It comes as no surprise that Grimod de la Reynière placed great emphasis on eggs, since they have long played a pivotal role in French cuisine, working their magic, as he explains, in sauces, pastries, creams, and all manner of dishes. The aerating properties of the whites, the liaisons made possible with the yolks— eggs have an amazingly diverse range of effects.
Grimod cited 543 known recipes for serving eggs, noting, moreover, that chefs were inventing new ones every day. “After all,” he quipped, “what can’t one do to them.” He concluded eggs were “one of the sweetest gifts that Divine Providence has ever given to man’s appetite.”
More surprising for the modern reader is the fact that Grimod attributed a seasonal dimension to this fundamental ingredient, advising his readers to stock up on them in September, when he described them as being at their best as well as their cheapest. Most astonishingly, he asserted that, stored in bran or in oil in a cool, dry place, they might be kept fresh for six months or even longer!
This idea will surely make many food-safety conscious readers shudder. Americans, in particular, get squeamish about the fact that eggs throughout Europe and the UK are sold at room temperature, rather than refrigerated. However, even those accustomed to unrefrigerated eggs might balk at the thought of such an extended shelf-life — especially because Grimod’s preferred manner of consuming them was à la coque, an extremely runny, soft-boiled egg, which is cooked just long enough (three minutes) to congeal the white.
Eggs arrived to the French capital from all directions in a radius that extended more than 200 miles beyond the city, traveling in huge baskets, capable of holding several thousand with no more packing than a bit of straw. “It is said,” Grimod elaborated, “that the eggs of Normandy, Picardy, Beauce, Orléans, etc. are only laid for us.”
If the eggs purchased in 1803 Paris weren’t particularly local, great emphasis was paid to their quality. Wholesale vendors would, Grimod asserted, painstakingly hold them up to the light one by one to set aside those that appeared translucent. These were called “mirror eggs,” and sold to favored and discerning clients for a premium.
From at least 1268 — when Paris Provost Étienne Boileau (ca. 1200—1270) recorded the city’s market regulations — eggs have been sold in the French capital by dairy vendors, rather than the poulterers, whom one might assume would be handling them and who, indeed, sell them at London’s farmers’ markets.
On the retail level, several Parisian food markets feature dedicated egg vendors, who sell nothing else. So too, the city’s 80+ outdoor markets offer more cheese vendors than there are shops. Nevertheless, the entire trade has been sharply affected by the spread of grocery stores.
Even many who continue to visit their favorite cheese monger for fancier A.O.P. cheeses and artisan butter began to pick up staples such as milk and eggs from their local grocer. Happily enough, the trend appears to be reversing in the greater Paris region.
If French national statistics are a bit depressing, showing a shocking 40% decline in food market sales in favor of industrial foods in 2012, the Île-de-France (Paris and its surrounding area) showed quite the opposite tendency. The sale of eggs and dairy at market stalls rose by 17%, which, although certainly not as impressive as the 30% increase in fruit and vegetable purchases, marks a significant shift in favor of market vendors.
Traditionally, women dominated the trade. Rather sadly, this has shifted drastically over the past century, particularly on the heels of the 1924 introduction of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France professional accreditation (MOF – best worker in France, a lifetime award given to the small number of those who successfully complete an especially grueling training program in a variety of artisan fields). This elevated the role of the cheese monger and, as a result, pushed women to the side. In Émile Zola’s 1873 novel, The Belly of Paris, all of the characters working in the wholesale butter and cheese hall are women. By contrast, all four recipients of the most recent MOF awards of Nov. 2011 (they are awarded every 4 years) in the cheese category were men. Nevertheless, plenty of highly knowledgeable women can still be found working in Paris’s better market stands and shops.
Anyone who has been privileged enough to cook with carefully tended farm eggs, will, needless to say, never voluntarily eat anything else again (although, in this life, there are lots of good reasons why sometimes one can’t). The difference in texture and behavior, not to mention taste, between the two is that remarkable. A proper egg has serious body to it and therefore requires more power to whisk, which nevertheless constitutes one of life’s more rewarding labors of love.
I’m quite inclined to believe Grimod’s claims that the eggs of his generation could travel great distances and also be stored (with proper care) for prolonged stretches of time.
In its simplest, à la coque, preparation he deemed the egg one of the most nutritious foods of all, appropriate for children, convalescents and those of a weak constitution. On the other hand, he advised that eggs that had “hardened” (aged) and/or been submitted to some of French gastronomy’s more intricate preparations should be eaten cautiously. Overall, however, he decreed the egg to be “a friend,” to mankind, “of whom we have need in every moment in life.”
Those who know me personally will be aware that I’m arguably even more egg obsessed than Grimod de la Reynière. This manifested itself most visibly at the 2006 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, where I presented a paper/project about how one could actually construct a 10-ft. tall boiled egg, made entirely out of the separated whites and yolks of thousands of eggs, to realize a concept that Salvadon Dali had shared with his New York art dealer, Julien Levy, in 1938. With the help of Charles Foster-Hall, many symposiasts, and other EGG TEAM helpers, a full-scale model was completed amidst much revelry. One day I eventually hope to make the REAL EGG. However, what this project and other papers at that symposium taught me was that the egg is not only one of the most versatile ingredients that one can cook with, but also one of the most symbolically potent foods that exists — from “good eggs,” or having “egg in one’s face,’ to Humpty Dumpty and beyond. Many ancient civilizations — Chinese, Vedic, Phoenician, Greek, Egyptian, and even Finnish — believed that the world (and in some cases the entire universe) was born from a giant egg. The egg is, indeed, the simplest and most complicated of ingredients, which is capable of initiating an infinite number of transformations.
Early autumn brings mountains of woodsy, earthy mushrooms, in a wondrous spectrum of colors, textures and flavors, to Paris. Grimod de la Reynière, in fact, wrote about them in February, explaining that if the weather cooperated and did not freeze them, they began to appear at the end of that month. And, indeed, Parisian markets continue to feature a gorgeous array of mushrooms in February and especially March.
It is then that one is likely to find fresh morels of French origin, which continue to hold a place of honor on Parisian tables, whether in a succulent sauce or, even more decadently, in a heaping dish on their own.
The Parisian appetite for mushrooms has not waned since Grimod’s day — and in one form or another they can be found throughout the year. The champignon de Paris, which in English we would call a button mushroom, is a ubiquitous staple, if not the most flavorful variety. But one finds more delicate types in summer and earthier types in the fall and winter.
Grimod found mushrooms of infinite use as an ingredient in all kinds of dishes. Although he noted that it was less common to serve them on their own, he suggested that they could be prepared in cream, in fat, encased in pastry, or fried — recipes that remain current and appealing today. However, he elaborated that the most usual way of serving them was mounded onto toast, an equally timeless dish, which I enjoy as much as Grimod did.
Long before Grimod’s generation, the French had perfected the practice of drying mushrooms so that they might be reconstituted and used at a later date. This consummate gastronome noted that the powder made from them offered a great resource to sophisticated kitchens.
Dried mushrooms remain a popular ingredient in French cuisine and can be easily purchased from any better épicerie or gourmet shop. Foie Gras Luxe and the Comptoir de la Gastronomie, both on the rue Montmartre, sell satchels of them in in a range of sizes and varieties.
