|Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
|Tuesday, 19 October 2004
Have you ever come across a book so stunning that you held your breath as you turned the glossy pages, silent in awe at what you beheld and reverentially stroking its beautiful, shiny pages? I have. The most recent occasion was just a few weeks ago in fact. That was when I came across an almost pristine copy of an old French coffee table book of my mother’s on the great master chefs of Europe. Its lengthy title was almost as great as its incredible weight. (And when something makes a 16-pound cat feel light in comparison, you know you’ve entered into a whole new literary dimension!) My discovery was entitled “Les Grands Maîtres de la Cuisine Française: Du Moyen Age à Alexandre Dumas, Les Meilleures Recettes de Cinq Siècles de Tradition Gastromique” or, “The Great Masters of French Cooking: From the Middle Ages to Alexandre Dumas, The Best Recipes from Five Centuries of Gastronomic Tradition.” (Eds. Céline Vence & Robert J.Courtine, Bordas 1972)(henceforth referred to as “Les Grands Maîtres.”)
I had come across this book many years ago, when I was a child and had dreamt of becoming a world-renowned chef. When other children were playing with Barbies or their action figures, I was in the kitchen inventing recipes, grading restaurants under my own Zagat-like system, and desperately trying to figure out what Louisa May Alcott meant in “Little Women” when she referred to blancmange. Les Grands Maîtres didn’t explain blancmange to me but it did introduce me to a world of culinary legends, almost all of who had been royal chefs. The greatest of these was “the God,” Carême, a man whom I meet again in the magical world of Regency England, as portrayed by Georgette Heyer and, I’m embarrassed to admit, Barbara Cartland.
Coming across Les Grands Maîtres after all these years was like meeting an old friend. It made me forget all about my plans to write about the scandalous new Dutch princess, Mabel, who had gone from being “a mobster’s moll” to the Queen’s daughter-in-law. It took me back in time, to the world of Regency England, the Sun King’s incredible palace of Versailles, and Napoleon’s glittering Empire.
As I read the elaborate recipes for dishes once enjoyed by emperors, kings and princes, I realized that few people knew the close connection between royalty and cooking. Even fewer understand that cooking, as we know it today, would not exist if it hadn’t been for royalty.
The simple fact is that the founding fathers of gastronomy were all employed, at one time or another, by a royal prince, king or tsar. The reason boils down to money. Until the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, only royals were wealthy enough to afford gastronomical excess, culinary inventions and lavish dinners.
For those who hate cooking, let me say now that the history of the master chefs is not an explanation of how to make an omelet. It’s a glimpse into the golden age of kings, a lost world of luxury, political scheming, extravagance and hedonism. Take, for example, Marie-Antoine (“Antonin”) Carême, a chef whose life was a strange mixture of Oliver Twist and Harold Robbins. Carême was 10 years old when he was abandoned on the brutal streets of Paris by his alcoholic father. Eleven years later, he was so influential that he baked Napoleon’s wedding cake. A few years after that, he captivated allEurope at the Congress of Vienna. He dazzled “Prinny,” Britain’s future King George IV, in London; created masterpieces for the Romanovs in St. Petersburg; and conjured up soufflés with real gold particles for the Rothschilds in Paris. (Ian Kelly, The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef (Walker & Co. 2004).) He was called “the Chef of Kings, and the King of Chefs,” although the French seemed to have referred to him simply as “le Dieu” or the God. (Les Grands Maîtres, at 54.)
However, Carême was not the first important royal chef; several other prominent cooks led the way for him. As a result, I thought I’d write a little about the history of cooking as it relates to royalty, with special emphasis upon my beloved Carême. If the discussion leaves you hungry, I’ve provided numerous recipes at the end for you to try out, ranging from a simple autumn soup by Carême, to Napoleon’s lucky chicken fricassee, to the vegetarian eggplant dish favoured by the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The recipes may not be the most fanciful and the dishes may not be a chef’s most famous ones but, hopefully, they should be relatively simple. More importantly, they will be feasible for the average cook in this day and age.
Space limitations prevent me from elaborating on the endless, fascinating and funky bits of royal culinary trivia I’ve discovered, and it certainly limits me from getting into the tastes and preferences of such modern royals as the Queen, Prince Philip and Diana. However, if any of you would be interested in hearing more about the subject, please don’t hesitate to write to me and let me know. Now, onto the history of cooking and royal chefs…
In all fairness to Taillevent, the purpose of cooking in those days was to compensate for a lack of refrigeration, a problem that frequently led to rotting food. The King rewarded Taillevent’s efforts with both an estate and a title. Ironically, Charles V died as a result of eating some deadly mushrooms. Hopefully, it wasn’t Taillevent’s fault. Notwithstanding this unfortunate incident, Taillevent is considered by many to be a pioneer in the history of cooking. Today, the restaurant which bears his name is considered one of the best in the world, as evidenced by decades of the famous Michelin four-star rating.
