All photos: by THIBAULT HOLLEBECQ
Meat pies, guinea fowl in fatty sauces, cakes topped with cream: at a dinner for a French kingis it that kind bacchanal what you’re thinking. Yet I have always wondered how such a feast could be cooked at a time when ovens and stand mixers were far from invented.
Hoping to learn more about this, I travel to the sixteenth century Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris, which opens its kitchens until November 6 to recreate these sumptuous dinners.
The baroque estate Vaux-le-Vicomte was built between 1658 and 1661 by Nicolas Fouquet, the ‘Minister of Finance’ under King Louis XIV† In the history books, Louis XIV is known as the longest reigning monarch ever. In addition, he also built the famous Palace of Versailles, concentrating the power of his absolute monarchy in a single building. His court enjoyed sumptuous luxury here.
In the time of Louis XIV, Francois Vatel at the head of the castle’s kitchens. He is history entered as the man who committed suicide during a banquet at the Royal property in Chantillybut Vatel has also left its mark on what we know today as the French cuisine†
Before Vatel’s time thought aristocrats very different about food, as it turns out the memories by the French Baroness d’Oberkirch. From her stories about French society and the court of Louis XIV before it revolution, it turns out that the aristocracy only sat at the table for a short time and ate as little as possible. “We swallowed, but we did not taste,” says the Duchess of Vallière in d’Oberkirch’s book.
Of course, the chefs were not happy about this. According to the book †Vatel and the birth of gastronomy‘(‘ Vatel and the dawn of gastronomy ‘) by the French culinary historian Dominique Michel, chefs used all sorts of tricks to keep their guests at the table. One such trick was to ask a guest to tell a story full of twists, where the ending was only revealed at the end of the meal. Another trick was to get women to sit next to their crush to encourage conversation.
Under the influence of Vatel, says Michel, the whole set-up of the dinner changed. Cutlery was no longer shared between guests. Glass was never left on the table for long as waiters were constantly pouring more water and wine.
Meals were usually prepared in the cellars of the castles. The kitchen staff then had to go up and down the narrow stairs to serve the dishes filled with food. They were not to waste anything, for it was all very expensive. The crowd alone was not enough to impress the many guests at the banquet. “It was a thoughtful mix of quality and quantity, but also ingenuity and beauty. All the senses had to be stimulated, ”said Michel, who is present at the rebuilt buffet to ensure its historical accuracy.
At the beginning of the performance two actors – one plays François Vatel and the other plays one Cook – the public experiences the preparations for the party. I rub my hands impatiently and imagine meaty oysters and greasy chickens. A quick glance at the banquet awakens my hope for a good one meal evaporate: The food is made of plastic. Fortunately, the prince’s chef is also right macarons prepared, they were popular in the time of King Louis XIV.
The plastic dishes are served in five dishes, each more luxurious than the next. The first dish consists of soup, served with cold meat on small plates. The second dish is the starter – what would be the main course today – which consists of veal chops and other cuts of meat. This is followed by fried fish with green salad.
The penultimate course consists of hot, cold, sweet and savory dishes, with oysters, truffles, vegetables, jellies and flans. And finally, there are butter-free desserts (which were very modern at the time): ice cream, chocolate chips, candied fruit and even sugar cubes, cone-shaped blocks of refined sugar that came directly from the Caribbean and Brazil. The sugar symbolized wealth and status.
The noble diet of François Vatel’s time was so rich in extravagant meat and sugar that it often was arthritisa form of arthritis.
In the Middle Ages, the nobility liked to eat food flavored with one mixture of spices from distant lands including saffron, cinnamon and ginger. According to food historian Terence Skully Medieval cookbooks rarely contain recipes based on vegetables and fruits. At that time, only the wealthy could afford the luxury of a book, and vegetables were considered by the elite to be too ordinary, earthy, tasteless, and generally inferior to meat.
But, as Michel explains in his book, all this changed in the sixteenth century and the Renaissance. At that time, the taste of aristocrats became more refined, and fewer spices were used in one dish. Pepper was much loved by the nobility. Along with nutmeg and cloves, it was placed in a lime slice and used to add flavor to the meat.
Vegetables are more popular in the seventeenth century. Little by little, they became the symbol of a delicate and refined diet, thanks to culinary trends from Italy. Artichokes, asparagus, cucumber, mushrooms and spinach were served unseasoned to preserve their natural flavor. Chocolate and pasta also became more and more popular at that time.
As many dishes were served as there were guests. When someone came to the table, the kitchen no longer made the same food, but a whole new dish. “The bowls were designed to enrich the meal and not to please the guests,” he said.The Art of Good Treatment‘(“The Art of Eating Well”), a cookbook from 1674.
And of course, the presentation of the culinary endeavors should reflect the opulence of the house. While Louis XIV tasted strawberries and wine, Vatel had to work on perfecting the flower arrangements and decoratively folding napkins.† It was also important to follow the culinary fashion of the time – some dishes were presented horizontally, something that was especially trendy during Louis XIV. Cakes and fruit baskets were usually served in towers that almost touched the ceiling.
When I first see the vertical display of candied fruit, it looks so real that I almost reach for a maraschino cherry. Unfortunately, I have to settle for the sight of the (false) delicacies, and comfort myself with the idea that I am now at least not accidentally toppling the fruit tower.
This article was originally published on VICE France†