Nevertheless, although mushrooms can be found in Paris throughout the year, autumn remains the season that I most closely associate with them. The moment of la rentrée, the return to work and school in early September, is also that when the most impressive and fragrant cèpes (porcini) take pride of place at Parisian market stands and greengrocers.
Not content to merely purchase them, many Parisians take weekend excursions to hunt for them in the surrounding countryside. If foraging is the latest trend in the elitist foodie set of the English-speaking world, it remains a rarity among the general public. Although exceptions exist, a rather deep-seated fear of food, in general, but especially of mysterious fungi that sprout from the undergrowth, continues to grip British and American culture. At a young age, most children raised within this mindset learn that mushrooms found in the woods should not be touched because they are dangerous and potentially lethal. By contrast, mushroom hunting constitutes a commonplace family activity in France. There, foraging is not a new fashion but a centuries-old tradition.
The depths of this cultural chasm were brought home to me a few years ago when the eminent French chemist Hervé This visited the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery (then held in early September). While taking his own children out foraging in the outskirts of Paris the previous day, he had realized that Oxfordshire had an ideal climate for mushrooms. When he asked whether mushroom hunting was as popular in England as it was in France, no amount of words sufficed to explain to this highly intelligent man that although, indeed, all manner of spectacular fungi thrived in the local climate, English parents did not, as a general rule, take their children out looking for them. He simply could not understand how or why people would let perfectly splendid mushrooms rot.
The fall mushroom season in Paris does not limit itself to cèpes. My favorite mushrooms of all are the girolles—a close relative to the chanterelle, but golden in color and slightly firmer in texture and more delicate in flavor. They are popular enough to be imported from Portugal, Spain and North Africa when France gets too cold. But the best local examples arrive in Paris in early autumn and are not least among the season’s delights.
Grimod de la Reynière noted in his introduction to JUNE, that “vegetal pleasures”, were “greatly multiplied in this season.” He concluded his commentary on the month by describing it as “that when gardeners begin to have deep connections to the kitchen.” He even went so far as to gushingly declare, “Happy and wise combination of providence, which thought, in its immutable wisdom, that lighter foods would be more appropriate in summer to man’s stomach than succulent meats! If we do not wish to force Nature and we content ourselves with what she produces in each season our health would be better and our taste, too.”
Such enthusiasm for fresh produce might at first glance appear to make him the perfect spokesperson for the contemporary locavore movement. Certainly, his repeated admonitions to respect the seasonality of foods makes him an undisputed forerunner in this arena (even as it simultaneously hints strongly that a great many of his readers in 1803 Paris rather flagrantly defied the seasons in their dietary choices).
On the other hand, although he conceded that summer vegetables had their merits, he concluded that even the best, “need all the care of a talented artist in order to appear in all its glory.” He thought they needed a bit of polish to make them shine and compared the greatest to “a mediocre painting,” that required an ornate, gilded frame to be noticed. By contrast, he likened a good hare to a Raphael or a beef à l’écarlate to a Rubens masterpiece.
Overall, Grimod had little use for the season. In June he lamented, “The further we advance into summer, the more the circle of our edible pleasures narrows; we mean to speak of solid pleasures — of those procured from the butcher, the poultry yard, the plains, and the forests.” In JULY he repeated, “The further we advance into summer, the more we traverse a season that is an ingrate to fine dining: because the man that is truly worthy of the title Gourmand only regards vegetables and fruits as the means of cleaning his teeth and refreshing his mouth and not as productions capable of feeding a strident appetite.” In a similar vein, Grimod introduced AUGUST as a month “not any more favorable to fine dining than that of Julius Caesar.”
Nevertheless, Grimod found enough merit in summer’s French beans, cucumbers, cauliflower and lettuce to include them in his Almanach. By late summer and early autumn the bulk of his attentions went to the happy prospect that rabbits and game were beginning to plump up into maturity. However, he celebrated the season’s handsome artichokes.
The ways in which we consume these vegetables has in many (but by no means all) cases evolved over time. However, each and every one remains a staple at Paris markets today.
To be perfectly honest, Parisians generally don’t have much more interest in vegetables now than they did in 1803. Alain Passard’s Arpège has done much to elevate the status of fresh produce in Paris after maintaining 3 Michelin stars in spite of transforming from a roasting palace into vegetable heaven after its famous chef and proprietor had a change of heart on the heels of mad cow disease. The purveyors of the city’s burgeoning neo-bistrots have similarly done much to prominently use produce. Certainly, there is no shortage of it. Joël Thiébault leads the pack of regional growers, however, Paris’s 80+ markets, greengrocers, and better supermarkets offer an astounding range of fresh products of very high quality. And yet, head to a neighborhood café or restaurant and in the vast majority of cases a meat-centric main will be accompanied by nothing except frites or a purée of potatoes.
Nothing exceeded Grimod’s adoration for the garden pea but he introduced the haricot vert as summer’s “other” great vegetable. He preferred them à l’anglaise (boiled, with a large dollop of butter on top of it before serving) or slathered in cream or a white sauce—preparations that remain current today. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that his extravagant suggestion to cook them in Champagne appeals most of all.
Grimod described cucumbers as “refreshing,” but “not very filling,” a failing that he suggested might be remedied by stuffing them with good sausage meat. More usually, however, he explained that Parisians served them fricasseed with white sauce.
His comments highlight Europe’s historical predilection for cooking vegetables that we would now typically consume raw. Exceptions existed, of course. Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511—1574) reported with amazement that Venice’s famed architect Sansovino (1486—1570) had been“so strong that he was not worried about anything, and made no distinction between good and harmful foods; and in summer he lived almost solely on fruit, very often eating up to three cucumbers at a time, and half a lemon in his extreme old age.”* Vasari could scarcely conceive it possible that one could survive to the ripe old age of 84 in spite of such an indiscriminate consumption of fresh produce.
It is tempting to snigger at such outmoded notions. On the other hand, I often wonder at which current medical theories future generations will laugh at us for. And, given the recent flurry of health scares about various types of fresh produce, from spinach to alfalfa sprouts, cooking cucumbers doesn’t seem quite as weird as it otherwise might.
Being fond of chilled cucumber soup, I have in Grimod’s honor played with a few versions that begin with gently cooking the cucumbers in a bit of broth and been pleasantly surprised at the depth of flavor that resulted.
Nevertheless, although cucumbers remain commonplace in Paris they are usually served raw in salads or as the ubiquitous, if somewhat superfluous, garnish to pedestrian dishes served at cafés.
*Cited in my book, Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver: Stories of Dinner as a Work of Art, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. 55.
Broad beans, which the French charmingly call, “little beans of the marshes,” flourish in the damp climate of both sides of the English Channel. Their spongy pods mean that a great volume is required in order to produce even a modest side dish of them. However, because they are hardy, they never seem to be in short supply in Paris’s summer markets. English, gardening friends often complain that they’ve grown buckets of them every season.