In 1651, he published a book of his own: Le Cuisiner Francois or The French Cook. The book is regarded as a turning point in culinary history and is so influential that it was recently republished in 2001. The book is significant because La Varenne, unlike Taillevent, emphasized flavour over methods of preparation. His recipes were simple, concise and designed to bring out the natural flavour of the ingredients, not mask it under the sweet stench of sugary spices. In fact, thanks to La Varenne’s influence, pepper became the dominant seasoning, followed by fresh herbs.
More significantly, he is probably the man who first invented the famous béchamel or white sauce. Until that time, sauces followed the Roman method adopted by Taillevent: where thick pieces of stale bread were soaked in liquid and then strained through cloth. The result was a lumpy paste that was combined with heavy amounts of cinnamon, mace, cardamom, cloves, vinegar (or lime juice), wine and some water, and poured over roasted meats or boiled lamprey eels. Positively repulsive!
La Varenne must have thought so too because his recipe completely different. He used simple flour, slowly blended with boiled milk and butter to create a smooth, creamy white sauce; he seasoned it only with pepper; and he completely ignored Taillevent’s beloved mix of potent spices. He named his sauce “Béchamel” after the 17th century nobleman who was Louis XIV’s Chief Steward. The sauce was not only a huge hit atVersailles but it also became one of the cornerstones of modern cooking.
Béchamel was not La Varenne’s only invention. His appreciation for herbs led him to come up with the ingenious idea of a bouquet garni: a small posy of fragrant herbs tied up in a porous fabric for slow seasoning in stews and soups. La Varenne was also the first to introduce the use of fresh vegetables, such as mushrooms, for flavouring meats.In fact, he’s said to be the person behind the decadent pairing of foie gras and truffles. http://tinyurl.com/4hfpl
La Varenne also tried to make changes outside the kitchen as well. He wanted to limit the scope of royal dinners, mostly in order to control his employer’s gargantuan appetite and protect his health. Consider the account, furnished by Louis XIV’s sister in law, the Duchess of Orleans, of one of the King’s meals:
I have often seen the King consume four plates of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large plate of salad, two big slices of ham, a dish of mutton in garlic sauce, a plateful of pastries followed by fruit and hard-boiled eggs.
Unfortunately, La Varenne was not successful in his attempts. It wasn’t just the King’s gluttony that was at fault. Another reason was the political significance of enormous banquets. The endless one-upmanship in dishes and preparations, the huge cost of the dinners, and gluttonous extravagances of the royal court were all seen as a reflection of the political pyramid, with the king placed firmly at the top. (See, “The Dominance of the French Grande Cuisine,” in The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. II (Cambridge University Press 2000) at pp. 1210-1216.) In other words, lavish theatrical feasts became a means of glorifying the monarch and making a political point. http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/label_france/ENGLISH/DOSSIER/GASTRO/terre.html
Brillat-Savarin was born in 1775. He became a lawyer and then, eventually, the mayor of his town. Political problems following the French Revolution forced him to fleeFrance. After a few years traveling through Europe, he made his way to the United States where he supported himself by playing the violin. He eventually returned toFrance where he wrote one of the most celebrated treatises on food: “Le Physiologie du Gout.”
Published in English as The Physiology of Taste (1825), it was the first work to treat dining as a form of art, and gastronomy as “the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment.” (See, Le Physiologie, as translated by Fayette Robinson, at http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/b/brillat/savarin/b85p/) Brillat-Savarin’s “physiology” or philosophy focused on the pleasures of dining — as opposed to mere cooking — as well as style and proper dining etiquette. But his book goes far beyond such narrow issues.
The majority of Le Physiologie is taken up by witty, often chatty, essays in which Brillat-Savarin describes his theories about everything connected to society. The wonderful anecdotes which he shares about everyone from Rossini to the corner baker makes the reader feel as though they’ve stepped foot into the 1800s or peeking into someone’s personal diary. At other times, one is amused by the Brillat-Savarin’s theories on such varied and eclectic matters as: the erotic properties of truffles (they acted as an aphrodisiac upon women); the importance of food in history (“The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed”); the character of nations (the Swiss were “eminently civilized but fools because they have no time for pleasure,” while the Americans were “charming barbarians”); and the importance of chocolate (“chocolate is health!”) as a panacea for everything from hangovers to lethargy. (Id.See also, Stephanie Curtis, “Mad about Chocolate,” at http://tinyurl.com/6qvlu; and “Rogov’s Ramblings” at http://www.stratsplace.com/rogov/elephant_pie.html.
