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The recipe that I am going to sketch for you here is quick and simple: my life has not gone quite as planned. Antonin Carême, Souvenirs Inédits
Paris, 6 July 1829. Early evening. A hired barouche rattles up the Champs-Elysées. Inside: a noblewoman so tiny her close-cropped wig is barely visible through the carriage's open window. Lady Morgan, travel writer, Irish radical and wit, is reflecting upon her dinner imitation, and upon food.
'You are going to dine at the first table in France ~ in Europe!' she had been told. 'You are going to judge, and taste for yourself, the genius!'
An invitation from the Rothschilds had incited both jealousy and awe at Lady Morgan's Paris lodgings, and not just because James and Betty de Rothschild were the richest couple in France. Their chef, known to everyone, was Antonin Carême. And all Paris, including Lady Morgan, wanted to eat à la Carême. She already knew all about him: the wedding cake he had cooked for Napoleon and his empress, the gargantuan banquets he had cooked for the Tsar of Russia, the elaborate pâtés he had created for the Prince Regent in London (which she remembered being sold illicitly from the palace kitchens at exorbitant prices). She had even read Carême's books.
Perhaps Lady Morgan had skipped over the thousands of recipes, but she had read, wide-eyed, his descriptions of life 'belowstairs' in St Petersburg, Paris and the Brighton Pavilion, and she knew the rags-to-riches tale of his life; of how an abandoned orphan of the French Revolution rose to become the chef of kings and king of chefs.
Lady Morgan herself was no stranger to being pointed out in the street. She was easy enough to recognise with her Celtic jewellery and scarlet cape ~ by those who could see her: she was barely four feet tall. She was in Paris researching the sequel to her 'bestseller', France in 1818, which would be titled, prosaically enough, France in 1829, and her subject that hot July evening was Carême, and a novel French cult: gastronomy. Potage à la Régence, Perche à la Hollandaise, Vol-au-vents à la Nesle, Salmon à la Rothschild: Carême's recipes were on everybody's lips because food was the thing to talk about in France in 1829. This was the first age of gastronomy ~ the first 'Age of Surfaces', as Lady Morgan's playwright friend Sheridan would have it ~ and the age when for the first time a chef became a celebrity.
* * *
6 July 1829. Twelve hours earlier. A slight, ashen-faced man, looking older than his 45 years, breathed with difficulty in the early-morning Paris fug. His doctors, Broussai and Roque, were in disagreement about his ailment. But Antonin Carême knew. He had seen the same in older colleagues and friends; he was slowly dying from the poisonous fumes of a lifetime of cooking over charcoal.
With his weakening left arm, Antonin pulled himself into his carriage, which then followed the same route that Lady Morgan's would take later that day: by Napoleon's half-finished Arc de Triomphe, which Antonin had watched being built, and out on the new road to Boulogne-sur-Seine. Perhaps the air cleared a little as he left Paris behind, and his mind turned to the day's business: a formal dinner-party for the Rothschilds in the orangery of their country château.
For a man who had once fed 10,000 people on the Champs-Elysées, this was small potatoes. Even so, work had begun the day before at the rue Saint Roch. Crayfish and brill, eel, cod and sea bass, quails, chickens, rabbits, pigeons, beef and lamb had been ordered from the Paris markets around Les Halles ~ where Carême was a celebrated regular ~ along with specified offals: calves' udders, cocks'-combs and testicles, and the best Mocha coffee and truffles. Isinglass (fish gelatine) and veal stocks had been prepared, cream supplied locally, and the château's ice-house restocked in expectation of Carême's arrival. The vegetables and fruit for the menu would be supplied from the Rothschild gardens. Antonin had also already begun work, with his young assistant Monsieur Jay, on the sugar-paste foundations of a table-length confection in the form of a Grecian temple', the Sultane à la Colonne.
At 7am a hush descended on the château kitchens as Carême arrived. The scullery maids and female staff curtsied and departed. Antonin took off the diamond ring from the index finger of his right hand, a gift from a grateful Tsar, and rolled up his sleeves. He put on a white toque, a fashion he had created himself, and smiled at Jay. Despite the heat, a dinner at the Rothschilds was always a cause for celebration.
The evening menu consisted of seven services, rather than courses as we know them now, offering 18 choices of dish to the dozen guests. Carême still catered to the tastes of his French employers for service à la française, where nearly all the food was presented on the table at the start of the meal, with only the soups and entrées literally 'making an entrance' hot. Service à la russe (the style Carême helped to import from Russia of serving plated courses in sequence as we might expect today) was a fashion too daring in 1829 for the socially ambitious Rothschilds.