Grimod enjoyed their “pleasing bitterness,” which he felt married well “with a bit of cream and lots of sugar.” The recipe is a reminder that Europe’s separation of savory and sweet foods occurred very gradually over the course of the Early Modern period and never completely affixed a tight barrier between the two. After all, it remains common to add a touch of sugar, honey or juice to carrots, for example. However, leaving aside the vast quantities of sweeteners added to innumerable commercially produced foods, few people cooking fresh vegetables today would find the idea of adding “lots of sugar” appealing.
By contrast, the bunch of fresh savory that Grimod advised as the key flavoring for a dish of broad beans holds much contemporary appeal. More commonly used by French cooks than American or English ones, this herb has nevertheless become rarer than it was in early nineteenth century Paris. However, with the current revival in the uses of “old-fashioned” herbs, savory’s fortunes would appear to be on the upswing.
Although Grimod wrote about CAULIFLOWER in this compendium of winter vegetables, he devoted a further comment to them in June to remind his readers that young cauliflower absolutely required a bit of Parmesan in order to liven up its bland flavor. I would rather describe the young cauliflower found in Paris’s summer markets as tender and well suited for flavoring with spices that heighten their punch without ruining their delicate texture.
Paris’s better markets luxuriate in a choice of lettuces that offer a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and flavors, ranging from rather sweet to crisp and peppery.
As with cucumbers, in Grimod’s day lettuce was commonly cooked. Although he confessed that grand households only ever used it as a garnish, especially for braised dishes, he greatly admired its appearances as a side dish (entremets) on bourgeois tables, which might be stuffed or made into a ragoût.
The onset of autumn in September brought with it, in Grimod’s mind, the year’s best artichokes. In his day as in our own, Paris’s September markets abound with both large, globular artichokes as well as the smaller, purple-tinged poivrade variety that are close cousins of those found in Italy.
Grimod preferred those from Laon (roughly 137 km /85 miles from Paris in Piccardy, in the northeast of France) even though he confessed that the long journey darkened their delicate skins. Today, the vast majority found in Paris, especially of the globular type so endemic to France, come from Brittany.
As with so many tasty ingredients, Grimod stated a clear preference for eating them in their purest form. Many contemporary writers have unfairly attributed a taste for complexity to him by latching onto a handful of excerpts that are the exceptions rather than the rule and that largely came into later additions of the Almanach des gourmands when he struggled to find new material to write about.
When it came to artichokes, Grimod asserted that, in spite of the many complicated transformations that one might happily subject an artichoke to, nothing exceeds the pleasures to be had from simply boiling it (after proper trimming) and serving it with the finest butter or oil. How could anything be simpler or more classic? Indeed, last September, the Café des Musées on the rue de Turenne featured exactly this as a September special.
Grimod offered up a far greater range of possibilities to be drawn from the smaller, poivrade artichoke, going so far as to state, “this vegetable becomes a veritable chameleon in the hands of a skilled artist.” He particularly enjoyed them fried and garnished with fried parsley, a preparation that remains appealing today.
Nevertheless, although he deemed it a “very healthy, digestible, astringent and slightly aphrodisiacal food,” he warned that for every benefit it might provide to delicate, literary types after being suitably cooked, it should be “avoided by them like poison when it is raw.”
For all its dangers, Grimod considered the absence of artichokes from the kitchen “a true calamity.” Because artichoke hearts could be preserved for a long time, they were used in every season to add flavor to many dishes. Grimod especially enjoyed them in chicken fricassees and warm pâtés. Although the fashion began to wane by Grimod’s day, Early Modern French recipes, indeed, made frequent use of them in all manner of stews and dishes, tossing them in as an almost stock staple of luxurious cooking.
According to Jean Ruel (1474—1537), the artichoke, which was indigenous to Andalusia, wended its way to France via Italy around the start of the sixteenth century.* Contrary to popular legend, Catherine de’ Medici (1519—1589) had nothing to do with it (nor, for that matter, should she be held responsible for introducing the French to sugar, sugar sculptures, ice cream, pasta, sauces, forks, etc). **
Once on French soil the artichoke quickly took root. The vegetable had gained a popular place in the local diet by the time French haute cuisine developed in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and therefore played an important role in it from the beginning.
Its form proved so pleasing that artichokes not only made their way into tureens to be eaten but onto them as decorative motifs.
As the rest of Europe looked to France for fashion as much as for food, the decorative uses of artichokes spread to the Continent and England.
Even as Grimod de la Reynière sat down to write the Almanach des gourmands, England’s Wedgwood company produced its own take on the artichoke-capped tureen, which had hitherto been a form produced by France’s royal porcelain manufacture, Sèvres.
William Morris (1834—1896) and his cronies used artichokes as the inspiration for many of their wallpaper and textile designs. The vegetable has remained popular as a food and a source of decorative inspiration ever since.
* C. Verdot, Historiographie de la table, Paris: 1833, pp. 10—11.
Unsurprisingly, Grimod de la Reynière devoted a special entry in his seasonal guide to Paris to butter, that fundamental glue to classic French cuisine, or certainly to its northern regions including the capital. Even today, better restaurants and vendors treat butter respectfully.
Butter does not accompany bread in Paris’s cafés and informal restaurants. A good baguette, after all, shouldn’t need any. However, if, at more upscale venues, butter is served, it is likely to have been carefully chosen for its exquisite taste and is often molded decoratively, for example with the restaurant logo. Often both a pale, unsalted version as well as a richly yellow salty one will be offered.
In Grimod’s opinion, the very best butter of all came from Isigny, which indeed remains world-renowned for this and its cream. He particularly enjoyed the hint of hazelnut in its flavor. However, the town of Isigny-sur-Mer, in the Calvados region of Lower Normandy, is roughly 300 km (186 miles) from Paris, which proved too far during for butter to travel without potentially going rancid during the hot months of summer.
During this season, Grimod suggested that the best alternative came from Gournay (Gournay-en-Bray) in Upper Normandy, a mere 97 km (60 miles) from the French capital.
However, he also pointed to a seasonal component to butter’s quality, explaining that the flavor grew richer in spring and summer when the cows were out munching on luxuriant, verdant grass instead of dried winter hay. This left the month of May as his peak moment for consuming butter in Paris, since the Isigny cows had had time to digest a good deal of it but the intense heat of summer had not yet arrived to prevent its successful transport to the capital.
Grimod’s rationale for selecting May as his optimal time for butter reveals much about his approach to sourcing quality food that we can still learn from today. Given his epicurean druthers, he’d rather consume the very best tasting product money could buy so long as it could reach him in an uncompromised state. Terroir, the notion that certain foods and wines take on distinctive qualities of particular places because of the special characteristics of the local climate in addition to evolved methods of handling them, held great sway with him. However, when such products could not reach Paris in a perfect state he settled on alternatives that were closer to hand.
He had a less compromising approach to seasonality, as the Almanach reveals throughout, although numerous asides, especially regarding immature game and poultry as we shall see, make it clear that many of his contemporaries had less discerning taste in this regard.
Today’s keenest gourmets retain Grimod’s nuanced attunement to the seasonality of dairy products as much as to vegetables and fruits. For this reason, purists frown upon consuming relatively young cheeses such as true Brie-de-Meaux, which takes only about 8 to 10 weeks to mature, except during spring and summer.
