Délices de Versailles
April was a Rameau month for me. A whole troupe of singers, dancers, actors and orchestral musicians from here and France came to Berkeley. We put on a production of Le Temple de la Gloire, an amazing opera with music by Rameau with a libretto by no less than Voltaire. The story about who is a real hero and real ruler has a nice modern ring to it, don’t you think!
Sadly, there was no time to prepare a delicious dinner à la Versailles but it did set me dreaming of what one of them might have been like. In the hot-house world of the palace every tiny nuance, every little novelty, every delight, and every little lapse was noticed and became the subject of gossip. Food was of course one of the main topics of the chattering class there. So here are a few recipes to tickle the palate of us modern and perhaps more plebeian gastronauts.
Petits pois were developed in the Royal Gardens at the end of the 17th century and they soon became all the rage. Madame de Maintenon, the mistress and morganatic wife of Louis XIV wrote:
The question of peas continues. The anticipation of eating them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again are the three subjects that our princes have been discussing for four days … It has become a fashion – indeed, a passion.
Peas à la Française
• 1 to 1 ½ cups pearl onions , trimmed
• 1/4 cup butter, cubed
• 1/4 cup water
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
• 1/4 teaspoon dried chervil
• 1/4 teaspoon pepper
• 2 packages (16 ounces each) frozen peas, thawed
• 2 cups shredded lettuce
1. In a Dutch oven, bring 6 cups water to a boil. Add pearl onions; boil for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water; peel and set aside.
2. In the same saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in the onions, water, sugar and seasonings. Add peas and lettuce; stir until blended. Cover and cook for 6-8 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Serve with a slotted spoon. Yield: 12 servings (1/2 cup each)
Rameau’s opera was performed in 1745. Only two years later, Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, produced a dinner for her lover where most of the courses were made of fish. This was a none too subtle joke, since she had been born humble Jeanette Poisson. Some of the recipes that bear her name may have been a way to continue to attract and excite her paramour. After all food can be the way even to a monarch’s heart. Sole Pompadour is a recipe that may well have been invented by her:
• 4 l-lb fillets of sole
• 3/4 cup dry white wine
• 3/4 cup fish stock*
• Salt & freshly ground white pepper to taste
• 1 bouquet garni*
• 12 shrimp
• 12 mushroom caps, sautéed in butter
• 1/4 cup butter
• 1/4 cup flour
• 2 egg yolks
1. Finely chop the mushrooms until they become like a paté
2. Fill each fillet with a spoonful of the mushroom paté. Roll up each one and secure it with a toothpick.
3. Poach fillets gently in white wine, fish stock, salt and pepper and bouquet garni for 10 minutes. Cook and shell shrimp, leaving tails on. Reserve liquid.
4. Reduce reserved fillet and shrimp liquid to 2 1/2 cups.
5. Carefully place sole fillets on a service plate and arrange shrimp around fish. Keep in warming oven
6. Make a roux with the butter and flour. Slowly whisk in cups in all and add. Thicken with egg yolks and cream. (DO NOT BOIL). Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Remove serving platter from warming oven. Spoon sauce over fish, and shrimp. Serve immediately.
To help achieve the desired aphrodisiac effect, older recipes usually include black truffles as well as mushrooms. Please add at your bank manager’s discretion.
Here is a more decadent version:
Remove the fillets from the soles. After covering them with a mix of finely cut truffles and mushrooms, roll them up and cook them with some good Capri white wine. Add some herbs and salt, reduce the sauce, add some fish broth and thicken with two egg yolks.
Put the fillets on a tray around a circle made of shelled prawn-tails: pour the sauce and serve it hot.
Louis XV was very fond of chocolate and he would often make his own at private dinners.
Louis XV’s Hot Chocolate
“Place an equal number of bars of chocolate and cups of water in a cafetière and boil on a low heat for a short while; when you are ready to serve, add one egg yolk for four cups and stir over a low heat without allowing to boil. It is better if prepared a day in advance. Those who drink it every day should leave a small amount as flavouring for those who prepare it the next day. Instead of an egg yolk one can add a beaten egg white after having removed the top layer of froth. Mix in a small amount of chocolate from the cafetière then add to the cafetière and finish as with the egg yolk.”
Source: Dinners of the Court or the Art of working with all sorts of foods for serving the best tables following the four seasons, by Menon, 1755.
La Pompadour evidently also had a sweet tooth. Here is her recipe for an ice cream:
Pompadour’s soft ice-cream
Ingredients for 4 people: a base of vanilla ice-cream, 350 g of sponge cake, a little glass of Cointreau (or any other sweet liqueur as you wish), 500 g of small strawberries, white wine, caster sugar, _ l of whipping cream.
Prepare the vanilla ice-cream, following the instructions of the specific recipe. While the ice-cream is in the freezer to harden, take a round mould with a diameter of 22-24 cm, cover it with some silver paper and put it in the freezer. Meanwhile cut the sponge cake into slices. When the ice-cream is hard enough, take it out of the freezer and, in the same container, add two or three spoons of liqueur, then amalgamate it with a wooden spoon in order whip it. With half the ice-cream you’ve got at your disposal make a layer in the mould and level the surface carefully. Put half the sponge cake slices on the ice-cream and soak them in some liqueur. Make a second layer of ice-cream and cover it with the sponge cake left, soak it in some liqueur too. Cover everything with some silver paper and leave it in the freezer for one hour. Meanwhile wash the strawberries in the wine, remove their stalks, put them in a bowl and sprinkle them with sugar. Soak them in some liqueur and let them steep for 16 minutes. With a hand-whisk or an electric one whip the cream till stiff (it should be very cold) and add two spoons of icing sugar. Then put it in a sac-à-poche with a star shaped mouth or in a icing syringe. When it’s ready, take the ice-cream out of the freezer, overturn it on a plate (better if previously cooled in the refrigerator) and remove the silver paper. Decorate the soft ice-cream putting some Savoy biscuits vertically on its borders. Decorate all around with some whipped cream, leaving enough space in the centre of the sweet for a little pyramid of strawberries. Serve this impressive sweet immediately.
But we must let Voltaire have the last word:
‘Ice cream is exquisite; what a pity it isn’t illegal.’