Antonin explained the menu to the full-time staff ~ the pastry chefs, underchefs, kitchen hands, table deckers and footmen ~ and sent copies upstairs to the young Baronne de Rothschild and her husband, who were paying 8,000 francs per annum (£125,000 in today's money) for Antonin's occasional services.
MENU 6th July 1829 Château Rothschild, Boulogne-sur-Seine
TWO POTAGES Le potage à la Condé Le potage Anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan
TWO RELEVÉS DE POISSONS Grilled sea bass à l'Italienne Cod à la Hollandaise
TWO GROSSES PIÈCES Le quartier d'agneau à l'anglaise La chartreuse, garnished with quails
FOUR ENTRÉES Les petits vol-au-vent à la Nesle L'émincé de filets de boeuf à la Clermont Chicken à la maquignon Glazed rabbit à la chicorée
TWO ROASTS Chicken à la reine Bacon-larded pigeon
TWO RELEVÉS DE PLATS DE ROT Plombière nectarine Oranges stuffed with marbled orange jellies
FOUR ENTREMENTS Les haricots blancs à la maitre d'hôtel Braised lettuce in consommé Café Mocha fanchonettes
La Sultane à la Colone Coffee
The roasts and highly dressed 'grosses pièces' would adorn the table as the guests arrived, along with the side-dishes (entremets) including the centre-piece dessert, the Sultane à la Colonne. Service à la française dictated that everything be arranged in perfect symmetry: There were therefore two or four of each dish. Twice, the table would be completely reset with plates and cutlery. After the soup there would be a re-lay or relevés of hot fish, and after the roasts and entrées a new re-lay of cold desserts. The Sultane à la Colonne, a spectacular centrepiece of spun sugar in the form of a classical Greek temple, would remain on the table throughout the evening.
The kitchen day began in reverse order to the menu. With dessert. Antonin selected fruits for the puddings ~ a nectarine plombière (ice cream) and oranges stuffed with layered jellies. This necessitated a trip to the hothouses and walled gardens and a preliminary visit to the Orangery dining-room. It was a hot, close day, and Antonin sought local advice from the gardeners on the likelihood of rain. It would affect the jellies as well as the spun-sugar dessert. He instructed the windows of the dining-room to be shut, but for the internal fountains to play all day; the best that could be done in terms of air-conditioning. Work on the spun sugar would have to be delayed, and the isinglass ratio increased in all the jellies.
8am. Back in the kitchens the stoves were already stoked, and the blackened expanse of hob was filling with pans: yesterday's prepared veal stock, fish stock, partridge stock, and a velouté sauce to be thickened into sauce Allemande. Reductions of isinglass, of calves' udders, of clarifying sugar and nectarines, cochineal shells and melting Isigny butter were waiting for Antonin's arrival. He added more isinglass to the reduction, checked the aromatic herbs ~ marjoram, bay and thyme ~ in the wicker sieves at the side of the stockpots, and passed on to the cooler confectionery room.
He shut the door behind him. The lubricious sweetness of almond milk, fresh-pressed through silk, cut through the citrus-oil smell of orange pith, exactly the contrast he had intended for the dessert. In one corner, a kitchen hand bent over the almonds and the straining silk; in another, Jay bored holes into oranges with a root-cutter. Antonin took the tool from the strong hand of his intended son-in-law and demonstrated the deft incision; the fruit must not break. He left his assistant excavating orange flesh and briefly checked on work in his favoured domain: the pastry room.
Here, on marble slabs, two pastry cooks were crushing butter between layers of puff pastry to form 'fanchonette' cases for the Mocha-cream desserts and the fly-away savoury cases that he had himself named 'vol-au-vents'. A double fold, a single fold. Six times. Twenty-four layers of butter and pastry. The ritual and the smell of Antonin's youth. He ordered more broken ice from the ice-house and returned to the colder confectionery room.
There Antonin arranged the two dozen hollowed oranges, two inches apart, in a yard-diameter fruit colander filled with crushed ice. The cooling isinglass was brought from the kitchen along with blood-red cochineal, clarified syrup and the nectarine marmalade. Antonin poured the thickening isinglass alternately into the fruit juice and the almond milk. He added strained cochineal, drop by drop, and lemon juice from a coffee spoon, to the orange jelly, and poured the creamy blancmange or viscous amber juice into alternate orange shells. Throughout the day he would return, as if observing the offices of the monastic day, to the ice-cool of the confectionery room, testing each layer, one orange, one almond, adding more, building up the marble veins, as the ice dripped through the colander. In contrast, the plombière recipe proceeded simply. The strained nectarine marmalade, beaten with egg yolks and syrup, was set on ice, and left till later.