Of course, butter is and was consumed in Paris all year long. However, even today the very best butter is given seasonal tweaks in its preparation. If high-quality, churned butters can be found easily from cheese vendors and even better grocery stores, those of Jean-Yves Bordier, which are made in Saint Malo in Brittany have become even more sought after in Parisian’s epicurean circles than those of Isigny. Among its distinguishing factors, Bordier butter, after being churned, undergoes a nineteenth-century process of maxalage that massages together the butter of individual cows into a unified flavor. Bordier adjusts the process seasonally, reducing it to 15 minutes in summer from 25 minutes in winter.
Glorious spring and summer butter can be celebrated not just by slathering it over good bread. Grimod’s suggestions for how best to prepare the various ingredients described in his seasonal guide including frequent uses of beurre manié (butter that has been rubbed with fresh herbs), which could be stuffed into lamb (as previously described) or slipped into fish or under the skin of poultry as is, in contrast to the more complex use of butter in winter sauces. But the best French butter is so delicious that it can be eaten entirely on its own.
Although Grimod de la Renyière displayed a marked predilection for what he called “solid pleasures,” he was by no means immune to the delights of the vegetable kingdom.
Winter provided spinach, cauliflower, cardoons, celery, cabbage, salsify, carrots, onions, turnips, and leeks. The list offers dietary variety but grew tedious, especially by March when even the cauliflower had disappeared. Therefore, Grimod rejoiced at the arrival of the first asparagus in April, which provided, “a great consolation to those who weary of potatoes and dried pulses, sigh for greens.” This, however, merely served as the opening act for the arrival of “the tenderest, best and most delicate of vegetables”: the garden pea. “As long as one eats fine peas in Paris,” he went so far as to declare, “one does not have the right to believe himself unhappy there.”
This exultant jubilation over the availability of a fresh pea reminds us that although it’s all very well and good — and certainly more flavorful if not virtuous to choose freshly picked, locally grown produce — it’s a great luxury to have the possibility of other options in a pinch.
Spinach topped Grimod’s list of winter vegetables because “of the facility with which one can procure it during eight of nine months of the year.” However, he deemed it to have, “little merit by itself.” Instead, he compared it to “virgin wax, susceptible of receiving all impressions,” which, “in the hand of a gifted man, … is capable of acquiring a great value.”
He enumerated numerous ways in which to prepare it—with jus, cream and butter—or in soups and savory tarts, etc. It remains equally popular in many guises, a number of which have changed little since Grimod’s time. Personally, I find freshly prepared spinach slathered in good (unpasteurized) cream to be such an irresistible side that it will sway my choice of mains if offered on a menu. As our gourmand put it, “Such a dish of spinach can alone make the reputation of a cook.”
Grimod described cauliflower, “as an equally great resource during part of the year… No less healthy than spinach, it offers fewer difficulties in its preparation.” His favorite way of eating it was cooked in Parmesan (an imported ingredient frequently mentioned in his recipes, and, indeed, one available in Paris for a couple of centuries before his time); but he also extolled its virtues as decoration for the table.
Nevertheless, its availability in winter was short-lived. The season ended around late January and did not start up again until late June. Young, summer cauliflower he deemed too bland, however, to be eaten without any Parmesan to give it a kick.
Paris’s classic traiteurs and restaurants tend to serve cauliflower au gratin (typically made with Gruyère rather than Parmesan, but achieving a similar effect).
Trendier chefs, not quite as much as their colleagues in London and New York, have largely eschewed butter, cream and cheese in favor of piquant spices.
Cauliflower remains common in Paris and can be found at virtually any market or grocery store. Although its season has been extended by the wide availability of imported veg, it becomes difficult to find in the deepest part of winter.
Grimod explained that two types of cardoons could be found in Paris during the winter: “those of the beet, which are the fat sides pulled off from their leaves and ribs; and those of the artichoke which are much larger and known under the name of Spanish cardoons.” However, he insisted that only the latter (which we more commonly call “wild artichoke thistles”) should appear at elegant tables. Both varieties have now fallen into the category of “specialty” items, available from a select number of regional growers at the Paris markets. They are certainly easier to find than in London or New York — but still constitute a rarity.
Celery remains as common an ingredient in Paris now as it did in 1803, although the classic remoulade, or Grimod’s personal favorite, celery in cream, have sadly become less commonplace as cream-based dishes have fallen out of favor.
Perhaps a revival could be launched by letting people know that Grimod described the vegetable as, “rather strongly aphrodisiacal,” and concluded, “It is enough to say that it is never the salad of unmarried persons”?
Its utility in flavoring bouillon, soups, and all manner of other dishes has nevertheless continued unchallenged since Grimod’s day. Paris markets as well as supermarkets facilitate this type of usage because they allow their clients to purchase only as many branches as desired, rather than the entire bunch.
Cabbage also remains commonplace at Paris markets and is a staple amongst both regional growers and those retailing vegetables purchased from the central market at Rungis. Here, too, market vendors cater to the home cook by selling half or even quarter cabbages to those who might be overwhelmed by a whole one. (They similarly sell pumpkins by the slice, a service that results in the frequent appearance of pumpkin in soups, sides and other dishes.)
Although cabbage had long been considered peasant fare, Grimod deemed it a great resource, “even in sophisticated cooking,” and felt that a, “skillful artist,” could make it worthy in a soup or as the bed to a rump of beef or a partridge in the same way that “the most vulgar terms are ennobled by the plume of a great poet.”
He pointed out the merits of sauerkraut, which he described to be “as healthy as it is agreeable.” After explaining that this fermented preparation was a specialty “all over Germany, and even in Alsace,” he noted, “Over the past several years sauerkraut (choucroûte) has come into favor in Paris.”
In Savoring the Past, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton recounted the swagger with which the Princess Palatine (1652—1722), the German-born sister-in-law of Louis XIV, bragged to her sister that she had made this and other German specialties fashionable in Versailles.* It seems she exaggerated her influence on fashion, however, since over a century later Grimod took pains to explain what it was to his readers and categorized it as a new trend in Parisian dining.
From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, 1803 seems startlingly early for choucroûte in Paris. The dish, usually implying an ample array of salted pork and sausages over a bed of sauerkraut, is the specialty of Paris’s many historic brasseries, the majority of which did not open until after the Franco-Prussian war ended in 1871.
Bofinger (now sadly part of the FLO group), which dates back to 1864, anticipated this phenomenon since it originally catered to the large population of working class Alsatians then resident in that part of the Marais. However, most came into existence when the victorious Germans banned the use of the French language in the region of Alsace. This led to a mass exodus of French-speaking Alsatians. Whether or not they had previously run a brasserie (meaning simply brewery), many found a profitable way to reinvent their lives by taking up the profession in much the same way that New York currently teems with Korean-born deli owners and dry cleaners who in their native country had practiced medicine, law or architecture.
Paris’s brasseries have grown into venerable institutions so emblematic of the city that they are often dismissed as hackneyed imitations of themselves. Their iconic dish, the choucroûte that Grimod described as exotic, has likewise come to be regarded as old guard Parisian fare.
*Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Savouring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300—1789, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1983), p. 136.