Many of his reflections have become celebrated adages that remain with us today. For example, “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star;” “Those who eat too much or get drunk do not know how to eat or drink;” “The most indispensable quality of a cook is punctuality; it must also be the one of his guests;” and his most famous proverb, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” (See, Le Physiologie, as translated by Fayette Robinson, supra).
At first glance, these sayings may seem foolish and frivolous, but that is because we are looking at them through modern eyes. Back in the 1700s, concepts such as punctuality or moderation in food and drink were truly radical ideas. Sugar-coated in Brillat-Savarin’s witty style, they had an impact. They also helped legitimize efforts by such chefs as Carême to move away from the culinary habits of the ancien regimetowards a new more modern approach that emphasized refined food, table manners, and social interaction.
CARÊME: “THE GOD”
As I mentioned earlier, Carême is my favorite chef of all time and a man whose life is something out of a Dickensian novel. He was born in 1784 to an alcoholic, itinerant stonemason who fathered 25 children. (Les Grands Maîtres, at 54.)At the age of 10, Carême was turned out penniless onto the streets of Paris. As Carême later recounted it, his father’s final words to him were: “Go my child, and fare well in the world. Leave us to languish; poverty and misery are our lot and we will die as we have lived. But for those like you, with quick wits, there are great fortunes to be made.” Id. Adecade later, Carême had become the toast of Napoleonic and Regency Europe and a man whose early death was mourned by emperors, tsars and kings.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Carême cooked for every important banquet table in 19th century Europe. Consider just a few of his employers: the legendary master statesman and general, Prince Talleyrand-Perigord, simply known on both sides of the Atlantic as Talleyrand; Britain’s Prince Regent or “Prinny”; Tsar Alexander I; and Baron de Rothschild, head of the famous banking dynasty. And those were just hisemployers. Almost all the royals, aristocrats, and nobles who attended the Congress of Vienna from 1814 to 1815 were served his dishes at one banquet or another.
Carême began his meteoric rise to fame as an apprentice to one of the great pâtissieurs or pastry chefs of the day, Bailly, who soon recognized the young boy’s talents. In Carême’s time, the pâtissieur was as prestigious as that of the cuisinier himself (head chef). Jean François Revel, Culture and Cuisine: A Journey through the History of Food (Da Capo 1984). The reason is that pastry cooks were responsible for the great decorative centerpieces (or “pièces montées”) that were the crowning glory of grand dinners.
Carême excelled at these artistic flights of fancy, which is probably why Bailly gave him the freedom to indulge in his quest for knowledge. After spending grueling hours in the kitchen, Carême would leave for the great libraries of Paris where the young boy taught himself how to read and write. He also began learning about architecture, a subject that he was passionate about, the arts and the famous royal chefs of the past. It’s clear that, even at a young age, Carême was already a workaholic, a genius and an ambitious perfectionist.
Carême soon caught the eye of the great Talleyrand. In 1804, Talleyrand gave him a test: to create a menu featuring multiple dishes for each day of the year, but never repeating a single dish and only using seasonal produce. Carême passed the test with ease and Talleyrand hired him on the spot.
This was no small honour. Talleyrand was a wily political chameleon who exercised power, no matter who was in power, no matter what the decade. Think about the brilliant ruthlessness which would permit a powerful politician to survive the following political polarities: the ancien regime (Louis XVI), the Revolution, Napoleon’s Consulate, Napoleon’s Empire, the Restoration (Louis XVIII), and the July Monarchy (Louis Philippe). And Talleyrand did not just “survive;” with the exception of a brief period of poverty in America, Talleyrand flourished in style and great luxury.
Talleyrand was the perfect patron for Carême. He was a gourmet who appreciated fine food, he was politically powerful, he had the financial means to support Carême’s culinary imagination, and he introduced Carême’s dishes to the most powerful men inEurope.
Equally important was Talleyrand’s well-known preference for conducting “diplomatic campaigns on damask dinnercloths.” (Pat Solley, “The Hardest Soup in the World,” at http://www.soupsong.com/zjul04.html ) In other words, Talleyrand intentionally tried to soften up his opponents, dull their senses and get an advantage by sating them with an abundance of rich, decadent food. In the world of the early 1800s, however, royalty and politicians were blasé beyond belief. Enter Carême, a man whose extravagant culinary inventions tantalized even the most jaded appetite.
Thus, for every political crisis handled by Talleyrand, there was some glorious, new recipe by Carême. For example, the “XYZ Affair” that nearly brought the US to war with France was resolved over Carême’s Vol-au-Vents Puits D’Amour. The Concordat of 1801 ending hostilities with the Vatican; a ravishing Suedois. The Peace of Amiens; a delicate Souffle aux Fraises. Id. These were no small feats. Carême was not modifying someone else’s recipes but actually inventing things, like the soufflé, from thin air.