11am ~ and the kitchen resembled a field of battle. The acrid smell of burnt feathers and the co-mingling of blood and bile overpowered even the Mocha roasting on the stove top. Quails, the tiny infantry of the chartreuse mould, lay in ordered ranks, headless and tied. Flayed baby rabbits sat in lines on the central wooden table, surrounded by regiments of pigeons, cross-hatched with bacon-lard. Partridges and chickens were being chopped, washed, disembowelled and stuffed. The raw flesh of two boned chickens was being pressed through mesh, no easy task, by the brawniest of the kitchen hands, bloodied and sweating. Only the gullets and livid biles were discarded. The cocks'-combs and their testicles ~ the size and shape of fish roe or overripe catkins ~ were set aside for the Nesle vol-au-vents. Bones and feet were placed in pans, to be reduced to thick glazing-stocks. The lamb, to be boiled in the English manner later in the day, had donated its brain and sweetbreads for the vol-au-vents, and the tenderest calves' udders, too, simmered to a pulp in cream, were being pummelled through a sieve. Antonin prodded, tasted, admonished, praised, and glanced up at the large clock above the heat of the kitchen: seven hours until dinner. He called for more charcoal, and champagne.
Antonin drank very little, and then only the best. Three champagne bottles were opened. Two would be required for the fish soup, and nearly half a bottle for the sauce à l'Italienne. The rest would do for lunch. If some colour was returning to the face of the man once known as 'beau Carême', it was only the gathering heat of the day. He still looked older than his years, and ill. 'I sense that I've grown old very quickly,' he had remarked, but his close, dark eyes still sparkled with excitement in the reflected fire of a battery of copper casseroles.
Midday. Time for work to start on the 'extraordinaire' dessert: a columned sugar temple or Sultane. 'Spinning sugar', Antonin explained to Jay, 'needs perfect preparation.' He selected two copper pans from the Rothschilds' batterie de cuisine, each four and a half inches wide by two and a half inches high, spouted and with a round handle of copper four inches long into which a wooden handle could be inserted for ease of spinning. The copper pans, freshly re-tinned inside and newly scoured with sand, vinegar and Breton salt, would be used in rotation for the sugar-spinning. Jay cleared the other pans from the stove for fear of anything touching the master's sugar and discolouring the contents with their heat. Two copper moulds, one domed, one flat, were prepared with almond oil.
Antonin took eight lumps of loaf-sugar for each pan and four tablespoons of Seine water, filtered three times. He set them at the hottest part of the stove and watched them carefully. Jay stood behind him holding a cup of cold water and a small tin box, in which were two tightly sealed compartments. As the sugar began to boil, forming diamond-paste bubbles, Antonin reached behind him and Jay opened the box. Inside, Antonin's thin fingers felt for calcinated alum and then cream of tartar to fling, a pinch at a time, into the sugar lava. The bubbles, the 'ebullitions', became as large and bright as the eyeballs of a fresh cod.
Freezing his hand first in iced water, Antonin then plunged it straight into the boiling sugar, and back into the cold. A kitchen-boy gasped ~ Carême's pâtissier trick never failed to impress. The sugar moved like soft wax between his fingers ~ it was not yet ready and would have to stay on the heat. To be soft like this it had been boiling at 121 degrees but needed to be hotter still in order to 'crack' and spin.
Excerpted from COOKING for KINGS by IAN KELLY Copyright © 2003 by Ian Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|1||A feast for epicures||9|
|3||Breakfast at Talleyrand's||44|
|4||Gastronomy : a cult in want of a priest||57|
|5||Chateau Valencay : a year in the Loire||67|
|6||Napoleon's wedding cake||81|
|7||The Russian in Paris||92|
|8||The cook, his book, his wife and his lover||102|
|9||The Brighton pavilion||121|
|11||The winter palace||164|
|12||Right good judges and right good stuffers'||183|
|From the recipe books of Antonin Careme||227|
|List of illustrations||286|
Posted November 5, 2011
Posted June 29, 2005
A fascinating look at dining and cooking in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A must-read for any 'foodies'...but engaging and enjoyable for anyone. A few too many recipes, but they don't distract from the core story.
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Posted August 3, 2009
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Posted October 2, 2009
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Posted May 30, 2009
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