Over the course of the last 6 months, I have been involved with the Getty Research Institute quite extensively. My husband Mark and my collection of antiquarian books have been on display in the Edible Monument Exhibit and will be going on tour in the spring. As you may have seen, I have contributed to the Getty Research Institute’s book The Edible Monument edited by Marcia Reed and joined a panel discussion on the delicacies of food across different eras. Most recently, I spoke at a special dinner inspired by 17th Century French court festivals at Versailles and for those of you particularly interested in culinary history, I thought you might enjoy reading my speech.
FEASTING IN THE 17TH CENTURY
I am inviting you to come back with me four hundred years to the late 17th century. We have been summoned to a grand feast. Our host is a high official, an ambassador perhaps, the senior burgher of a wealthy city, a royal prince or possibly a prince of the church. We are in Italy or France or possibly one of the wealthier German states, but we are not in England where feasting was a hundred years behind.
As guests, we have spent most of the previous day preparing our finest embroidered silk clothing and whether male or female, we are primped and painted, coiffed and corseted out of all recognition – even to ourselves. We are loaded down with our finest jewelry, possibly all of our jewelry and we are quite uncomfortable.
We are now seated at a single, huge table. It may be rectangular, or it may be round, possibly the horseshoe shape that makes serving so much easier. The surface is covered with an immense white damask cloth, stretching to the ground on both sides.
Our chairs are high-backed and behind each of us stand our personal server, possibly provided by the host or it may even be our own man (always a man). For every four or five guests there is a stationed carver who will be part of the visual show. Holding his hands high as he works, the carver will dismember the roast birds and joints of meat that will arrive as the feast progresses. Carving is detailed in vivid contemporary picture books and it regarded as such a high art that it was often taught to minor aristocracy.
The carvers are a sideshow to the main decorations – the amazing edible monuments that tower over the table that are many feet high. They may be composed of salted meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fruits piled on platters of vermeil and silver or pewter. They are stacked against one wall and such an arrangement was called a Credenza.
At each place at the table, is an oversized napkin that is folded as a concertina or a castle. We carefully drape ourselves to avoid spills on our best clothes. To get us started on the feast, we find a bread roll or two, nibbles of Parmesan cheese, olives and cured meats.
Depending on the wealth and sophistication of our host, on the table itself you will find little or no cutlery – we are expected to bring our own perhaps, including one of the new table forks. By now, table forks are commonplace, but still disliked by traditionalists and when you come to think of it stuffing metal prongs into your mouth is pretty barbaric.
There are no glasses either; they are so valuable – particularly when made in Venice – that they are kept on the Credenza, to be filled and returned to order by our indispensable footmen.
At last, we can study the food. Casting our eyes over the dozens of dishes – which may already be spread out on the table in front of us. There will be great tureens filled with “potages” or what we would call broths and stews and in flavors such as turkey and cucumber or pheasant with truffles.
Our feast is likely an all-day affair and the whole table is cleared as course succeeds course – up to ten of them.
Main dishes are focused on great cuts of meat, whole birds (or fish on fast days) that call upon the talents of the carver. Examples might include breast of veal en ragout, veal tongue, or sautéed lambs tails with extra-large lamb chops.
Do not expect dessert as we know it. A separate sweet course does not exist four hundred years ago and instead sweet dishes are spread out with the savory – fruits are served fresh in season or candied for winter. Refreshing chilled fruit sorbets are the latest fashion in drinks, especially in Sicily where Mount Etna provides year-round snow.
Ten courses lasting a whole day!! But we are never board. The drama is continuous, a theatrical show in which we ourselves play our parts. Like any good party, the guests, the colors, the aromas, the box of noise are all part of the fun.
Are we allowed to eat the monuments? Well, guests certainly often did. The Earl of Castlemaine at his feast for the pope in Rome in 1687 had to hire Swiss guards to protect the sugar sculptures from being eaten too soon!
I hope this evening we can all restrain ourselves!!