Carême’s brilliance soon led Talleyrand to promote him to head chef. The honours did not stop there. When Emperor Napoleon had a second, and religious, marriage to his beloved Joséphine, Carême was chosen to make the cake. He was only 21 years old.
In 1814, Carême reached an even larger audience for his talents when he accompanied Talleyrand to the Congress of Vienna. The Congress was a six-month long diplomatic affair that was briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the Battle of Waterloo. Royalty and statesmen from every European country gathered to decideFrance’s future. Talleyrand represented the French delegation and the newly imposed King Louis XVIII, brother to the guillotined Louis XVI. With the fate of France lying in hands of the victorious Allies, Talleyrand set out to protect France’s status and to return her to what he saw as her rightful place among the great powers.
According to one author, Ian Kelly, one of the tools at Talleyrand’s disposal was Carême. Kelly argues that Talleyrand wielded Carême’s gastronomy as a political tool to show France as a dazzling, mighty, and important power, not a vanquished beggar nation dependent on the mercy of the Allies. (Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The life of Antonin Carême, the first celebrity Chef (Walker & Co. 2004).) As entranced as I am about Carême, Kelly’s argument seems to place a bit too much importance on the culinary genius’ influence. Quite simply, I find it hard to believe that the arrogant, egotistical Talleyrand would spend all that much time thinking about his master chef’s political impact, particularly when he was up to his neck in political intrigue and diplomatic negotiations.
Nonetheless, I think it’s undisputed that Carême dazzled Talleyrand’s guests in a way that could only have benefited the politician’s reputation. Carême’s time in Talleyrand’s service enabled him to know the eating foibles and preferences of a number of important statesmen, diplomats and royals. For example, the Tsar had stayed with Talleyrand on a prior trip to Paris and Carême had wooed the Russian foreign minister with a chestnut pudding created in his name, the Nesselrode Pudding, a subsequent favorite of Britain’s Prince Regent. Id. (For the recipe to the mouth-watering Nesselrode Pudding, see Kelly’s website at http://tinyurl.com/6t5ph.) It’s not wholly implausible, therefore, that Carême combined his knowledge with his skills, in order to achieve greater good will for the French. After all, if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then think what Carême’s brilliant inventions could do!
One thing is certain: Carême’s name was on everyone’s lips. Cooking sometimes for days on end, he sometimes served several thousand guests at a time with elaborate dishes and masterpieces of confection. When the Congress of Vienna dispersed in 1815, the departing dignitaries went home and spread the legend of Carême. The person who was most eager to hear of Europe’s new culinary genius was Britain’s Prince Regent or “Prinny” as he was better known.
Prinny was the oldest son of George III and he came to power via a special parliamentary bill when his father was thought to have gone “mad.” Today, we know that the King suffered from porphyria, a medical condition that can lead to episodes of dementia. Prinny had never gotten along with his staid, Germanic parent who disapproved greatly of his extravagance and his scandalous hedonism. When the Regency Act was passed, Prinny took full advantage of the coffers now open to him and set forth to indulge every one of his gargantuan appetites for wine, women and food. His indulgences soon turned the slim, young prince into a florid, fat whale who needed to wear tight corsets in order to fit into his clothes. It was said that one could hear the creaking of Prinny’s corsets across the stretch of a room, but that didn’t stop the Prince’s mammoth appetite. In fact, I’d venture to say that Prinny would have put Louis XIV to shame when it came to gluttony and sheer quantities of food.
When he heard of Talleyrand’s brilliant chef and his unique dishes, he had to have him, no matter what the price. And what Prinny wanted, Prinny often got. In late 1815, he lured Carême away from Talleyrand’s household and got him to make the trip across the Channel. Carême took up residence at Prinny’s London home, Carlton House, and set out to show “les Anglais” what real cooking was all about.
It was in this context that I first heard of Carême and, to this day, his name is forever associated in my mind with the magical, enchanted world of Regency England: waltzes at Almack’s; Beau Brummell quizzing the ladies; Lord Byron and the scandalous Caro Lamb; gentlemen’s clubs like Whites (which still exists today and counts as its members both The Prince of Wales and Prince William); and Prinny’s Brighton Pavilion. To my youthful mind, Carême was imbued with all their magic but, the reality was, it was Carême who glittered. His genius was much more than just the figment of my youthful imagination or romantic perceptions. And a menu for Jan. 15, 1817 shows why.
