Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (1758—1837) published the first volume of the Almanach des Gourmands exactly two hundred and ten years ago to “enlighten Gourmands in the labyrinth of their gustatory pleasures.” After a dedication and foreword (reproduced here in full in both French and English), Grimod began his guide with a month-by-month list of what to eat and suggestions about the best ways of preparing each product. This blog sets out to follow that advice and to compare what is available in contemporary Paris to what Grimod found in 1803.
What is remarkable, as we shall see, is the degree to which this gastronomic capital relied upon products that arrived from far away. In a later section of the first volume of the Almanach, Grimod specifically states that in spite of being the world’s gastronomic capital not a single kernel of wheat, or even a modest cauliflower was grown in the city. In fact, that had for centuries been the case. And yet, with a centralized food supply system dating back to the twelfth century, Parisians offered up food that made the rest of the world jealous.
Of course, they willingly paid good money for it, as a sixteenth-century ambassador from Venice noted and as is true today. Arguably, however, no generation cared about it, at least in public, as much as those to whom Grimod addressed the first edition of the Almanach des Gourmands.
When it appeared in 1803 Napoléon Bonaparte was on the ascent. Having declared himself head Consul four years earlier, he would one and a half years later crown himself emperor. After the tumult of the Revolution and the Terror, and the dreariness of the corrupt Directory, Parisian spirits were high and money was flowing, most especially to a flashy set who liked to dine out, to see and to be seen.
Grimod de la Reynière, with ancien régime hauteur, unapologetically addressed his Almanach to these proto-dandies. An aristocrat of the robe, rather than of the sword, but from an enormously wealthy family (his father’s lavish Parisian hôtel particulier is now the site of the American Embassy in France), he had survived the Revolution and the Terror relatively unscathed because his family had already had him locked away in the south for semi-insanity and he’d slipped out of France during its darkest moments. The fortune, however, had been decimated and what little remained from selling off pictures was controlled by his overbearing mother, who had little affection for a son born with severely defected hands. The Almanach presented an opportunity to sell his old world sophistication with the nouveau riche.
Even in its own day, critics decried its decadence and overt luxuriousness. Within the first year of its publication the Almanach des Gourmands spawned a satirical almanac for “poor devils” that billed itself as a corrective to Grimod’s work. Then, in 1808 Les Annales de l’inanition (the A of starvation) appeared as a “pendant” to Grimod’s Almanach and even falsely stated him as the author.
More recent writers have tended to focus on Grimod’s predilection for complex, heavy dishes that seem not merely decadent but utterly bizarre in the early twenty-first century. Le Monde, for example, recently (3 Nov. 2012) featured an article about a recipe inspired by Grimod’s “roast without parallel,” which appeared in the 1807 Almanach and which consists of a bustard with—stuffed one inside of the other like a set of Russian dolls—a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a young duck, a young guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a golden plover, a lapwing, a quail, a dove, a lark, a songbird, a flycatcher, and an olive stuffed with anchovies and capers.
However, if Grimod occasionally flew into ecstasies (especially in later editions of the Almanach) about such fantastical overkill, a final flowering of a long tradition of such exaggerated recipes, the “nutritional calendar,” with which he started his almanac, reveals a preference for simple preparations that showcase the superlative qualities of each food from spring asparagus eaten absolutely plain to wintry game birds roasted on the spit.
This project focuses on this latter streak in Grimod’s writing, which remains as relevant to us today as then, even to those who live far outside of the périphérique.
A NOTE ABOUT GRIMOD DE LA REYNIÈRE:
Although this blog will closely follow Grimod’s words and, it is hoped, thereby allow his personality to shine through, it does not purport to provide a biography.
In English, I recommend:
Macdonogh, Giles. A Palate in Revolution: Grimod de la Reynière and the Almanach des Gourmands. London: Robin Clark, 1987.
French readers can also consult Gustave Desnoiresterres’s Grimod de la Reynière et son groupe (Paris: Didier & Cie, 1877), which can be downloaded from the Bibliothèque nationale de France for free here.