Contemporary readers may find it surprising that Grimod de la Reynière described salsify as the most common winter side dish of all the root vegetables. He explained that it was usually appeared in a butter sauce or sautéed. He also lauded the soups made with it in Lyon, which he suggested, “would be very interesting to introduce to Paris.”
The vegetable’s popularity has since waned. Nevertheless, it commonly features at the winter stalls of Paris-region growers who bring their produce to the city’s myriad neighborhood markets. Since all signs indicate that these are swiftly rejuvenating, could it be that the former king of winter vegetables will regain its popularity on Parisian tables? Strangely twig-like in appearance, salsify has a deeper more complex flavor than potatoes, whose texture it shares.
At the very end of his compendium of winter vegetables, Grimod writes of carrots, onions, turnips, etc. Last but by no means least, our consummate gourmand confesses that although rarely seen in their own right, these vegetables provide an essential seasoning to all manner of dishes. They are, in fact, at the crux of any bouillon and virtually everything else cooked slowly in water.
Carrots, despite their low status, might, Grimod asserted, shine in a hoche-pot in bright contrast to the oxtail nestled beside it. He felt that turnips, similarly glazed, held their own in combination with duck, which I confess is one of my favorite classic Parisian dishes.
Grimod recommended that these humble vegetables should otherwise be discreetly hidden away and used only for flavoring.
The leek had a status so lowly that Grimod refers to it merely as “etc.” in his section heading. In the small print, he explains, “the leek is the most modest of the four plants of the vegetable garden; it never appears at our tables except in soup,” although he also conceded it could also be used in a bouquet garni and in ragoûts.
Not many years ago, an elderly and quite gourmand friend of mine refused to move to an elegant, elevator-accessible apartment on the rue du Buci in the 6th arrondissement (as opposed to a 4th-floor walk-up that she struggled to get in and out of) because, “people only go to the rue du Buci to buy leeks.” That even cultivated and interesting people occasionally have need of a leek held no sway with her.
Perhaps the true French paradox is not “why French women don’t get fat” but rather why the leek should be so denigrated by French epicures even as it serves as one of their cuisine’s most defining building blocks.
How very different from the leek’s status in New York when I was growing up and the Silver Palate ladies had made it a newly fashionable, distinctly French and more glamorous alternative to the onion.
To be fair, although Grimod did not make the leek the cause célèbre that he did the similarly disparaged but essential pig, he did concede it to be “an extremely healthy vegetable, and one which one might perhaps use more visibly.”
He had clearly never encountered a plate of poireaux vinaigrette, which has subsequently become such a classic that, as with the choucroûte, it too often devolves into a sad imitation of its former self. Nevertheless, prepared caringly, it continues to hold its own over trendier fare. Although she objects to living on a street where people purchase leeks, my French “grandmother” insisted that I accompany her to Brasserie Lipp especially to devour a plate of them.
By March, in spite of robust salsify and even hardier potatoes, Grimod explained that pulses—primarily white beans, lentils and dried peas—came to prominence. Of the three, he felt that only the first should ever appear whole, either as a side dish or under a shoulder of mutton. The latter he deemed appropriate only in a coulis or puréed.
In his view, the entire category of pulses had penitential connotations and was therefore particularly appropriate to Lent. From a contemporary vantage point, it might be easy to dismiss his frequent references to fast-day cuisine as typically old-fashioned. However, France had only reinstated the Catholic faith some months before Grimod was writing. His emphasis on its manifestations at the table was therefore a not very thinly veiled jab against the French Revolution and the sweeping changes this brought about—not least of which being a ban on religious practice that remained in place for over a decade.
In case readers missed the point, he reinforced it by adding a reference to French Revolution’s termination of traditional inheritance rights, quipping: “the blessed of the century would never cede their rights of primogeniture for a plate of lentils as Esau did long ago, even at present when this right, in France, has ceased to be good for anything.”
His remark reinforces the low status held by the entire pulse family in his generation. How things have changed! In part because they do have such deep-seated peasant associations, and, no doubt, equally because they require slow cooking — time being modern society’s great luxury — dried beans and lentils now have an iconic status in France, at least among those who view traditional foods as important cultural manifestations.
For example, the white bean is one of the only ingredients that Toulouse, Castelnaudary and Carcasonne — the three towns in Southwest France that lay claim to having invented cassoulet—share in their competing variations of this beloved recipe. Anything not made with two-thirds white beans is not considered a true cassoulet.
Popular legend explains that this hearty dish gave French soldiers the necessary fortitude to finally conquer the English at the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337—1453). No wonder it inspires such Gallic pride and Grimod permitted the white bean to arrive at worldly tables in an identifiable form.
The trouble with this myth is that the white beans in question come from the New World, which Christopher Columbus would not discover until almost four decades later. But, why let the facts get in the way of a good story that has been in circulation since the sixteenth century?
The lentil has similarly mythic status in central France. Those of the Puy are certainly the most famous and received protected Appelation d’Origine status in 1935, and, as this evolved, an AOC in 1996, and then the Europe-wide AOP mark in 2009.
Maurice Massenavettes, Grand Master of the Berry lentil vigorously defends the special qualities of those grown in his region, which are the same variety as those of the Puy cultivated in different soil. At the Festival International des Confréries in Charleville-Mezières this past spring he demonstrated how versatile the bean could be—offering tastings of his lentils made with chicken and saffron, with mayonnaise, with seafood, and other variations.
My preference, however, remains the classic cooked with thick slices of good, smoked bacon cut from the slab, perhaps with a few sausages thrown in, along with diced onions, carrots and a bit of thyme, parsley and bay leaf.
Glistening stacks of asparagus, alongside mountains of gariguette strawberries, whose heady sweetness perfumes the air, signal the arrival of spring at the Paris markets.
Grimod explained, however, that the vegetable was, “always expensive in Paris,” and “only suitable to the rich because it is not very substantial and slightly aphrodisiacal.”
The latter claim (no doubt reinforced by its irrefutably phallic form) had created a mania for the vegetable at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles that stood as a glaring exception to the prevailing disdain by the highborn of that generation for vegetables that grew up out of the ground. These were deemed more appropriate to the lowliest classes.
However, the king’s desire for asparagus was so insatiable that it, along with a similar appetite for figs, inspired his talented kitchen gardener, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (1626—1688), to learn how to stretch the season at Versailles’s Potager du Roi by surrounding the budding sprouts with manure, which was delivered steaming hot from the interminable flow of horses arriving to the palace.
More than a century later, Grimod, it would seem, had no access to forced, early asparagus but had to wait for it along with everyone else.
This year northern Europe experienced a record-setting cold winter and spring, which noticeably delayed the season (although it has subsequently hit record high temperatures). Last year, after a strange mid-March heat wave, the famed asparagus of the Landes began to arrive in Paris markets by the second-half of March. This year it was well into April. Across the Channel, where I now write, asparagus was still going strong in early July. Regional growers at the markets in both London and Paris confirm that this year’s spring and early summer crops were a full three to four weeks behind average, although they have been catching up after the intense heat.
The delayed spring has allowed today’s gourmands to feel a modicum of the exuberance experienced by the arrival of asparagus and then peas in early-nineteenth-century Paris.
