The History of Garde Manger
Garde manger is one of those terms that refer to so many things it is difficult to know where to begin talking about it. Not only does it refer to a cooking position in the traditional French kitchen brigade, it also refers to the station or area of the kitchen where those cooks prepare and store their food, as well as to the type of food they create. So literally, a garde manger works at the garde manger preparing garde manger. If you aren't totally confused yet, or even if you are, read on and hopefully it will all start to become clearer.
In contemporary terms, garde manger refers to that part of a service kitchen that is responsible for preparing appetizers, namely cold food items and is often referred to as the pantry. The term translates as"keep to eat" and dates back to the Middle Ages when the households of nobility and the very wealthy had a designated space dedicated to food that was being stored to be eaten at a later time. The areas themselves were referred to as garde manger and were typically located under ground where the temperature was naturally cooler and provided a better environment for food storage.
Household employees, known as garde mangers or stewards, were responsible for maintaining the garde manger area and prepared, stocked, and distributed all of the food that was stored there. As food resources began to increase, due to improved hunting and farming practices and the domestication of animals, it became necessary for them to acquire new preservation and storage techniques. Much of the food on hand needed to be prepared in such a way that it could be held and consumed throughout the year without spoiling. Stewards used numerous techniques including curing, smoking, brining, drying, pickling, and canning to ensure that the food they were responsible for would last until it was ready to be eaten. They became proficient in new techniques and also adapted existing techniques for making sausage, pates, and even cheese.
As the proficiency of their stewards increased, many people saw an opportunity to make a profit from their employee's skills as well as their larder. Thus emerged the practice of selling, buying, and trading these homemade goods. As commerce in this area grew, it became necessary for the government to intervene to preserve integrity and ensure the safety of the food that was being prepared and sold.
Specialized professions emerged outside of the home from this new form of commerce, and as specific guidelines were laid out, workers began refining their craft accordingly. From this grew trade guilds, which developed systems that set standards for workmanship and the price of goods and protected businesses and employees. Guilds were designed so that each member went through the same training process, beginning with an apprenticeship and culminating in the mastery of the craft. Trained guildsmen started to open their own specialty shops and with that came the availability of those highly sought-after products that were previously difficult to acquire if one was not wealthy enough to be able to afford a garde manger of their own.
The onset of the French Revolution brought about a good deal of change. As the war began, many wealthy homeowners were forced to flee their homes leaving their household staff members behind to fend for themselves. As wealthy households toppled, countless garde mangers suddenly found themselves out of work and many flocked to restaurants and hotels to seek employment in a field where they could use their already well honed skills. Their knowledge of food handling, storage, and preparation made them easily employable and a welcome asset to most establishments. It was at this time that the garde manger station and position were developed in professional kitchens and where the modern garde manger and pantry stations find their roots.