This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Meat pies, guinea fowl in rich sauces, cakes topped with cream: When you think of a dinner fit for a French king, that’s the sort of sumptuous buffet that comes to mind. But I’ve always wondered how exactly such a feast could be executed at a time when ovens and standing mixers were nowhere close to being invented.
Hoping to find out more, I travelled one hour southwest of Paris to the 16th-century Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which will open its kitchens till the 6th of November to recreate these opulent banquets.
The Baroque-style estate of Vaux-le-Vicomte was built between 1658 and 1661 by Nicolas Fouquet, the head of finances for King Louis XIV. Besides being the longest-reigning monarch in history, Louis XIV also famously built the palace of Versailles, concentrating the power of his absolute monarchy in a single building where his court could enjoy luxury on an unprecedented scale.
At the time of Louis XIV, the man running the château’s kitchens was François Vatel, who mainly went down in history for committing suicide during a banquet at a different royal estate in Chantilly. But Vatel also played a much bigger role in shaping French cuisine, turning it into what we know and love today.
The imposing château was built just outside Paris for one of King Louis XIV's closest confidants.
Before Vatel’s time, aristocrats had a totally different relationship to food, as laid out in the memoirs of French socialite Baronesse d'Oberkirch and her tales of French society and the court of Louis XIV before the revolution. At the time, the aristocracy only sat at the table for short amounts of time and ate as little as possible. “We would swallow, but we wouldn’t taste,” the Duchess of Vallière is quoted as saying in d'Oberkirch’s book.
Needless to say, culinary experts weren’t happy about this. According to the book “Vatel et la naissance de la gastronomie" ("Vatel and the Birth of Gastronomy”) by French food historian Dominique Michel, chefs employed all sorts of tricks to keep their guests at the table. One of them involved asking one of the guests to tell a story full of twists and turns, without revealing the grand finale until the end of the service. Some even made sure to seat women next to their crush to encourage conversation.
Under Vatel’s vision, Michel said, the service itself changed, too. Cutlery was no longer shared between guests. Glasses never stayed on the table as waiters would constantly serve water and wine.
The estate's ceilings were painted by Charles le Brun.
In this – and most other – châteaus, the basement was where the magic happened. After preparing the food, the kitchen staff had to make their way up and down narrow staircases carrying elaborate dishes that they could not spill, as they were hugely expensive. Quantity alone wasn’t enough to amaze the banquets’ many guests. “It was a clever mix of quality, rarity, quantity, ingenuity and beauty. All the senses had to be awakened,” said Michel, who was present at today’s event to ensure its historical accuracy.
As the show began, two actors – one playing François Vatel and another playing a cook – immersed the audience in preparations for the party. I rubbed my hands in anticipation, picturing succulent oysters and fattened chickens. A quick glance at the feast ruined my hope of a good meal: The display was made out of plastic. Luckily, the prince’s cook also prepared some actual macarons, which were already popular at the time of King Louis XIV.
Unfortunately, none the display was real.
The plastic dishes were brought in five courses, each one more luxurious than the last. The first course was soup, served with small plates of cold meat. The second was the starter – the equivalent to today's main course –which was veal chops and other cuts of meat. Roast fish followed, served with green salad.
The second-to-last course featured hot, cold, sweet and savoury dishes, together with oysters, truffles, vegetables, jellies and flans. And to finish off, butter-free desserts (very fashionable at the time): ice cream, chocolate biscuits, candied fruit, and even sugar loafs, cone-shaped lumps of refined sugar that came straight from the Caribbean and Brazil, symbolising wealth and status.
The diet of royals during François Vatel’s time was so rich in extravagant types of meat and sugar that it commonly caused gout, a form of arthritis.
One of the actors down in the kitchens.
In the Middle Ages, nobles liked to consume food flavoured with a mix of spices from distant countries, including saffron, cinnamon and ginger. According to food historian Terence Skully, medieval cookbooks rarely contained any recipes based on fruits and vegetables. Back then, only the rich could afford the luxury of book ownership, and vegetables were considered by the elites to be too common, earthy, indigestible and generally inferior to meat.
But, as Michel’s book explains, everything changed during with the 1500s and the Renaissance. That’s when aristocratic palates became more refined, limiting the number of different spices used in a single dish. Pepper, which wasn’t common in France until the 16th century, was highly favoured by the nobility, along with nutmeg and cloves studded in a piece of lime and used to flavour meat.
The 1600s also gave vegetables a new lease of life. Little by little, they came to symbolise a delicate, refined diet, thanks to culinary trends from Italy. Artichokes, asparagus, cucumber, mushrooms and spinach were served unaltered by spices to preserve their natural flavour. Chocolate and pasta became increasingly popular, too.
Actual macarons, lying next to two sugarloafs.
The number of dishes served with each course was the same as the number of guests. If someone was added to the table, the kitchen wouldn’t prepare more of the same food – they’d typically add a whole new dish. “The dishes were only invented to enhance the meal and not to satisfy the guests,” according to “L’Art de bien traiter” [“The Art of Eating Well”], a cookbook from 1674.
And, of course, table displays needed to reflect the opulence of the house, too. While Louis XIV was stuffing his face with wine-infused strawberries, Vatel had to focus on perfecting the flower arrangements and folding napkins in decorative shapes. It was also important to follow fashion for food presentations – some foods were presented horizontally, a display that was especially trendy at the time of Louis XIV, but cakes and fruit baskets were usually served in towers that almost touched the ceilings.
When I first saw the vertical display of candied fruits, it looked so real that I almost reached out to grab a maraschino cherry. Alas, I had to content myself with looking at them with envy. At least I didn’t need to worry about accidentally knocking the whole thing over.