Grimod preferred fat asparagus “cooked in water to eat them either in a white sauce or with oil.” Upon moving to Paris, I was surprised by the city’s predilection for thick, white asparagus since thin, green asparagus had been de rigueur in New York. However, having learned to peel them completely and cook them fully, I have come to adore them, especially with vinaigrette and some chopped boiled egg on top along with a sprinkling of tarragon or chervil.
Although a classic, the recipe would have been considered too complex for our 19th-century gourmand. He explained that asparagus could be served “in cream, in jus, preserved, or even in an omelet.” Nevertheless, he adamantly insisted: “their most handsome prerogative is to appear whole cooked plainly.”
No one has ever more captured their luminous beauty than Edouard Manet (1832—1883), who not only painted a glorious, violet-tipped bundle of them, but who also devoted an entire canvas to capturing a single stalk with the succinct perfection of a Haiku. (The picture is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay).
This reverence for white and violet asparagus grew so predominant in France that in his memoirs the renowned chef Auguste Escoffier (1846—1935) recounted that, having discovered green asparagus while cooking in London, he struggled to convince a single, renegade farmer to take a chance on growing it.* His success in this experiment can be witnessed in the ready availability of green asparagus in Parisian markets, although the white remains far more dominant.
Grimod de la Reynière, however, was clearly eating green asparagus, since he suggested that the thin could be “prepared in the manner of garden peas in order fool our hope and calm our impatience.” This particular form of artifice had a history almost as long as that of the fresh pea in France, which arrived in 1660 and caused an instant yet enduring sensation (more on that below).
Grimod’s one-time friend and mentor, Louis-Sébastien Mercier ((1740—1814) had a quarter-century before the Almanach mocked the practice in a humorous story about a miserly but socially ambitious host who had his cooks prepare a dish of both real peas and of the chopped-asparagus imitations, instructing his maître-d’hôtel to “accidentally” drop the fake one.** Bien sûr, the dishes got mistakenly swapped, which resulted in a small fortune worth of peas being thrown away and the host’s ridiculous attempt at showing off being discovered. Poor man! We are still chuckling about it well over two centuries later.
By contrast, Grimod held no objection to this form of artifice so long as it anticipated the arrival true pea season. With his somewhat twisted and unquestionably sexist views on women, he compared the imitation version made with asparagus to a “fading beauty, who with the help of numerous lights has won our attentions, flees at the crack of dawn and does not dare hold herself up to comparison with a Hebe dressed only in her eighteen springs.”
*August Escoffier, Memories of My Life, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996, pp. 133—134.
**Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Le Tableau de Paris, facsimile reproduction of the 1788 edition, Geneva: Slatkine, 1979, volume 10, pp. 209—210.
“Garden peas, green peas!” Grimod gushed, “This is the month of May’s song and the music that pleases gourmands’ ears.” No other vegetable and few of the “solid pleasures” (meat and game) that Grimod generally preferred met with such unfettered praise in the Almanach des gourmands. He proclaimed it, “the prince of entremets.”
The elevated status of the fresh pea had not diminished since a M. Audiger had first presented some to Louis XIV in 1660.* Audiger reported that the king and his most eminent courtiers instantly declared it, “the most beautiful and novel thing” that the court had ever seen.
He had encountered the vegetable in Genoa in January and found it, “most curious for the season.” Even by today’s, push-the-limits standards, the claim is, indeed, curious. Due to this year’s slow spring, even peas imported from Italy were hard to find in the Paris markets until May, which Grimod pinpointed as the start of the season, which, he elaborated, “procures for us in Paris four consecutive months of varied pleasures.” In 2013 French peas didn’t hit the markets until almost July. In London, where I write, they are, indeed, still going strong.
England seems an especially appropriate place to write about peas in France, because if the vegetable first arrived from Italy, almost immediately the most popular (and still current) way of serving them was à l’anglaise, which is to say boiled with a few pats of butter dolloped on top of them just before serving.
Grimod added one additional step to this simple procedure: pounding the butter with the peas in a mortar in order to create an edible mountain from the mixture. If this simple preparation was his personal favorite, he proclaimed that pea recipes were so numerous that one would need a plump book in order to describe them all. Indeed, he believed, ‘there is not an animal on the earth or in the skies that does not find itself honored by an alliance with it,” and was especially fond of it with squab, which he deemed another of May’s gastronomic highlights.
Pea soups featured prominently in recipe books of the period. Grimod summarizes their variations for both fat and lean days as, “infinite.” In his honor, I therefore held a dinner in Paris this past May featuring pea and sorrel soup to start, followed by a glorious platter of roast squabs. But, as the season has gotten into full swing, I’ve taken the great gourmand’s lead to prepare them utterly simply, with no sauce but plenty of good butter.
Audiger, La Maison reglée, et l’art de diriger la maison, Paris: Nicolas Le Gras, 1692, pp. 169—170.
Grimod’s complete texts for each vegetable can be found at the hyperlinked headings. The original French texts can be accessed here.
Ham closely followed lamb in Grimod de la Reynière’s list for the consummate Easter menu and, indeed, remains a popular choice by many who celebrate the holiday. Having grown up in a loft in Brooklyn with a kitchen equipped with a Garland restaurant stove and sufficient space to seat a large crowd, I annually enjoyed both a leg (or two) of lamb and a roast ham for the occasion.
In Grimod’s day, however, meals were served à la française, which is to say in a carefully laid-out pattern of multiple dishes served at once that would then be replaced in the subsequent course or two by an equally symmetrical arrangement of foods. For this style of dining, Grimod recommended that ham appeared best when served cold as an entremet, or side dish. He was especially enthusiastic about offering it at lunch when, he claimed, five or six friends gathered together could devour an entire ham in under an hour.
His favorite hams came from Bayonne and Mainz. He particularly admired the delicacy of the latter’s, which he confessed, “we would never have dared state when it was an exotic good. But now, because of our conquests, they have become an indigenous pleasure for us, so one can praise them without compromising patriotism.” Here, Grimod alludes to the fact that Napoléon Bonaparte’s armies had conquered Mainz and France had officially taken over the area under the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio, thereby making a hitherto German product French.
As previously stated in my entry on pork, Mainz hams had, however, been famous in France since the sixteenth-century and remained famous into the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, by the end of World War II this artisanal product had virtually disappeared. The traditional Mainz ham has recently been revived by Peter Walz but remains a rarity.
Bayonne hams, by contrast, have never gone out of production, nor lost their elevated status. The best, artisanal versions feature in the French Basque region’s section at Paris’s Salon de l’Agriculture. Humbler, although still good quality and protected-name Jambon de Bayonne can be purchased pre-sliced at better grocery stores such as Monoprix, which markets its own store-brand variety, as well as a slightly thicker, tastier version that has been aged for a minimum of 12 months under the “Monorprix gourmet” label.
Grimod’s favorites came from a M. Leblanc, who had his premises on the rue de la Harpe in Paris’s Latin Quarter. There, Grimod claimed, in early April M. Leblanc would lay in 1500—1800 Bayonne hams, each weighing a minimum of twenty pounds, and hang them from every possible surface on all the floors of the building, to age them properly before transforming them into pâtés. A select few he prepared for favored friends including our favorite Gourmand.
