the bourgeoisie ( the new ruling class) ate this wonderful food while 2/3rds of the populace in Paris were mal-nourished or starving