Carême started with four soups, then four fish dishes, then four main dishes (ham, veal, etc.) and thirty-six side dishes. And this was just the FIRST COURSE!!!!http://tinyurl.com/5h36j The Herculean nature of Carême’s job becomes even more apparent when you consider that Prinny preferred an average of ten courses, at the very least, since anything less was considered shoddy and meager. In fact, I’ve read that some of Prinny’s banquets featured 100 courses. (Jay Rayner, “A History of… Haute Cuisine,” at http://tinyurl.com/5twmq.) If every course had an average of 50 elaborate dishes, that would make Carême responsible for as many as 5000 dishes for one night’s entertainment.
Carême’s brilliance didn’t stop there. He also designed massive, elaborate table decorations, including one of Prinny’s new Brighton Pavilion, out of marzipan, spun sugar, glue, wax, and pastry dough. Passionate about architecture, Carême’s breath-taking centerpieces – complete with classic temples, rotundas, bridges, palaces, forts and windmills – were accurate and precise, down to the smallest detail. (Rayner,supra. See also, Marie-Pierre Moine, Triumph of French Grande Cuisine, at http://tinyurl.com/56od2.)
Carême only lasted two years in Prinny’s employment before resigning. Contrary to what you might think, Prinny’s elaborate dinners didn’t exhaust him. It was the weather! (Les Grands Maîtres, at 54.) Carême became deeply depressed by the notorious British climate and by the attitude of his fellow cooks, who resented the attention paid to the famous chef. Besieged by offers, Carême decided to work for the Tsar, in St. Petersburg and at his Winter Palace. Unfortunately, Russia wasn’t to his taste either, so he returned to his beloved Paris where he worked for the British Ambassador, the scandalous Princess Bagration and then, finally, the Rothschilds.
His new employer, Baroness Betty de Rothschild, was eager to be accepted by Parisian society and gave the fiery chef a complete blank cheque in the kitchen. The result was some of Carême’s most elaborate dishes, including a soufflé recipe that called for suspended particles of real gold within the liqueur and the famous Lady Morgan soup, sometimes called “the hardest soup in the world.” (See, Ian Kelly’s fascinating description of the Rothschild’s glittering extravaganza for Lady Morgan, excerpted in part at http://tinyurl.com/5oq2p and his translation of Carême’s Rothschild soufflé at http://tinyurl.com/54vkm. For the recipe of “Lady Morgan’s Soup,” see http://www.soupsong.com/zjun04.html .).
It was within this timeframe that Carême probably invented the extravagant dish,Tournedos à la Rossini, in honour of the famous composer. The recipe is a feast for the senses, as it calls for the richest of ingredients, one atop another: filet mignon, topped with exorbitantly expensive black truffles and huge slabs of foie gras, all on top of buttery croutons in a rich Madeira wine sauce.
I say “probably” because it’s unclear who created the recipe. Personally, I believe it was Carême. Some people believe it was Rossini who was no stranger to culinary inventions. However, Rossini’s style of cooking was never this complex or extravagant; Carême’s was. Other people credit Escoffier – the famous chef who followed Carême in the annals of culinary fame — with the invention. I’m no culinary expert but, again, I think Carême is a much more likely candidate. For one thing, the dish is very much in the style of Carême’s other rich, decadent and utterly expensive creations. For another, the time frame fits; Escoffier had just come to Paris when Rossini died in 1868, whereas Carême had been a long-time friend of the composer. In fact, Carême was so close to Rossini that the latter turned down an invitation to tourAmerica just because Carême refused to accompany him. In contrast, Escoffier was never a personal friend of the composer. Lastly, it’s been said that Escoffier had few qualms about appropriating other chefs’ inventions when it benefited his reputation. See, http://tinyurl.com/576u2.
Recipes aside, Carême set out to change the face of cooking in more permanent, substantive ways. One of his many books was a huge encyclopedia on the history of cooking. L’Art de la Cuisine Française au XIXieme Siècle was a sixteen volume series that covered everything from his recipes, to the origins of certain dishes, to table settings and food service. It immortalized his art, as well as the tradition of cooking throughout the centuries. It became an instant classic and is still read today by the master chefs in Europe. In fact, you can find a copy on the French Amazon website, albeit not in translation and only in an abridged form.
In his book, Carême organized recipes into master categories. To be exact, he classified all sauces into five main, or “mother,” sauces from which everything else derived. It sounds trivial but, in Carême’s opinion, once you knew how to make the sauce, the rest followed from there. The “mother” sauces are:
Carême believed that these five sauces were the foundation to almost all European cooking. He was right. If you’ve ever made a gravy for Thanksgiving or for prime roast, then you’ve used one of the mother sauces. If you’ve cooked Cajun food, chances are that you’ve used a white roux or béchamel sauce; if you’ve made spaghetti sauce, then you might have used either the tomato sauce (e.g., bolognaise), the béchamel (Alfredo) or the velouté (clam sauce). In short, unless you barbeque, order in or microwave your food, then you’ve probably made one of the “mother” sauces.