M. Leblanc’s Bayonne hams exemplify Parisian gastronomy understood by Grimod de la Reynière. In the introduction to his Nutritional Itinerary in the second section of the Almanach, Grimod explicitly states that Paris has absolutely no food of its own— that no one in the city grows vegetables or keeps livestock. However, he proclaims the French capital to be the greatest food destination in the world because Parisians have the discerning taste to choose the best products and then transform them into something marvelous. In M. Leblanc’s case, the hams came from the farthest reaches of France near the Spanish border.
Paris continues to have excellent charcutiers, some of whom prepare excellent hams, although not all of them originate from Bayonne. The ham cooked on the bone by Michel Felten and sold at the Saxe-Breteuil market in the 7th arrondissement is a particular favorite of mine.
For all his love of ham, however, Grimod deemed early spring as gastronomically inferior to winter. Citing the eighteenth-century cookbook author Menon, who stated, “If this time of the year is the most pleasant, it is also the most barren in poultry, game, vegetables and fruits,” Grimod went on to add, “One must therefore go back to the butcher; make due with lamb while waiting for something better; distract oneself with ham, and live in hope of sweet peas and mackerel, which will not delay in appearing.”
From time immemorial lamb has been requisite at Easter throughout Christian world. The Apostle John referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John: 1:29) and overlaid this symbolism upon the more ancient Old Testament tradition of the “Passover Lamb,” which would certainly have been served at the Last Supper, since it was, in fact, a Jewish Seder. Leaving aside an extended analysis of the emblematic meaning that the Judeo-Christian tradition has assigned to lamb, at its base, this potent symbolism derives from Mother Nature and the arrival of tender, baby lambs with the coming of spring.
It is therefore entirely unsurprising that Grimod de la Reynière described lamb as appropriate for Easter (although it is worth noting that the holiday, which had been banned in France along with the rest of Christian tradition on the heels of the French Revolution, had only been restored less than a year prior to the publication of the Almanach des Gourmands).
As with most every meat and bird, Grimod’s preferred preparation for lamb was to roast it on the spit. If this refined technique, which was long revered as the most sophisticated cooking procedure of all, has virtually disappeared, I was lucky enough to recently attend a weekend-long seminar led by historian Ivan Day in the UK. Using period equipment in front of a roaring hearth, Day demonstrated the nuanced ways in which a skilled roaster can control the process by moving the spit closer or further from the fire, turning it more quickly or slowly, and even angling it to cook one area more than another as fat and rich juices dripped into the pan beneath all the while. In such a way, Day transformed the leg of a four-year-old mutton into a succulent and tender roast. One can only imagine the justice the technique could do to that of a delicate spring lamb.
Grimod lauded lamb’s “whiteness and tenderness,” but warned that it might otherwise be considered, “a fairly bland and too youthful meat.” To counterbalance this, he suggested introducing a pound of butter that had been rubbed with chopped parsley, spring onions and fines herbes under the skin of the broiling hot roast.
The recipe, which I have now made for two Easters running, works beautifully even with lamb roasted in a contemporary oven. In accordance with Grimod’s recommendation, I used the undervalued shoulder as opposed to the more widely popular and therefore costly leg.
The first time I prepared it rather incredulously, wondering whether introducing a full pound of butter under the skin of a rather modestly sized lamb shoulder might not result in a greasy blob of herb-strewn fat. However, just as Grimod promised, the butter melted into the juices to create an unctuous yet piquant sauce, which exudes all the freshness of its copious herbs.
Grimod favored performing this act at the table, “as an entertainment for the guests.” He had a predilection for such tableside preparations, which he asserted, “unite together the joy and the appetite of amateurs, especially when the succulent and fresh hand of a young and beautiful woman takes charge of preparing them.”
The hint of eroticism lent to a meal by sending the servants away and finishing it at the table in private made such recipes highly fashionable in the ancien régime society that Grimod de la Reynière had grown up in although they have a far older history. Our own generation has far fewer servants to dismiss so these recipes offer up a practical but no less festive means to entertain at table.
Grimod de la Reynière declared the pig, “King of the base animal kingdom and the one whose empire is the most universal and whose attributes are the least contested.” Indeed, he went so far as to state that without bacon cuisine would not exist at all.
His unfettered enthusiasm for pork should not be interpreted as indicative of his generation but rather as a personal cause célèbre. Thirty years before he began the Almanach des Gourmands, Grimod featured an enormous array of pork products in the first course of the famously bizarre, funereal banquet that he staged in 1783. His subsequent gastronomic writing consistently treats the pig with reverence, sometimes even speaking of it in anthropomorphic terms. In his seasonal guide of 1803 he confesses that he hopes his lavish praise of the pig might restore its “so unjustly blackened” reputation.
Historically, pork had held a very low status in Europe’s hierarchy of foods. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433—99), for example, suggested that pork was most appropriate for, “bodies that are pig-like, as are those of rustic and hardy men.”* Although such a literal interpretation of humoral dietary theory would have seemed as primitive to Grimod’s generation as it does to our own, such beliefs, so deeply embedded into European culture, lingered just beneath the surface veneer of enlightened thinking.
Even without a medical justification, France’s upper crust had a sniffily disdainful attitude toward the pig, which Grimod made it his quest to eradicate.
What prompted this impassioned mission? It is tempting to infer that so personal an identification with the humble pig may have originated with the fact that his snobbish mother, whom he despised (and the feeling was mutual,) falsely blamed her son’s deformed, claw-like hands on an accidental tumble into a pigpen during his infancy. Did his almost urgent need to redress the pig’s status derive from this falsehood; the humiliation and disdain he himself suffered because of it; and his anger at his mother for giving him a distorted body and then faulting an innocent, little pig for it? One can but conjecture.
Leaving psychological speculation aside, Grimod had a very good point to make with regard to French cuisine. Nary a recipe of his era begins without first carefully barding a beast or bird with tiny morsels of bacon. It also often lent its flavor to cabbage and other vegetables.
Among the pig’s other gifts to gastronomy, Grimod emphasized the enormous range of sausages—both dried and fresh—that in his opinion made the reputation of Paris’s charcutiers. He deemed them the best in the world, owing to their artfulness rather than to the quality of the raw meat, which he credited as being better in Lyon and Troyes.
If barding has gone rather out of fashion in an era of plumper meats and fat-consciousness, Paris still abounds in a vast spectrum of sausages in every imaginable shape, size and flavoring. When the hour for apéritifs arrives, they will likely arrive with thin slices of saucisson sec to nibble on. But will this be the famed rosette of Lyon; an herbed, rustic version from Auvergne; or come laced with pimento from the French Basque country?
The two, football-field sized floors filled with food stands from France’s numerous regions that each February feature at Paris’s Salon de L’Agriculture bear witness to the seemingly infinite ways that pork can be cured.
Grimod also adored fresh pork. His list of favorites in this category, began with pork chops, grilled absolutely simply. In his honor, I prepared just that with two plump specimens acquired from a butcher at the Grenelle market (15th arrondissement), and served them on a bed of caramelized onions and apples deglazed with Armagnac. On a fiery hot grill, their thick edges formed a crisp crackling above a generous layer of succulent fat.
