Jan 23, 2010

Dining with Louis XIV

Louis XIV Dining with Moliere (by Ingres)
I'll admit: I'm something of a history geek. While I've no desire to live in the past--I'm under no illusions that life was any better in earlier times--I certainly enjoy reading about the past. For that matter, I like to write about it (two of my books, Found Meals of the Lost Generation, and Wild Heart: A Life, are historic non-fiction).

And, yes, I definitely have favorite eras. Every once in a while I ponder where I'd go if I could get my hands on a time machine. Over the years I've mentally touched down in many centuries and locations, but invariably I come back to the same two: Paris in the 1920s, when it was home to a vibrant assortment of artists and writers from around the world; and the Court of Louis XIV.

I've had sort of a crush on Louis XIV since I was a kid. The young Louis, of course: he of the brilliant political mind, the magnificent visage, the fabulous physique. Louis the Grand. Louis the Warrior, Louis the Brave, Louis the Patron and Protector of the Arts...Louis the Rake.

So it was with fascination that I learned about the year-in-the-planning modern-day recreation of a dinner served at Versailles during the time of Louis XIV. This amazing event was held in celebration of an exhibit about the Sun King and his art collection currently at the Palace of Versailles. Entitled "Louis XIV: The Man and the King," the exhibit gathers 300 works of art commissioned during Louis's long 72-year reign; many have not been publicly seen since the French Revolution (1789). The exhibit ends on February 7.

Pheasant service from the recreated dinner

The dinner was sponsored by French champagne house Dom Pérignon (that company's owner, Moët Hennessy, is sponsoring the Versailles exhibit). Apparently the original Dom Pierre Pérignon--a winemaking Benedictine monk born in 1638--produced wines favored by Louis XIV. The dinner's chef: Michelin-starred Jean-François Piége, formerly of the Hôtel du Crillon in Paris, spent more than a year researching the dishes served at Court, developing the menu, planning the details, and executing the dinner. As he told a reporter, "We wanted to bring back the soul of the cuisine and its extravagance."

Extravagance, of course, is key when speaking of any aspect of the Sun King's life--and that certainly applies to his culinary life. Dinner, taken late at night, consisted of many courses or "services." Each course contained from two to eight dishes. Plates were made of solid gold, and Louis sat facing the ladies and gentlemen of his Court, who watched him eating. By the time Louis toddled off to bed, he'd sampled or eaten 20 to 30 dishes; no wonder he lost that youthful figure!

Here's the menu from the recreated dinner.

FIRST SERVICE: Les Hors d’œuvre
  • Royal ballotine of pheasant
  • Petit pâté en croûte à la bourgeoise
  • Fresh deep-sea oysters
  • Lobster aspic chaud-froid
  • Les Potages
  • Beef madrilène with gold leaf spangles
  • Pureed chestnut soup with truffles from the Court of Italy
  • Bisque of shellfish from our coasts with a boletus infusion
  • Pumpkin soup, fresh from the royal vegetable garden 
  • Scallops with oyster liquor
  • Wild duck cromesquis à la Villeroy
  • Hare stew
  • Roast beef, carrots and smoked eel
  • Wild salmon au sel 
THIRD SERVICE: Les Entremets
  • Green and fresh herb salad in gold leaf
  • Rice salad à la royale
  • Morel soufflé
  • Iced cheese
  • Hard-boiled egg 
  • Fruit
  • Edible candle 
The black-tie dinner, which took place last October at Versailles, celebrated the 300th anniversary of Dom Pérignon (the company, not the person). The 30 guests included Louis-Alphonse, the Duc d’Anjou, who would be the current French king--Louis XX--if the monarchy still existed. Chamber music played throughout, just as it did in the time of Louis. Servers and footmen wore the luxurious livery of the Ancien Regime. The dinner itself took place in the Antechamber of the Grand Couvert (where Louis himself dined), and strolling throughout the King’s Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors and the Salons of Venus, Mercury and Mars was encouraged.

Oh, how I wish I could have been there!

To learn more details about this dinner, read this article in the UK's Telegraph.
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