Preparing a 16th Century Feast of King Louis XIV of France
Robert Bluestein, 2023©
In the middle-ages, there were few cuisine's more unusual than the French. And perhaps no one person is so uniquely identified with France in the way Louis XIV of France, (1638-1715). For an astonishing 72 years, Louis XIV brought France out of the middle ages and into their own Renaissance. But it came at a huge cost and the complete creation of an 'identity cult' where his image was carefully crafted and maintained. His expensive habits included delicate perfumes and colognes as well as his exquisite taste in foods.
Going back to William the Conqueror of Normandy (1028-1087) the French enjoyed boiled lamprey, snails, and other creatures that should have been extinct, Such was the case of 16th century France. Before you reach the end of this, you will be both intrigued and disgusted!
To better understand the setting and events which surrounded King Louis XIV, and where this recipe came from, there might be a lesson about vanity and excess in the story that leads up to the recipe for my Valentine's day dinner.
Left: Delicious Lampreys
Under Louis XIV, France grew opulent and wealthy. At the age of two...yes, you read that correctly, at 2 years old, he was coronated as king. Of course, relatives mostly made decisions in his stead, but if ever there was an example of what happens when we spoil are kids, Louis would be it. For 72 years, Louis was the ruler of France, the longest tenure in European history.
An adherent of the concept of the divine right of kings, Louis worked to create a centralized state where the country would be run entirely from Paris. He sought to eliminate the remnants of Duke William;s feudalism that was persisting in parts of France. He did this by pacifying the aristocracy with lavish gifts.
He kept France in conflict through many of the years of his rule. To support the army, the growing panoply of Versailles, the king needed a vast amount of money. Finance had always been the weak spot in the French monarchy: methods of collecting taxes were costly and inefficient; direct taxes passed through the hands of many intermediate officials; and indirect taxes were collected by agencies that skimmed off the top, leaving a trail of wasted finances, There were derisively called tax farmers, who made a substantial profit. Consequently, the state always received far less than what the taxpayers actually paid.
The main weakness arose from an old bargain between the French crown and nobility: the king might raise taxes without consent if only he refrained from taxing the nobles. Only the "unprivileged" classes paid direct taxes, and this term came to mean the peasants only, since many bourgeois, in one way or another, obtained exemptions.
Not surprisingly, he grew ambitiously entitled. By the age of seven, he enjoyed the fact that he could order a court minister or two beaten and flogged at his request. All the fun and games ended when he was 13, when France began to crumble from within and besieged by Spain from the outside. Louis (and family) were thrown into hiding.
The fact that people were hunting for him only fed his ego and self-importance.
This particular king thought so highly of himself, he hired THREE biographers to record every day of his life. He called himself ''The Sun King" while commemorating himself as "The entire universe, without equal."
He also commissioned over 300 portraits and 90 statues. In all of human history, this bleeding narcissism and self-grandeur was repugnant to many in France. In a day where a drought rendered people unfit and dying, Louis XIV was completely detached from reality.
He had mirrors put on all of the walls in his bedroom and even on the ceiling. It was odd to the scribes at first, but they were recently paid a royal amount of money to write, so they were going to appease their patron. At first, the biographers wrote typical glowing accounts of his majesty. Gradually however, they began to observe some very unusual characteristics and behaviors.
One of them wrote, "The king has great knowledge of certain scriptures which appeal to his desires, but utterly disregards the rest."
A Franciscan Monk passing by was asked by Louis to bless him before he left. He observed, "His residence is Sodom and Gomorrah, his countenance is wicked, and the balance is left to God."
He was born into the role of king, but nothing noble or courageous was written about his life beforehand. What happened?
For starters, he was obsessive and extreme in everything he said and did. He believed he was a direct representative of God. As time wore on, Louis would open Versailles to every major land-owner (called 'Dukes' or 'Counts') and insisted they stay awhile. After all, who wouldn't want to stay at the Palace of Versailles free of charge?
