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.
By Rebecca Smith
In the late 1600s, “turquerie” was in full bloom in French court society.
Leading up to that time, the Ottoman Empire, in its burgeoning size and strength, was seen as increasingly important to France. Consulates in Tripoli, Alexandria, and Beirut were created. Trade, in carpets, dyes, linens, leather and waxes was greatly expanded, mostly through the port of Marseilles, which became the “door of the Orient”. Savary de Brèves, French ambassador to Constantinople, negotiated a favored status position for French trade and protection over that of the English, the Venetians, and the Holy Land. He brought back manuscripts, cultural items and scientific discoveries, all of which were instrumental in the opening of the French Academy of Sciences.
The first Ottoman presence on stage had been in 1561 with “La Soltan”, a tragedy of the 1553 execution of the elder son of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent by his wife and consort, Roxelane. A passion for exotic oriental fashion and décor, including turbans and caftans and sitting on rugs, ensued. Coffee was introduced into French society and coffee shops sprang up across Paris. Oriental elements entered into French literature and luxury goods from the East were in vogue.
It was in this heady atmosphere that Louis XIV invited to the court the Turkish ambassador, Soliman Aga, to further strengthen diplomatic and commercial ties, as well as to, in a sense of competition, impress upon the Ottoman emissary the equally ornate grandeur of French society. A grand gala and lavish feast was scheduled and an entire monthly issue of the Gazette was dedicated to the visit, fanning the public’s interest in the exotic. The King flaunted flamboyant dress in a full display of diamonds and a feathered crown, rejecting the more austere Spanish form of fashion, prevalent at that time. He began taking instruction in Turkish culture from Chevalier d’Arvieux, a French “orientalist” who had traveled extensively throughout the region and had mastered some of the languages. Finally, he ordered a “divertissement oriental” to be created by d’Arvieuxand the court artists, one that would include a new comedie-ballet by Molière. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was that play, built around the vain and selfish M. Jourdain and his misguided efforts to become a Man of Quality, at the expense of his family. In the dramatic climax, Jourdain is duped into marrying his daughter to her true beloved, who is disguised as the heir to the Ottoman throne.
It was an elaborate ceremony played out at Chateau de Chambord, with bejeweled costumes, four dervishes, a dozen Turkish singers and a panoply of exotic instruments.
The event did not entirely go the way of the king’s wishes. Soliman Aga, in what was perceived as possibly an insult, as well as a disappointment, arrived simply attired, as if it had not been worth his effort, and appeared to be indeed a lesser official than was expected. Yet more enraging, he reportedly claimed the Grand Sultan’s horse to be more elaborately adorned than Louis and his retinue.
Molière’s comedy, however, did please the king. The performance was repeated three times at Chambord that week, followed by three times at the palace at Saint-Germain-en-Layebefore it was played at Molière’s Palais-Royal theatre. Many critics then and since have questioned the Turkish folly of the play but audiences have continually delighted in it.
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