Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cooking with the Three Musketeers: Dumas on food

The creator of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, was not only one of France's most popular and prolific writers in the 19th century, his swashbuckling historical novels selling in vast numbers(many are still in print today in many different languages)but he was also a curious traveller, a well-known bon vivant and a great gourmet. He loved entertaining guests and devised wonderful meals with his cook, and on occasion cooked himself for them. He hugely admired the great Brillat-Savarin(about whom I wrote in an earlier post) and it was as a kind of homage to him that he wrote his Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine, a vast and rambling tone that was a mixture of anecdote(some pinched directly from Brillat-Savarin!), recipes, travel pieces(there is a fascinating section for instance on the caviar fisheries of the Volga, which he visited)and food philosophy of all sorts. It's not always very reliable, and it be a bizarre and a little slapdash at times, but it has a great personal charm: he says he is, for instance, terrified of 'the appearance of mushrooms at table' (in case they're the wrong sort), and that 'larks have the double advantage of being liked by gourmands and lyricised by the poets' , and that 'the wild boar is quite a misanthropic animal' . He provides Cardinal Richelieu's menu for an all-beef menu, going through seven courses, and a recipe for how to cook bear paws, and has a lovely anecdote about Breton onion sellers trying to encourage English market-goers to buy their onions with a hand-lettered sign, in capital letters, the only English they had learned: The English Onion is not Good. (Rather like the cheeky English cassoulet-maker at Castelnaudary, they discovered the locals didn't much take to this form of direct marketing, but still carried the day!)He has a long section on the truffle, the 'gastronomers' holy of holies' as he puts it, and claims that the colour red 'excites anger in turkeys, just as it does in bulls'. He has a lovely section on water, because, as he says, 'people who habitually drink water become just as good gourmets about water as wine drinkers about wine', and reveals that for 'fifty or sixty years of my life, I have drunk only water,' but then proceeds to tell a funny story about a wine-loving Franciscan monk, who tricked by some mischievous visitors to the monastery into agreeing to partake of a bottle of water instead, got out of the hated chore by asking his superior to bless the water--and once it had been done, refusing to drink--because who had ever heard of a Franciscan drinking holy water?

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