How your Easter dish could be a tribute to father of top French cuisine
Easter and the pleasures of food, after the privations of Lent. That was how it used to be: now we have a foodie culture all year round. The father of the classic art of French cuisine, Antonin Careme, would not have approved. He believed that food should always be eaten according to season. Well, he lived before the era of refrigeration - born just before the French Revolution of 1789.
Each spring, in France, the prestige that Careme brought to the art of cooking is recalled - there's a society of grand chefs which meets to honour his memory.
If you're indulging in a souffle, eating a cream meringue, scoffing a vol-au-vent, enjoying a flan or a rum baba, or doing anything with a sauce bechamel over this weekend, you're paying due respects to Antonin Carême, who developed all such gourmet dishes. Our celebrity chefs of today are but following in his footsteps - wearing the very toque he invented for the job.
Careme would be dubbed, by history, "the king of cooks and the cook of kings", but what's fascinating about his life is that he rose from nothing. He was one of (probably) 25 children, born to a labourer in what was then a Parisian slum just off the Rue du Bac.
At the age of nine or 10, around 1782, his family abandoned him: his father took him to one of the gates of Paris and explained that he'd now have to fend for himself. "Go, little one," he told the boy, "with what God has given you." And so Antonin became a street child, wandering around in the terror that followed the Revolution - he might well have witnessed the public execution of Marie-Antoinette, whose last meal he would include in cookbooks (it was bouillon with vermicelli).
Child abandonment was common - so was child labour. And thus the boy Careme got work, skivvying in a chop-house. The street child who survives becomes street-smart, and the boy must have quickly sussed that revolutions produce opportunity as well as blood in the streets. As the aristocracy had their heads chopped off, their cooks became unemployed, and so they launched their own restaurants - there were 50 restaurants in Paris before the Revolution, and 3,000 afterwards.
Careme, however, was drawn most especially to patisserie, and as a young adolescent got himself apprenticed to a leading patissier, Monsieur Sylvain Bailly near the Palais-Royal. Antonin was lucky with timing: in the early 1800s, food culture was booming, and the new rich sought ever more elaborate tables. Many of Careme's eye-popping menus are faithfully reproduced in Ian Kelly's fabulous gastronomic biography, Cooking for Kings. A meal might offer a choice of eight soups followed by eight fish dishes, followed by 15 dishes of fowl, eight centrepieces, 40 entrees, eight dessert confections, eight roasts and 32 side orders.
He would become chef to the diplomat Tallyrand, cook for Napoleon's banquets, for Jacob de Rothschild, for the Prince Regent at Brighton and for the Tsar of all the Russias. Like all geniuses, he studied ferociously hard - he took himself off to the national library to study architecture, as architectural shapes fascinated him and inspired some of his culinary designs. He attended drawing classes, so as to illustrate his books all the better. He never stopped learning, experimenting, practising, and could put in a work schedule of 50 hours at a stretch (commanding a kitchen with a staff of 80).
And like many great chefs - to this day - he could be a bad-tempered martinet: toiling in a hot kitchen and getting dishes to table on time is stressful. Moreover, the carbon coal used at this period was toxic, and almost certainly contributed to his death, at the age of 48.
Unsurprisingly, although he had a couple of close friends, and remained loyal to his early mentors, his personal life was strained.
He never saw his parents or siblings again. He married twice, but both marriages failed - basically, it would seem, because he was a workaholic.
And his childhood must have scarred him emotionally. He had one daughter, Marie - he obviously didn't wish to repeat his father's score of 25 children who couldn't be supported - but she seems to have become alienated from him. She destroyed his archives.
But his foundation books L'Art de la Cuisine Française and Le Patissier Royal Parisien (published in two volumes of 400 pages each, a best-seller in its day) are his legacy, as are the voluminous number of recipes and elaborate designs for table decorations. He died from respiratory problems complicated by a stroke, and his last words were about instructions on how to cook the fish.
Careme - whose name, ironically, also means "Lent" in French, though his gourmet arts are better suited to feasting than fasting - set out some admirable rules for young apprentices. "Have courage, perseverance … always hope … don't count on anyone else, be sure of yourself, your talent, and your probity, and all will be well."
I may confect one of his easier dishes - perhaps Nectarine Plombiere, as served to the Irish eccentric, Lady Morgan - for an Easter sweet.