By Rebecca Smith
We all know the phrase “let them eat cake” and attribute it to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France 1774-1793. Lesser known is that “passer le sel et le poivre” can be traced to Louis XIV, two regimes prior.
Yes, we can thank the Sun King for the presence of salt and pepper on our tables. Louis was quite particular about his food; he preferred light seasoning and considered excessive seasoning vulgar. To his taste, salt and pepper complemented each other and did not overpower the dishes. He banned all spices except for salt, pepper and parsley.
Furthermore, until the late 17th century, spices were applied in the kitchen and not available to seated diners. But Louis brought them to the table. One’s proximity to the seasonings even became a measure of status – the higher the rank and favor, the higher the honor. All wished to be “above the salt”.
And finally, up until Louis’s reign, salty and sweet dishes were presented together. It was his chefs who began serving salted foods to stimulate the appetite and then finishing off with sweet items to satiate and to complete the dining experience. Thus began, reportedly, “modern cooking”.
Salt, of course, was a standard from before 500 BC. It is one of the 4 taste buds at the tip of the tongue (along with sweet, bitter and sour), it has long been used to preserve foods and it is a required substance in our bodies, allowing us to regulate our fluid balance and body temperature. It was a prime trade product and even used as a medium of exchange. The word “salary” comes from the salt used to pay Roman soldiers, “salad” also has “salt” as its base, referring to salting of vegetables and greens in that era. Empires were built on salt, battles were fought over it, towns were named for it.
Pepper, although always enjoying some popularity, was never in the same league as salt. Originating in India it was valued as medicinal, was also used in payments and is even found in Egyptian tombs. And in the Middle Ages it joined with cloves, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon as spices from the East much desired to improve the common bland, gruel-dominant meals of the European continent. Its heat and pungency were also effective in disguising meats past their expiration dates. However, it was expensive. So much so that peppercorns were used for ransoms, dowries, taxes and rents. As a condiment, it was a luxury item, only gracing tables of the rich. Indeed, it was often referred to as “Black Gold”.
Clearly, for the court of Louis XIV and French royalty, this did not present a problem. Accordingly, the duo of salt and pepper became history.
All of this, of course, transpired in the time of Molière. And here’s an additional “pinch” connecting Molière to the subject. Gourmet salts are more and more prevalent in our cooking and a current star (might we say, again, of the “aristocratic” set) is truffle salt. Expensive and exotic, it comes in different varieties (white truffle, black truffle) and has a place of honor on esteemed tables (not to mention its aphrodisiac qualities believed by the French).
And here’s the rub. The name “Tartuffe”, arguably Molière’s most famous villain actually comes from the old French for “truffle”. It has been hypothesized that the duplicitous character was so named “in allusion to the fancy that truffles were a diseased product of the earth.”
A truffle salt web page advertises, “With just a few grains of this salt, you can enrich the flavor of anything”. And who would dispute that of Molière, as well?
So, there you have it - four centuries later, Louis XIV and Molière are still adding flavor to our lives.
Throw a little of that over your shoulder, mon ami.
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