Chances are, you’ve also been influenced by Carême’s rendition of them. Carême didn’t just organize sauces into categories; he also refined sauces from the past. For example, he took the béchamel sauce created by our old friend, La Varenne, and perfected it. He did the same with other historic sauces too. He went back centuries into the past, took the best of the master chefs’ creations, synthesized it with his modern knowledge, and then refined it. Thanks to Carême’s prodigious writing, these recipes are still used today by cooks all over the world.
Carême made another huge contribution to the history of food: he changed how it was served. Before Carême, service was à la française or in the French style, something akin to family style today where every dish (after the soup course) was put out simultaneously on the table. Although people could pick and choose what they wished to eat, the disadvantage was that most dishes became cold very quickly, especially as they’d already made the long journey from the kitchens, through cold drafty corridors, to the banquet halls. Carême, ever the perfectionist, couldn’t stand for his dishes to be ruined, even if the cause was a traditional way of eating. Influenced by his time at the Tsar’s court, he was a big advocate for service à la russe, where diners were served individual portions of dishes, one after another, and still relatively hot. Although old habits die hard, Carême had some help from another old friend of ours, Brillat-Savarin.His book had already led to a shift in attitudes towards dining, and its impact became even more widespread when the English version came out in 1825.
None of that was enough for the perfectionist genius. In his spare time, Carême also redesigned certain kitchen utensils, created cooking molds in new, ornate shapes, and allegedly invented the tall chef’s hat or toque. (“Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare,” at http://tinyurl.com/4p8nm.) That last claim may be a slight exaggeration because no one really knows how the hat was invented. One legend credits King Henry VIII. The way the story goes, one of the royal cooks in King Henry’s employment started losing his hair. Unfortunately, he seems to have done so while preparing the King’s dinner; and we all know how much King Henry loved his food. So, when His Majesty found a hair in his soup, he was so furious that he had the cook beheaded. He ordered the next Chef to start wearing a hat and, for obvious reasons, the poor man was more than happy to comply. http://tinyurl.com/3l8nr
Whoever invented the toque, one thing was clear: Carême was burning the candle at both ends, in a way that did not bode well for his health:
He rose before dawn, so he could choose only the freshest fruits and vegetables from the markets. He was on constant duty working until the late hours. Carême would hardly sleep at all, with sauces being started, for an important dinner, at 3 am. Carême also worked in exhausting situations. With a lot of coal and wood burning around them. In this furnace everyone moves with sped; not a sound is heard, only the chef has a right to speak, and at the sound of his voice, everyone obeys. Finally the last straw in the hot kitchen, for about half an hour, all the windows are closed so that the dishes would not cool down, as they are being served.
By 1829, Carême was seriously ill. According Kelly, his biographer, Carême was slowly being poisoned to death by low-level carbon monoxide, resulting from a lifetime of cooking over a charcoal in close, unventilated quarters.
Four years later, Carême was dead. He was just 48 years old. The culinary genius of the 19th century was buried in an unmarked grave and, due to an outbreak of cholera, no one attended his funeral. Yet, his death hardly went unnoticed. When Tsar Alexander I heard of it, he reportedly said mournfully to Talleyrand ‘What we did not know was that he taught us to eat’. (“Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare,” at http://tinyurl.com/4p8nm.)
TODAY’S ROYAL CHEFS – FROM THE QUEEN TO DIANA
Carême’s death marked the end of master royal chefs. From this period onwards, master chefs did not work exclusively for royalty. Yes, they still cooked for princes, kings and emperors, but it was on their own terms, usually in an individual, independent capacity. Sometimes they cooked as part of a famous hotel and restaurant, like the renowned Escoffier. Sometimes, they merely catered for a particularly momentous occasion, like Escoffier’s legendary Three Emperors’ Dinner or the Cherries Jubilee which he made for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. And sometimes they just accidentally created famous recipes which royals enjoyed, such as the time a young Henri Charpentier inadvertently set fire to a dessert, resulting in the famous Crepes Suzette, a later favorite of Bertie, Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII. (See, Linda Stradley, “History of Crepes Suzette,” at http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CrepesSuzetteHistory.htm) At no time, however, did another world-renowned master chef work solely at the beck and call of royalty.