Grimod applauded every part of the pig—from the head to the loin. To this day, market stalls and butchers abound in pigs’ feet and ears, shoulders and heads, often piled in heaps directly on the counter.
As in Grimod’s era, ground pork flesh may not only serve as the foundation of a pâté but also, purchased plain or flavored, as forcemeat with which to stuff a bird.
Grimod reserved special praise for the famed hams of Mainz (in Germany, but under French occupation when Grimod wrote the Almanach) and Bayonne, in southwestern France. Both regions had sufficient fame in this arena to get mentioned in François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel of 1534. Both continue to be renowned for this specialty. However, following Grimod’s lead, I will eschew further discussion of ham until April and similarly wait until summer to consider the suckling pig.
*Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, trans. Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Tempe, AZ, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998), p. 181.
One of the ways in which the Parisian diet has most changed since Grimod de la Reynière’s day is the consumption of mutton. In 1803, he described a leg of mutton as, “the most common roast on bourgeois tables.” Currently, one is hard-pressed to find true mutton — being defined as the meat of sheep two years or older in age —even at the numerous Halal butchers that cater to Paris’s large Middle Eastern and North African populations, who esteem the stronger flavor and darker color of the older flesh in their cuisine.
It can purportedly be special ordered it from butchers such as the Halal farm/abbatoir Kissi on the outskirts of Paris. However, I have never seen it sold in a Parisian market or butcher.
That being said, Grimod himself disliked the Paris-region mutton because he found it both stringy and tough. He advised that, “if one wishes to eat an excellent one, it is necessary to take it from far away and to bring it expressly.” In his opinion, the best came from “the Ardennes, Cabourg, Pré-Salé, and Arles … One could mention afterwards those of Beauvais, Reims, Dieppe, and Avranche.”
The cost of transporting the sheep such a great distance made good mutton prohibitively expensive to all but the richest gourmands. However, in today’s locavore-obsessed culture, it is worth highlighting the fact that in the year 1803 Grimod and his gourmandizing pals felt that the superior flavor and texture of these far-away sheep justified the exorbitant expense of transporting them all the way to the French capital.
Lamb, on the other hand, remains readily available across Paris in a spectrum of cuts. Without much difficulty one can even find the fressure, feet, tongues, and other bits and pieces that get too easily overlooked outside of France.
Grimod, however, felt it to be a “solecism of the kitchen to speak of … [lamb] before Easter.” Therefore, I, too, shall leave off further talk of it until that time.
Grimod de la Reynière unreservedly deemed Paris the best city in the world for veal and I cannot but concur with him. Although raised on meat from a high-quality butcher in Brooklyn and having indulged in some rather splendid veal-based meals in Italy and other parts of the world, I confess that it wasn’t until I’d eaten veal in Paris that I became a fanatic.
In Grimod’s view, the explanation for the French capital’s superior veal lay in the dual facts that Parisians willingly paid premium prices for their veal (and they still do), which ensured that calves destined for the capital received the best care; and the fact that the city’s officials more rigorously enforced rules governing this tender meat. He especially singled out the prohibition on the sale of meat from calves younger than six weeks old. Younger calves, Grimod explained, have “insipid and watery flesh.”
In his day, Pontoise, about 35 km outside of the city (20 miles), had become the leading center for calve-rearing for the “white veal,” especially beloved by Parisians. He ranked it top on his list of sources for the best veal, followed by Rouen, Caen and Montargis.
Strangely enough, in earlier centuries the veal had come to Paris from even further away. However, the seemingly insatiable demand for it that developed there through the course of the eighteenth century led to the rapid expansion of rearing in Pontoise. By 1837, Pontoise provided roughly 70% of the city’s veal. However, according to agricultural historian Olivier Fanica, as early as 1844 the new railway lines had already virtually eradicated production there in favor of Gâtinais and Brie, then subsequently Champagne, which remains a large producer.
Today, the region of Corrèze, 480 km south of Paris (300 miles), provides the city’s most prized veal, with the best coming with a “label rouge” guaranteeing that the calf has been nourished exclusively on its mother’s milk. The most sought after of all are delivered straight from the farm. If the origin of Parisian veal has changed, the city’s gourmands remain devotees of the palest veal possible, a factor determined largely by diet.
Grimod’s audience of Parisians in 1803 had a near obsession with the stuff. Over a century-and-a-half later France stood as the world’s largest producer and consumer of veal, with Paris topping the list in the latter category. Now, another forty years on, although overall consumption has fallen, as it has with all red meats, CRÉDOC estimates that the average French adult eats this luxury meat 1.5 times a week — and that statistic again includes the vegetarians who bring down the curve.
Grimod de la Reynière favored the kidney as the most “elegant” portion and that best suited to sophisticated tables. If that organ has lost its highbrow status, it remains an iconic classic of French cuisine, frequently found on the menus of old-guard restaurants. It’s the sort of hearty dish that merits a nod of approval from bloated old gourmands.
Tête de veau (calve’s head) hold’s an equally mythic status in French cultural identity. Grimod conjectured, “but who has not eaten an unembellished calves’ head, simply boiled in its skin and eaten with a sharp sauce?” That would be something of an exaggeration in the current generation; nevertheless, Jacques Chirac not many years ago milked the dish’s symbolic potency to great political effect. The former French president pointedly and repeatedly cited the dish as his personal favorite (in fact, he’s still doing so in retirement). Although he was born in Paris, his grandparents hailed from Corrèze. By explaining that a taste for it was in his blood, he connected himself to agrarian France. Beyond that, calf’s head resonated with voters as solid, working-class fare of a distinctly Gallic bent. Indeed, during the Chirac era a chatty Parisian taxi driver, upon learning that I was interested in French gastronomy, assured me that he placed great confidence in France’s leader because he was a man who loved tête de veau.
In addition to calf’s kidneys, head and liver — items that remain readily available at local cafés and restaurants — Grimod de la Reynière lauded that one could make much with the caul, ears, feet, tongue and even the eyeballs and innards. Of these latter parts, only the tongue remains commonplace at markets and butchers although the rest can be found with a bit of looking.
On the other hand, the sweetbreads that Grimod felt appropriate for numerous entrées continue to hold a high status in Paris’s more elevated dining establishments (and a commensurately steep price of about 50 € a kilo from vendors at the outdoor markets). I’m especially fond of bouchées à la reine, purportedly named for queen Marie Leczszynska (1703—1768), wife of Louis XV and daughter of Stanislas, the exiled King of Poland, who employed several notable pastry makers. Bite-sized pieces of sweetbreads together with chicken breast and Paris mushrooms are blanketed in a rich cream sauce and stuffed into individual puff-pastry shells.
For a simpler yet no less delicious standby, any decent Parisian butcher would be happy to cut you a piece of veal roast, which comes expertly tied up with a bit of extra fat around it and ready to pop into the oven. Last winter I prepared one for a then ten-year-old friend, who sat down somewhat skeptically before this unfamiliar dish. One bite converted him. “It melts in your mouth like butter,” he declared. Being the true Parisian that he is, he now rates it just below foie gras on his list of all-time favorite foods. Grimod would very much approve.