A feast for book collectors: the crème de la crème of French cookery writing

Some 200 books that tell the story of French cuisine across five centuries — from spices to sauces, swans to soufflés — are offered at Christie’s in Paris this month. We take a look at six that have changed the way we dine today

Over the course of five decades, Pierre de Crombrugghe assembled one of the finest collections of French culinary books in private hands. His library covers 500 years of French gastronomic history and includes works by some of its foremost writers, critics and chefs, including Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent, François Pierre de La Varenne and Auguste Escoffier.

According to Christie’s Books & Manuscripts specialist Vincent Belloy, De Crombrugghe collected with great passion. He bought at auction and from eminent dealers, and enjoyed cataloguing and researching his books as much as the hunt itself. ‘Most of his copies contained his own printed or manuscript notes,’ says Belloy. ‘He was constantly studying his library and looking to advance our knowledge of each book’s historic and cultural significance.’

On 23 March 2023, some 200 culinary books from De Crombrugghe’s remarkable collection are being offered in a single-owner sale at Christie’s in Paris.

‘Escoffier modernised the way kitchens were organised, rationalised tasks and simplified elaborate and traditional cooking methods’ — specialist Vincent Belloy

Among them are treatises on how to cut meat, poultry and fish, as well as texts on truffles, oysters and baking. Also included are manuals on how to make tea, coffee and chocolate.

‘We intended the sale to provide an overview of cooking from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, so each book had to add something to the narrative,’ says Belloy. ‘Several copies coming to Christie’s are nowhere else to be found — it’s an honour to bring them to market.’

The following are six of the most notable titles.

Le Cuisinier Taillevant, ou le Viandier

One of the most anticipated lots is Le Cuisinier Taillevant, ou le Viandier, the only surviving complete copy of the first known illustrated cookery book to be printed in France.

‘It’s extremely moving to hold this copy, because it’s still in its understated 15th-century binding,’ notes the specialist. It was published in Lyon around 1495 and features a title page with a large-format woodcut on both sides. ‘It’s such an expressive image,’ says Belloy. ‘And it’s thanks to this copy that the woodcut is known, because it’s the only one that exists.’

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Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent (circa 1310-1395), Le Cuisinier Taillevant, ou le Viandier, circa 1495-96. Offered in Le Festin de Pierre - Bibliothèque du baron Pierre de Crombrugghe on 23 March 2023 at Christie’s in Paris

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The only known complete copy of the first illustrated cookery book ever printed, complete with a large format woodcut (left) on both sides of its title page, still in its first half-binding

Inside is a compendium of recipes conceived by Guillaume Tirel (c. 1310-1395), known as Taillevent, a chef who worked in the kitchens of the French court during the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI.

The text is split into three sections and offers an unparalleled insight into the cuisine of aristocratic and princely households in the Middle Ages. The sections address food presentation, the use of spices and the importance of separating meat and fish from sauces when preparing a dish. Familiar ingredients such as veal and chicken appear alongside more unusual ones including crane, swan and sturgeon.

‘His recipes were hugely popular during his lifetime and were widely copied, revised and disseminated until the 17th century,’ says the specialist, adding that some 30 editions of the book were published between 1486 and 1615. ‘Today it is widely revered as the ultimate reference work on French medieval gastronomy.’

Le Platine en françois

This is the French version of a treatise on cooking and nutrition published in Rome in 1474 by the humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, also known as Platina. His monumental work, De honesta voluptate et valetudine (‘On honest indulgence and good health’), revolutionised cooking by combining the joys of eating with dietetic rules.

‘It was very successful at the time of publication, and would become Taillevent’s most formidable competitor,’ explains the specialist. ‘Twenty-one further editions of the treatise in French were published during the 16th century.’

Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina (1421-1481), Le Platine en françois, 1505. Offered in Le Festin de Pierre - Bibliothèque du baron Pierre de Crombrugghe on 23 March 2023 at Christie’s in Paris

This rare first edition of the French translation was printed in 1505. The Gothic type is attractive, and adorned with elegant, historiated initials. Although the book is in a later, 19th-century morocco binding, it still has wide margins. ‘This is hugely important for book collectors,’ says Belloy, explaining that each time a book is rebound the pages are reduced in size. ‘Collectors are looking for the margins to be as close to the original size as possible.’

Livre fort excellent de Cuysine tresutille

Half a century or so later came Livre fort excellent de Cuysine tresutille, a cookbook featuring more than 350 recipes as well as tips on preparing meat and festive table settings.