There are many reasons for the change. The trickle-down effect of the Industrial Revolution, new financial freedoms, globalization, the emergence of restaurants and hotels as powerful centers for the culinary arts, the impact of WWI and the end of many imperial monarchies – all these things and more ended the reign of the royal master chef. A new, more democratic, culinary world was emerging, one where nobility and access to the highest social stratosphere was no longer required to enjoy gastronomic heaven. Escoffier and his famous Ritz-Carlton establishments played a role in taking gastronomy out of the palaces, but it was undoubtedly WWI, the Depression and WWII that cemented the fate of the royal cook.
By the time Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, things couldn’t have been more different than the extravagant days of Prinny and Carême. Even Her Majesty’s official website notes the differences:
Through the ages, the Royal Family has been well known for putting on spectacular banquets to mark significant events. Coronations, Jubilees and State Visits are three occasions which are traditionally honoured with a banquet.
In recent years such occasions, while maintaining their traditional splendour and ceremony, have been significantly reduced in size. Take, for example, a State Banquet hosted by The Queen at Windsor Castle in 2001. To honour the visiting King and Queen of Jordan, Her Majesty put on a banquet for just over 150 guests. To mark the Coronation of King George IV in 1821, however, a total of over 1,600 people attended a banquet in the honour of the new king! [Emphasis in the original.]
Each banquet provides an opportunity to display the Sovereign’s most impressive wares. The banquet table is meticulously prepared; the staff are spectacularly dressed in ceremonial uniforms; and the menu is of the highest standard. Again, though, the size of the menu has been gradually reduced from one Monarch to another. Whereas King George IV treated his guests to a range of 20 first courses, 22 main courses and 31 desserts, Queen Elizabeth II considers it more appropriate to offer one choice for each course.
Carême was the last of his kind. A genuine artist, his fiery, passionate nature carried over to his work and transformed it into a feast for the senses that captured the soul. He turned food into actual art, with huge tableaus of precise, architectural creations and food made out of gold. Literally! No other chef has ever come close to the scale, complexity and inventiveness of his creations. And no other chef so embodies the glittering brilliance of the golden age of kings as Carême.
To honour his legacy, I’ll leave you with a few recipes for you to try. They are simple dishes, not just by Carême’s standards but by a normal person’s standards. Lucky for us,
Carême had a particular passion for soup and I managed to find two simple ones, including one created in honour of Queen Marie-Antoinette. I’ve also thrown in various other recipes, such as the Stuffed Eggplant dish that was a favorite of Diana, Princess of Wales, Napoleon’s lucky chicken fricassee, and two desserts inspired by Brillat-Savarin.
Please write to me and let me know if you’d like to learn more about this subject, whether it’s historical royal trivia, recipes or the culinary preferences of such modern royals as the Queen, Prince Philip and Diana, Princess of Wales. I have a ton of royal recipes and trivia that I’d be happy to share if you’re so interested.
Until next week, happy cooking and bon appetit….
1- Carême’s “Autumn Soup
– White part of 3 medium leeks, cut in julienne strips
FOR THE BROTH
FOR THE CROUTONS
Mix the flour with the 6 fl oz/ ¾ cup / 175 ml cold consommé and blend until smooth. Add to the boiling consommé, stirring constantly, and simmer until the consommé is thickened and smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add the leek, celery and lettuce strips with the peas, sugar and pepper and simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender, 15-20 minutes. Taste the soup for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.
For the croutons: heat the butter and oil and fry the diced bread, stirring, until browned on all sides. Drain the croutons thoroughly on paper towels and keep warm. If serving in a tureen, put in the croutons and pour over the soup; if serving in individual bowls, serve the croutons separately.
(Taken from “Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare” at http://tinyurl.com/4p8nm. See also, Ian Kelly’s book on Carême.)
2- Marie-Antoinette’s Vermicelli Soup
– 1 whole fowl (4-5 pounds)
Garnish: blanched chervil or Italian parsley
Cooking directions (according to Pat Solley):
Clarify the cool broth by whisking the egg whites and stirring them and their shells into it, then heating over very low heat just to a simmer. The eggs whites will bring all the impurities to the top in a foamy crust–do not skim! Just let the crust form and continue to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Push the foam to one side and carefully ladle the crystal clear broth through dampened cheesecloth. Let this beautiful broth cool, uncovered.