The problem was Louis wouldn't want them to leave. He had a deep-seated belief that each one could raise an army and revolt at any time. As long as he could witness their affairs, Louis believed a revolt would never happen. Upon realizing their initial good fortune, they sold 'indulgences' to people who could afford them, swelling the number of people inside Versaille exponentially. It soon became overrun and filthy. This wasn't just a few dozen people, it may have exceeded 1000 people!
There was no plumbing in the palace. Can you imagine? While Paris had Roman Aqueducts and pipes that were still in use after 1400 years, the palace was given two fountains. They are still there today and attest to the potential Versailles "could have" had. Louis had difficulties hiring a civil engineer from France, so he invited two architects from Italy, and these fountains were often polluted by the thousands of people who were amassing at the palace.
One of the fountains was inside, the other was in the courtyard.
As for bathrooms, courtiers and royalty used decorative commodes in each room, while commoners simply relieved themselves in the hallways or stairwells. (Don't ask why, but today, there are people who pay big money for one of these chamber-pots!)
Built in a swamp, Versailles became an odiferous cesspool. No one bothered to house-train the royal dogs, and servants did not consider cleaning up after them to be part of their job description. Rats and mice were so prevalent, multiple painters of the day included them in many depictions of Louis XIV.
To make matters worse, the kind believed bathing would 'wash away all of his God-given talents' and therefore his courtiers desperately came up with ways to keep him more appear ''kingly'' despite the obvious stench and filth. Scented powders and lavish perfumes were used by everyone, and tobacco was used by men and women alike, but instead of smoking it, they used as snuff.
You have probably seen their huge wigs. These came from bleached horse hair and adorned their heads long enough for one to paint the figures wearing them. One wig was expected to last for decades and could cost up to a year's wages. Louis boasted of owning over 400 of them.
Had Louis not worn a wig, his head would be seen covered in lice and bald spots where he scratched his head incessantly. To be fair, bathing was considered a trait of the lower classes, and even Queen Isabella of Spain boasted that she had only bathed twice in her life, and once was when she was thrown off her horse into a lake.
Even still, Louis created such a public image that he had many women who wanted to be his queen. He enjoyed their attention and fathered at least 21 children, none of which were legitimate. It would be Maria Theresa of Spain who would become his wife, although Louis didn't actually want to consummate the marriage. (It took seven years to convince him that he needed a male heir)
Not surprisingly, his biographers wrote of the many illnesses that Louis XIVth experienced. They included rheumatism, intestinal infections, ulcers, headaches, chronic fever, malaria, urinary infections, gout, and chronic oral problems. One biographer recorded that the king also had "intestinal worms, like that of a dog." Sounds like a pleasant fella to be around.
Finally, years of complaints from the nobility caused Louis to install the most basic of plumbing indo
ors. As they were 'most stringently invited to stay' at Versailles, they decided to limit the amount of suffering. To pay for the plumbing, Louis began to charge residents a fee to watch him sleep! He charged them by each word he spoke, especially if it was directly to them. And as members of the ruling classes began to discreetly file out of the palace, more arrived.
One of the lures used to bring people in for a 'visit' was the newfound cuisine that came from French colonization. Hot Chocolate was an everyday beverage that the commoners could never imagine getting ahold of, but at the palace it w
as a favorite. Louis combined the chocolate with raw sugar cane and he wrote the recipe down, marking the first time in European history that a king showed an interest in replicating food and drink.
One day, he shocked the royal visitors by preparing it himself. He finally came up with a contribution to humanity that was decent. In his own words:
"1) Place an equal number of bars of chocolate and cups of water in a coffee pot and boil on a low heat for a short while; when you are ready to serve,
(2) add one egg yolk for every four cups of liquid and stir over low heat without allowing to boil. It is better if prepared a day in advance. Those who drink it every day should leave a small amount as flavoring for those who prepare it the next day…"
While he became more and more interested in cooking, the debauchery all around him seemed to become apparent. Perhaps it was because Louis was cavorting in the kitchen, where people of rank were almost never seen. When he realized prostitution was happening on palace grounds, he grew furious. And - since Versailles was still under construction, the workers left in protest and the completion of the palace continued for a hundred agonizing years after Louis died.
