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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 June 2007

Food Glorious Food

Research reveals the most delightful eccentricities, the moments of pure serendipity that make you realize that the process of creating a story is the nothing less than magic. This is not news, but it is so much fun to have this blog, a place to share the experience.

Food is a central element in my next book. As I began research in my own haphazard way I came across a dinner served at the Brighton Pavilion on January 15, 1817. We all know how elaborate dinners were then. Courses, removes, side dishes, but in the style of the Prince Regent this one exceeded excess on all levels. There were 137 dishes served, including eight soups, eight roasts, eight soufflés, 32 side dishes and 40 entrees. At the end of the meal eight huge pieces were brought in, made of sugar icing, and formed in the shape of the Pavilion itself, the ruin of a Turkish mosque, a Chinese hermitage – designed to be looked at while the guests nibbled on cheese brioche, orange biscuits and French nougats.

How many quests were at the dinner? So far I have not been able to find out, but what I do know is the name of the chef: Antonin Carême, acknowledged as the worlds first celebrity chef.

Abandoned by his parents in 1792 in Paris, 8 year old Marie Antoine Carême, found work at a cheap restaurant but eventually was apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly a well known pastry chef. Carême learned to fashion “giant confections” of sugar, marzipan and pastry. Using books on architecture he designed pieces that were several feet high. By the time her was eighteen he was considered one of the great pastry chefs.

Eventually he went to work for Talleyrand, about whom it was said, “The only master Talleyrand did not betray is the cheese of brie.” Talleyrand was one of the most lavish hosts of his day. Working for him Carême finished his education by compiling a “year’s worth of menus, without repetition and using only seasonal produce.”

He did freelance work for all of the Paris notables including Napoleon, most likely bringing back to Talleyrand valuable bits if information. Not a spy precisely, but an interested onlooker.

After spending time at the Congress of Vienna as part of Talleyrand’s entourage, Carême went to England to act as head chef for the Prince Regent, then on to Russia to cook for the Czar and finally Carême came back to Paris and the Rothschilds for whom he once made a soufflé with gold flakes.

Carême died at 48, probably of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning, but his influence remains. He invented the chef’s toque and is generally regarded as the first chef whose name and work were recognized all over Europe. The first celebrity chef.

Where is the magic in this?. Antonin Carême skill with spun sugar and pastry fits in so beautifully into my upcoming project that I bet most people will think that I made him up. For this blog my information came from Wikipedia (quoted above), historicfood.com, FOOD IN HISTORY by Tannahill, AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF FRENCH CUISINE by Guy, WHY WE EAT WHAT WE EAT by Sokolov and THE SEVEN CENTURIES COOKBOOK by McKendry. The first illustration is a replica of a eighteenth century sugar sculpture, the second is a contemporary version of work in sugar.

Can you add any sources? I can tell I am going to get carried away with this research and welcome all suggested additions to my library.

7 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, this is a coincidence, Mary. Today (or tomorrow), I hope to create the menu for a dinner party out of Cooking for Kings: The Life of Anonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef, A biography with Recipes, by Ian Kelly. It's out of print, but available from Daedelus, which is where I got it (after reading Janet Mullany's post about it at Risky Regencies).

The food book I love more, tho, is Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. When I was writing The Bookseller's Daughter, Wheaton's book gave me the information I needed to allow me to visualize the technology and organization of the kitchen of a pre-revolutionary French chateau -- and to marvel, as I still do, that they did what we would think of as classic French cooking (all those sauces) on ranges without adjustable burners.

And because some French chefs came over to England after the Regency, I figure that anything French cookery knew is fair game for Regency-set books.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I listened to an interview of Ian Kelly archived on NPR -- and have his book on my library request list. Tannahill's FOOD IN HISTORY lists the dishes in the fist course of the dinner at Brighton -- along with some very interesting information in the changes in dining in the early Regency.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Cool, I've got to get these books!

Do you think the creations on your post tasted as good as they look?

I've seen some amazing sugar sculptures at weddings and such, but they sure didn't didn't live up to their looks when I samples some.

I ate an authentic medieval dinner in a castle in Italy on my honeymoon. It was fun to try, but I have to admit, I wasn't the only one at the table who asked "what is this?" when presented with odd looking dishes (gelatinous pie---animal fat in a crust for example!). YMMMMM.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

With you there Kathrynn -- in reading the various menus there were only a few items I think that I would actually enjoy eating. Already trying to figure out how to make Regency dishes palatable to the contemp reader.

From my preliminary reading, the sugar, pastry, marzipan sculptures were not made to be eaten -- just another form of extravagant entertainment.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A fun plot detail, btw -- they couldn't spin sugar in humid weather. So if you've got a steamy day... well, it worked once as a plot complication for me.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

I love it Mary! I do enjoy reading within the historicals about the foods. I'm too amazed with the desserts! And the Teas!

I just found Janet Mullany's book coming up in August, Pam.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

caffey (and others), I'm giving out Janet's book, The Rules of Gentility, as my current contest prize.

11:47 AM  

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