When you are ready to finalize the soup for serving, bring the broth to a boil, stir in the pasta, then reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes. To serve, ladle the soup into consomme cups (preferably two-handled), sprinkle with the blanched peas or asparagus, and garnish with a chervil or parsley leaf.” http://www.soupsong.com/zjul04.html
3- Napoleon’s lucky dish – “Chicken Marengo” or Chicken Fricassee:
(After a military campaign in the Italian province of Piedmont, Napoleon found himself starved but there was no food in sight because he’d left his commissary behind. His desperate chef, Dunand, scavenged together a few ingredients: a scrawny chicken, four tomatoes, three eggs, a few crayfish, and a little garlic. They even found a frying pan, which was fortunate because Dunand had left his cooking utensils with the rest of the commissary. “Dunand cut up the chicken with a sabre and fried it in oil, crushed garlic, and water made more palatable with a little cognac filched from Napoleon’s own canteen; together with some emergency-ration bread supplied by one of the soldiers, with eggs, fried in the same liquid on the side, and the crayfish, also fried, on top.” Napoleon loved it and ordered that the dish be served after every battle. “On the next occasion Dunand tried to improve the dish by substituting white wine for water, adding mushrooms, and leaving out the crayfish. Napoleon noted the disappearance and demanded that they be restored to the dish, but not for gastronomic reasons, however. Napoleon was highly superstitious and chicken with crayfish was associated in his mind with victory.” Today, the recipe calls for “chicken cut into pieces, browned in oil, and then cooked slowly (not as Dunand did it) with peeled tomatoes, crushed garlic, parsley, white wine and cognac, seasoned with crushed pepper and served with fried eggs on the side (with or without crayfish, also on the side) and sometimes croutons, doubling as Dunand’s army bread.” “Italian Inspiration,” at http://www.knet.co.za/marengo/chicken.htm)
– 1 Chicken, cut into pieces
4- Stuffed Eggplant – a favorite of Diana, Princess of Wales
(Serves 4 people)
– 2 x 6-inch Aubergines – eggplants
1. “Turn on the oven to 350F.
5- Emeril Lagasse’s simplified version of Tournedos à la Rossini –(It may be extremely simplified, but it’s still a very complicated recipe. Not to mention incredibly expensive. Nonetheless, I can’t help sharing it with you because it’s truly that delicious!)
– 6 slices of foie gras, 1/4-inch thick and 2 inches in diameter
In a saute pan, melt 8 tablespoons of butter. Add the potatoes to the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Saute the potatoes for 3 to 4 minutes. Place the potatoes in the oven and roast the potatoes until golden brown and tender, about 20 minutes, shaking the pan every five minutes. Season the fillets with salt and pepper.
In a large saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter has melted, add the fillets and sear for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Remove from the pan. Place the canapes in the saute pan and arrange the fillets on top. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 6 to 8 minutes for medium rare. In a hot saute pan, sear the foie gras for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Remove the foie gras and drain on a paper-lined plate. Dissolve the arrowroot in 2 tablespoons of the reserved Madeira to form a slurry and set aside. Add the reserved Madeira, truffles and veal stock to the foie gras fat. Bring the liquid up to boil and whisk in the slurry. Boil the liquid for a couple of minutes and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the sauce for 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, remove the filets and potatoes from the oven. Place the fillets in the center of each plate. Arrange three potatoes around each fillet. Top each fillet with a piece of seared foie gras. Spoon the sauce over the top of the foie gras and garnish with parsley.”
6- Peach-Glazed Savarin — (A “savarin” is a rich sponge cake, baked in a ring-shaped mold, and infused with fruit juices and liqueurs. Some say the cake was invented by Brillat-Savarin, but my research leads me to believe it was merely named in his honour. A Baba au Rhum is similar in concept and was also attributed to Brillat-Savarin’s influence.)
– 2 cups all purpose flour
Spoon batter into a well-greased 6 cup savarin mold or ring. Cover, let rise in a warm place till nearly double (about 40 minutes). Bake in a 350F oven for 25 to 35 minutes.
Prepare Savarin Syrup; gradually drizzle over warm ring till all the syrup is absorbed. Let stand 1/2 hour. Prepare Peach Glaze; spoon over all. To serve, fill center of ring with desired fruit. If desired, prepare Creme Chantilly to spoon onto slices.
Savarin Syrup: In a saucepan combine 1 1/2 cups peach nectar and 1/2 cup sugar. Bring to a boil; remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 cup rum.
Peach Glaze: In a saucepan heat and stir one 12 ounce jar peach jam over low heat till melted. Strain.
Creme Chantilly: In a mixer bowl combine 1 cup whipping cream, one tablespoon powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla, beat till soft peaks form. ”
7- Orange Rum Savarin:
– 2 cups all-purpose flour
In small saucepan, stir together remaining 1 cup sugar and orange juice. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Remove from heat. Stir in flavoring. With fork, pierce bread at 1-inch intervals. Slowly spoon orange syrup over bread until absorbed.” http://www.aeb.org/recipes/desserts/orange-rum-savarin.html
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If you’d enjoy reading more about this subject, or if you’re interested in the culinary preferences of today’s royals, write to me and let me know. I’d also like to hear from anyone adventurous enough to try out some of the recipes posted above.