But he seemed to enjoy the finer things, especially in terms of exotic food and red champagne, a rare and now forgotten beverage. He sampled Valencia Oranges and for the first time, ''his humors (breath) were not putrid."
He peeled them and ate them in great quantity, surely saving his life when balanced against the consumption of wines and champagnes he was taking in. He loved ginger, which came to him via the spice trade from the far east. Combined with crushed vanilla beans and soaked in cognac, the oranges soon became a must for everyone who was going to live with him in the palace.
Just before he died, he improved upon the tasty treat by substituting cognac with rum. Broil them before adding a vanilla-cream sauce over the top, and you have something worth every bit of the work needed to make it. The oranges might be considered a dessert, but instead were served before, during, and after the main course.
He combined mint with roasted pork and mutton, as well as the occasional calf. During his lifetime, he experienced black pepper for the first time, and reasoned it would be delicious with cream, a little salt, dijon mustard, cognac, and shallots. By searing the meat in a skillet, the outside became crusted with peppercorns and the meat remained medium-rare. Today we know it as ''Steak au poivre" and is made with filet mignon.
He didn't like vegetables as a young king, but then again, it's an acquired taste. As long as he could cover it in a sauce of some kind, the vegetables filled people up and were not as pricey as the meat was. Asparagus with Almonds and Butter were a must. Cabbage was served with pork and rabbit. For Jeaninne, I selected broiled artichokes with pears. (That was a succulent choice)
Mushrooms from all over France were sauteed in butter, capers and white wine. A very nice touch.
For the first time, heavy millet or dark-bread was replaced with semolina flour and combined with yeast, giving the aroma of fresh bread was a welcome fragrance!
Louis XIV would leave a few scattered recipes that he wanted his cooks to follow. They often took shortcuts, something Louis wouldn't stand for. He often would either take part or supervise the kitchen, something that lowered the prestige of the monarchy but improved his reputation. This meal is one you will still find in France's many restaurants, but now you know how to make it for yourselves! Ω
Bibliography and References
Anselme de Sainte-Marie, Père (1726). Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la maison royale de France [Genealogical and chronological history of the royal house of France] (in French). Vol. 1 (3rd ed.). Paris: La compagnie des libraires.
Antoine, Michel (1989). Louis XV (in French). Paris: Fayard. ISBN 978-2213022772.
Bailey, Gauvin Alexander (2018). Architecture and Urbanism in the French Atlantic Empire: State, Church and Society, 1604-1830. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 978-0773553767.
McKay, Derek (1997). Oresko, Robert; Gibbs, G.C. (eds.). Small Power Diplomacy in the Age of Louis XIV. In Royal and Republican Sovereignty: Essays in Memory of Ragnhild Hatton. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521419109.
Mansel, Philip. King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV (U of Chicago Press, 2020) scholarly biography; online review
Merriman, John (1996). A History of Modern Europe. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393968880. (Fourth edition, 2019)
Mitford, Nancy (1966). The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles (2012 ed.). New York Review of Books. ISBN 978-1-59017-491-3.
Montoya, Alicia (2013). Medievalist Enlightenment: From Charles Perrault to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. DS Brewer. ISBN 9781843843429.
Mungello, David E. (2005). The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500–1800. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-3815-3.
Nathan, James (Autumn 1993). "Force, Order, and Diplomacy in the Age of Louis XIV". Virginia Quarterly Review. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia. 69 (4).
Nolan, Cathal J. (2008). Wars of the Age of Louis XIV, 1650–1715: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization. Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-33046-9.
Norton, Lucy (1982). The Sun King and His Loves. The Folio Society.
Ó Gráda, Cormac; Chevet, Jean-Michel (2002). "Famine And Market In Ancient Régime France" (PDF). The Journal of Economic History. 62 (3): 706–733. doi:10.1017/S0022050702001055. hdl:10197/368. PMID 17494233. S2CID 8036361.
Young, William (2004). International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great. iUniverse. ISBN 978-0595329922.
Also: Works by or about Louis XIV at Internet Archive