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Posts Tagged ‘French food history’

Banquet des Maires 1900

Banquet des Maires

Who do you call when you need to throw a party for the Queen of England or the G7 summit? There is only one caterer that will do. The firm has a list of experiences reaching as far as 1856 on the occasion of the Prince Imperial’s baptism celebration. Potel et Chabot satisfied the demands of Napoleon III and since then they have been firmly established as the best in the world. In 1900, Potel et Chabot reached a culinary record that remains unsurpassed to this day. The legendary feast is known as the Banquet des Maires. Twenty-one thousand French mayors, including those from the colonies, responded to President Émile Loubet’s invitation to celebrate the success of the Exposition Universelle.

banquet cuisine

The area of the banquet in the Jardin des Tuileries covered 10,000 acres. 24,000 meals were served by the staff of 3,600. One car and six bicycles circulated between the tables to transmit orders. Over 6 miles of table-cloth was needed as well as 125,000 plates, 55,000 forks, 55,000 spoons and 60,000 knives. The nine-part menu was washed down with 39,000 bottles of quality wine including champagne. 3,000 bottles of gros-rouge were allotted to the perspiring staff.

Departure of guests

Departure of guests

I don’t know who paid the bill, but I bet that in today’s economic situation the question would be on every taxpayer’s lips.

A satisfied mayor

A satisfied mayor

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What follows here is still done to some degree in today’s France. A few years ago, I watched an eye-popping French TV documentary on the subject. I cannot say for sure whether the athletes of the TV food marathon were actually members of the original Club de Grands Estomachs, but they certainly maintained the tradition of ritual overeating. Remarkably, none of the participants showed any visible signs of ill-health or obesity.

Recently, I came across the Club of Grand Stomachs in an article written in 1867, which describes one of that year’s menus. The twelve club members met each Saturday in the Parisian restaurant Chez Pascal for an 18-hour session that would be lethal for the majority of today’s health- and diet-conscious individuals.

The pantagruelic meal, lasting from 6:00 PM to noon, was divided into three acts. Act One began with Potage à la Crécy (a puréed vegetable soup) preceded by several glasses of bitter wine and followed by several glasses of madeira. Then came a turbot with caper sauce, a beef sirloin, a braised leg of lamb, fattened chickens encased in pastry, maraschino sherbet, creams, pies, and small cakes, all of it washed down by six bottles of Burgundy per person.

Act Two lasted from midnight to 6:00 AM. It began with one or several cups of tea preceding a turtle soup and featured Indian six-chicken curry, salmon with spring onions, deer cutlets with peppers, sole fillets with truffle sauce, artichokes with Java pepper, rum sherbet, Scottish partridge in whiskey, rum puddings, and strongly spiced English pastry. Drinks served with this session consisted of three bottles of Burgundy and three bottles of Bordeaux for each participant.

The final part of the food marathon began at 6:00 AM and ended at noon. They started with an extremely peppered onion soup, followed by a quantity of savory pastries and four bottles of champagne per head. Then they passed to coffee with a pousse-café of an entire bottle of cognac, kirsch or rum.

I will restrain myself from any commentary on the ill effects of overeating. One can only marvel at the extraordinary endurance of the human body under such onslaught of food and drink.

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The oldest gourmet restaurant in Paris

Early visitors to Paris, unless they were guests of the aristocracy, reported no outstanding culinary experiences. Before the storming of the Bastille, there was only one good restaurant in Paris – the Beauvillier’s, founded in 1782. This changed when the unemployed chefs of the beheaded nobles launched themselves into the hospitality industry. The upper middle class got a taste of sumptuous food and as early as1820, the number of restaurants mushroomed to three thousand. During the Second Empire, Paris boasted twenty thousands cafés and restaurants. By the middle of the 19th century France achieved its status as the paradise for gastronomers.           

What made France, and notably Paris, the cradle of haute cuisine? The main reason was that unlike the males of other nations, the Frenchman did not consider matters of food unmanly. Approached with the same seriousness men devote to science, cooking and eating were–and still are–one of the main topics around the table. Dedicated gourmets and culinary critics discussed the matter at length. The cooks themselves became theorists and many put their pens to paper.

“Because of the art we practice,” a famous chef wrote, “we have the right to respect and consideration because cooking can and must march hand in hand with the liberal arts.”

The illustrious chef Carême claimed that cooks were in fact doctors, with far more influence on their employers’ well-being than the charlatans that posed as doctors.

 Dining became worshipping at the altar of food and as such required a set of rituals.

“One should never talk of politics at table,” admonishes Le Gourmet magazine in the 1830′s. “The conversation should always be light, so as not to distract from the main interest, which is the food. In a dinner of knowledgeable people, the arrival of soup is followed by a silence. Until the third course, there should be no talk about anything except what one was eating, what one has eaten, and what one will eat. But after one has eaten well, one has a duty to make witty conversation.”

In fact, the acquisition of a good recipe became a noteworthy event even among the top artists of the era and could make and break the reputation of such a giant of literature as Alexander Dumas.

Judging by the proportion of advertisements for indigestion and constipation pills of the era, the culinary excesses, both at home and in restaurants, took their toll on the digestive system. To remain true to themselves, the French cannot equate food with vulgar indigestion. The correct term is “la crise de foie”, although a foreigner cannot imagine why only liver should be mentioned in a process in which all parts of the digestive system rebel with equal force.

Anonymous source

Marie-Antoine Carême Wikipedia

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