This is one of only three known copies of the edition published in Lyon in 1542, and the only one to remain in private hands. Its title page has an expressive woodcut of a man writing on a parchment that is resting on his knees, and the volume is held together by a beautifully crafted double binding by Trautz-Bauzonnet.

Livre fort excellent de Cuysine tresutille, 1542. Offered in Le Festin de Pierre - Bibliothèque du baron Pierre de Crombrugghe on 23 March 2023 at Christie’s in Paris

‘It was the first cookbook to include new recipes rather than a compilation of those passed down through the generations,’ says Belloy. ‘It had no rival during the Renaissance and was hugely popular at the time of its publication.’

Underlining this is the fact that around 20 editions, under different titles, were published during the 16th century. ‘Its influence was such that today it is still considered among the five or six manuals to have shaped modern French cuisine,’ adds the specialist.

Le Cuisinier françois

In the 17th century, the foundations of modern French cuisine were laid. The exotic and costly spices favoured in medieval cooking, such as saffron, cinnamon, cumin and ginger, were replaced by indigenous herbs including parsley, thyme, sage and tarragon. Fresh vegetables, among them cauliflower, asparagus and peas, were introduced to main dishes, as were rich, creamy sauces such as Béchamel.

Spearheading this culinary shift was François Pierre de La Varenne, whose Le Cuisinier françois (1651) is credited with bringing French cuisine into the modern era. Alongside fellow chefs Nicolas de Bonnefons and François Massialot, he believed that cooking should be codified according to a set of rules and principles.

His revolutionary cookbook includes the earliest use of the terms bouquet garni (herb bundle) and fonds de cuisine (stocks), as well as a number of methods and procedures that are familiar to readers today, including the first recipes for Hollandaise sauce and puff pastry.

La Varenne also called for the separation of salted and sweet dishes, with the former being served before the latter. Following the success of his debut cookbook, he published a second one in 1653, Le Pâtissier françois, which is regarded as the first comprehensive French work on pastry-making.

‘The copy offered for sale features both landmark works bound in one,’ says the specialist. ‘It’s still in its original Dutch vellum binding, which suggests that they were a desirable pair even at the time of publication in the mid-17th century.’

L’Art du cuisinier

By the end of the 18th century, eating out was becoming increasingly popular among the European elite. At the forefront of this trend was French chef and restaurateur Antoine Beauvilliers, who opened the first grand restaurant in Paris, La Grande Taverne de Londres, sometime between 1782 and 1786.

In 1814, Beauvilliers published L’Art du cuisinier, a two-volume cookbook featuring illustrative engravings, as well as recipes and texts on all other aspects of food service and hosting, from kitchen management to welcoming guests.

‘Cookery books have a very practical value, so most are not in the best condition,’ says Belloy. ‘But this one is a wonderful exception.’

It is large-format with thick wove paper and a fine decorated binding. ‘In the 19th century, publishers began to see cookery books as items of value and often made deluxe copies of popular editions,’ adds the specialist. ‘This copy’s exceptional condition sets it apart from many of the other books in the collection.’

Guide Culinaire

From the 19th century onwards, cooking became healthier and more affordable and culinary publications were produced for a wider audience. Among the most popular and influential was Auguste Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire (1903). It featured thousands of recipes developed by the French chef while working in the kitchens at The Savoy in London, and later at The Ritz in Paris.

‘The reputation of these hotels today is partly built on what Escoffier achieved there,’ says Belloy. ‘He modernised the way kitchens were organised, rationalised tasks and simplified elaborate and traditional cooking methods.’

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Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), Guide Culinaire, 1905-06. Sold for €30,240 on 23 March 2023 at Christie’s in Paris

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A working manuscript of the second edition of the culinary guide, running to almost 1,000 pages, written in collaboration with Emile Fetu (then chef at The Langham hotel, London)

The expanded second edition was published in 1907 and the current fourth edition in 1921. The Guide Culinaire  is still regarded as the foundation of modern French cooking and is used as the principal textbook by many culinary schools in France.

This complete manuscript of the second edition was written in collaboration with Emile Fetu, head chef of The Langham hotel in London between 1905 and 1906. It contains annotations and commentary by three distinct hands across nearly 1,000 pages, including seven autograph pages by Escoffier.

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‘Working manuscript copies are always the most interesting for me, because the corrections, amendments and notes show the mind at work,’ says the specialist. ‘Escoffier’s additions bring you a bit closer to who he might have been as a man and a working chef.’

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