A banquet for Louis XIV, recreated at the Palace of Versailles
Twenty or more not-so-dainty dishes would have been a typical evening repast for Louis XIV of France. To celebrate a show of the Sun King's art collection at the Palace of Versailles, one chef worked for a year to stage a recreation of a royal belt-buster.
By Lee C Wallick. Photographs by Tim Richmond
Published: 6:55AM GMT 21 Jan 2010
Les Hors d’œuvre
Matching wine and food with Gary Rhodes
Royal ballotine of pheasant
Petit pâté en croûte à la bourgeoise
Fresh deep-sea oysters
Lobster aspic chaud-froid
Beef madrilène with gold leaf spangles
Pureed chestnut soup with truffles from the Court of Italy
Bisque of shellfish from our coasts with a boletus infusion
Pumpkin soup, fresh from the royal vegetable garden
Scallops with oyster liquor
Wild duck cromesquis à la Villeroy
Roast beef, carrots and smoked eel
Wild salmon au sel
Green and fresh herb salad in gold leaf
Rice salad à la royale
Hosting a historic meal for 40 is one thing, holding it in France’s most prized palace is another. 'We decided to recreate the Sun King’s Table at Versailles as a tribute to the cultural heritage that witnessed the birth of both champagne and luxury,’ said Richard Geoffroy, Chef de Cave – the chief winemaker – of the champagne house Dom Pérignon. 'This is the first time anything like this has happened, and it probably won’t happen again.’
Moët Hennessy, which owns Dom Pérignon, is sponsoring an exhibition at Versailles – 'Louis XIV: The Man and the King’ – showing more than 300 of the lavish works of art he commissioned during his 72-year reign, some of which have not been seen since the 1789 Revolution. As a testament to Louis’s appetite for luxury, Dom Pérignon (the winemaker Louis most favoured), with the aid of the Michelin-starred chef Jean-François Piège, has spent more than a year working on a modern-day reinterpretation of a typical Louis XIV dinner. 'We wanted to bring back the soul of the cuisine, and its extravagance,’ said Piège, who developed the menu with the aid of Geoffroy and a range of historic publications.
Versailles is a fully functioning museum, and every inch of it is guarded in the name of preservation, so no real candles, no touching and certainly no spilling is allowed. And creating a meal that was historically accurate was a logistical nightmare, as there is no kitchen near Louis XIV’s antechamber, the room where he usually took his meals from 1684 until his death in 1715 (four days before his 77th birthday). France’s most popular king loved extravagance but was also a stickler for ritual, routine and ceremony. His daily schedule was no exception. Every moment was structured, from the valet de chambre’s wake-up call at 7.30am to the King’s dinner, or Grand Couvert. At 10pm each evening his guests would squeeze into the antechamber to attend the Grand Couvert, an important court ceremony, which was also open to the public. The King’s chair would be placed at the centre of a rectangular table, on the longer side, with its back to the fireplace. The guests would be seated on the shorter sides, with the other longer side remaining empty to facilitate the service and keep the line of sight clear. Facing Louis was a platform where musicians might play.
Opulence and ritual were of key importance during the Ancien Régime, and so the meals were divided into several services: hors d’œuvre, soups, main dishes, go-betweens and fruit. Within each service (except for the fruit course) there were between two and eight dishes. By the time Louis retired at 11.30pm, he would have eaten some 20 to 30 dishes, after which he would then pocket the candied fruit and nibble on a boiled egg as he made his way to bed.
Because of the extreme restrictions put in place by the palace, Piège, 39, a protégé of Alain Ducasse, best known for revitalising the Hôtel de Crillon’s Les Ambassadeurs restaurant in Paris, had to prepare each of the painstakingly researched dishes 300 metres away, before they were wheeled through several corridors and galleries on blanketed trolleys.
Louis loved performances, some of which would last for days, and so as the guests assembled in the richly decorated Oeil-de-Boeuf Salon (which takes its name from its bull’s-eye window) the dinner began with chamber music. 'Barley grain’ conical glass flutes, based on glasses from the Louis XIV period, had been specially reproduced, and each filled with Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1976. The protocol of the time dictated that glasses were not set on the table, but presented by servers on silver trays. Each guest would have to finish their drink in its entirety before setting the glass back on the tray.
The First Service, or hors d’oeuvre – pheasant, pâté in a crust, shellfish and crustaceans – once brought out, remained on the table until the end of the meal. As each successive platter arrived, it was laid on the table (traditionally, it would have been presented to Louis first and then down through the ranks) in a strict 'symmetrical, repeated and practical pattern’ – a diamond, square or circle. The larger main dishes formed central points, with the smaller ones filling in the pattern, so that guests would be able to serve themselves throughout the meal.
Each course provided an insight into the Sun King’s life. The first dish, the pheasant, was a tribute to the Bourbons’ love of hunting, and its feathers were often used to decorate the dishes. The seafood illustrated the 'chasse-marées’ system, whereby sellers brought fish from the coast to the cities. Oysters principally came from St Malo and Cancale, while lobsters came from Normandy and reached Paris at about 4am. The purveyor then had to deliver the supplies to the palace by 5am (a system so stressful that one chef, François Vatel, impaled himself after a late delivery).
'All our ingredients were sourced locally from the gardens of Versailles, Paris and nearby regions, just as they were at the time of Louis XIV,’ Piège said. The soups (les Potages) included Beef madrilène with gold leaf spangles, puréed chestnut soup with truffles from the Court of Italy, a bisque of shellfish with a boletus mushroom infusion and a pumpkin soup, fresh from the vegetable garden at Versailles. Between 1678 and 1683, Louis’s gardener, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, a former lawyer, established a vegetable garden that quickly became the pride of Versailles. Quintinie was adept at producing vegetables well in advance of the season and extending yields through the use of heated greenhouses and glass cloches, the creation of microclimates, pruning trees to maximise the exposure of fruit to sunlight, and selecting varieties through grafting.
One of the main courses (les Rôts), wild duck cromesquis à la Villeroy (breaded foie gras with rice), was a reference to the trend in the 17th century for dishes bearing the names of the aristocracy. Often served 'medianoche’, or after midnight, the cromesquis was also a creative way of circumventing the Church-sanctioned meatless days – Fridays, Lent and so on.
Other main courses included scallops with oyster liquor, hare stew, some exquisite roast beef and carrots with horseradish, and wild salmon au sel, the salmon served on a fish-shaped block of salt. 'Salmon were known as “royal fish”,’ Piège said. 'The salt that accompanied it was also highly valued, and so heavily taxed that it represented six per cent of the royal revenues. Not only did it enhance the flavour of food, it made it possible to preserve it.’ The third service, or 'Go-betweens’ (entremets), served between the main dishes featured a herb salad sprinkled with gold leaf, violet and borage flowers, a rice salad with langoustines and truffles, and a heavenly morel soufflé. In 1718 Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, Princess Palatine, wrote, 'He could eat four plates of soup, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large plate of salad, two slices of ham, mutton au jus with garlic, a plate of pastry, all followed by fruit and hard-boiled eggs.’
Finally, as the guests were invited to retire to the Oeil-de-Boeuf Salon with a glass of Dom Pérignon Vintage 2000, the last service of the evening arrived. And while there was glazed fruit or what Louis would have called 'dry jam’, it was Piège’s contemporary take on chocolate that marked the end of an extraordinary evening: chocolate truffle 'edible candles’ in candelabras, a tribute to both the fashion for cocoa during Louis IV’s reign and the extreme restrictions Piège and Geoffroy encountered – Versailles were never going to allow the 96 or so candles that would have illuminated the Sun King’s Table at that time.