Sunday, 9 May 2010

The French and Their Food - Part I

This is another post about a programme we watched a few weeks ago on BBC's iPlayer. It’s been a few weeks since I drafted this and I didn’t think to note the name of the programme, but never mind. I will long remember the content and, if I write this up at all well, perhaps so will you. Mind, some of it is a bit gory, so be warned!

So, what is it about the French and their food? Apparently it all began with Louis the 14th (1638-1715), the Sun King, whom the programme quoted as having said ‘I AM The State’ (Wikipedia says this is historically inaccurate). He is also the builder of Versailles, not exactly a humble undertaking. The size of this man’s ego is difficult to actually comprehend.

Apparently he formed the habit of eating dinner, a vast number of courses all exquisitely prepared, in front of his court where they could all watch him eat with wonder and awe. Image was all, in his book. This took him from night into the wee hours of the next day to do. It was all about ‘Look at me. Look how well I eat.’ This BBC programme said that this was when and where the benchmark was first set, requiring that French food be fit for a king.

Of course there was a steep divide between the royalty and the peasants. The latter lived on watery vegetable soup with, on a good day, a lump of pig fat; in hard times they ate rats. In fact, there was a premium paid for brewery rats; after all, they ate grain, more desirable than your average sewer rat. I know someone who has eaten guinea pig, but never met anyone who admitted to consuming rat; how far a jump would that be?

Fast forward to Louis the 16th (1754-1793) and his wife Marie Antoinette. She didn’t actually say ‘Let them eat cake’. It was brioche she was suggesting (sort of a sugary bread) and it was a practical idea in that it takes less flour to make brioche than bread. However, in the heat of a revolution no one wanted to give her any credit and ‘Let them eat cake’ was held as the perfect example of how stupid the upper classes were and how heartless about the conditions of the poor.

They were to a large extent a heartless lot, mind. There was a tale of Louis XIV's chef, Francois Vatel, who had made his reputation feeding the Sun King these amazing meals. Louis decided to have a banquet for ‘2000 of his nearest and dearest friends’ as it were. It was to be on a Friday, when there had to be fish; even the aristocracy had to bow to the church. The fish had to come some long distance from the sea and if the weather were bad it might not arrive. The chef, thinking it hadn’t and his reputation was in tatters not to mention that his boss would be upset, committed suicide, slicing his femoral artery with a kitchen knife. Ironically, the fish did arrive very shortly thereafter. The guests had their feast and comments all around were how delicious it was, shame about the chef, but you know those artistic types… You can read a bit more about the Chef Vatel here.

Under Napoleon III (1808-1873), France lived very well. Then came the German invasion. During the 1870 Seige of Paris, starvation was again a very real problem. Except for at one particular restaurant, Voison, on the rue Saint Honore, where there was a zoo involved.

I read a historical novel once (Burning Paris, by Nicholas Blincoe) that included this business, so it was the second time I'd come across the story. Monkey brains, elephant soup and kangaroo were all on the menu. (Well, some people eat kangaroo today, don’t they?)

According to the programme, there was a story which circulated of a woman whose two children had died of starvation and she was soon to follow, so she cooked them and ate for a few weeks. She was discovered and carted off to prison but the neighbours moved in and made soup from the bones. I don’t know if the story is true, but perhaps it is possible. (Though I read recently that the Donner party probably didn’t actually resort to cannibalism after all).

My point is, most of us have no idea about real hunger. I’m pretty certain in saying that about people who sit at computers in their homes. To have that recurring problem of starvation in one’s history it’s no wonder that a nation could become obsessed with food.


Jg. for FatScribe said...

excellent piece. thanks very much for your thoughts. you know, you would LOVE "Vatel" the movie, starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman. let me know what you think...

Struggler said...

If I look deep inside myself and am totally truthful, in a life or death situation I think I could consider eating dead people. Sorry.

On a lighter note, have you read French Women Don't Get Fat? It's an interesting angle on food - to eat well and enjoy it, but in moderation, and with high quality, seasonal ingredients rather than quick fill-me-ups which are not ultimately very satisfying. I'm going to look out for her cookbook at the library, too.

Shelley said...

Struggler - Yes, I have French Women Don't Get Fat. Great ideas, but all requiring a great deal of self-discipline. I use up all that commodity getting my lazy butt out for a run! I believe I, too, would at least consider eating flesh, if they were already dead. And back to a lighter note, there are a number of recipes in her first book that I've yet to try. One day, I want to be able to make my own yogurt!

Jg - So pleased you enjoyed reading it. There are two more parts to come. I've looked up the movie, Vatel...shall be on the look out for it! Thanks for the recommendation!

Rick Stone said...

I agree that very few of us, meaning those of us that sit at a computer to put out thoughts out there for the world to see, have ever really felt what being hungry really is. We are a fortunate lot. I think of the things my dad wrote in his book about his childhood. Although they were very poor, being farmers they were still able to feed themselves. It was not on Whoppers or BigMacs from the neighborhood fastfood chain but enough that they were all healthy. Most of us from our generation should feel fortunate to have the things we have today. Life is very good. (And I too think I could eat human flesh if it came to that to survive. Like they said in the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" it is all in the sauce. ;->)

Anonymous said...

That's fascinating! I don't know about monkey brains (I'm not that adventurous), but yes, people do eat kangaroo and I may just try it one of these days. I have also heard of people who ate their children/infants during famines...

Shelley said...

Jersey Mom - Definitely would not recommend monkey brains! I might try kangaroo as well.

Rick - I think remember to be grateful for the wealth we enjoy is key to a)enjoying what we have and for me b)making it easy to be frugal. No amount of money or possessions will make one happy with a sense of gratitude.