The phrase ‘hors d’œuvre’ literally means ‘outside the (main) work’. From medieval times until the second half of the ninteteenth century, a dinner consisted of two (or sometimes three) courses, each of which contained a mixture of dishes, both ‘sweet’ and ‘savoury’, all of these dishes being set out on the table in a strictly ordered and hierarchical structure before the diners entered the room. This style became known as service á la française, to distinguish it from the new (early nineteenth century) service á la russe (see here for further explanation and a diagram.) The largest and most impressive dishes sat grandly in the centre of the table, sometimes elevated on an elegant plinth of some sort, with the ‘lesser’ dishes flanking them. By about the mid-eighteenth century these smaller, less important dishes became known as hors d’œuvres. At an important dinner cold hors d’œuvres might be served at one point during the meal, and warm hors d’œuvres at another.
I give you the words of several early nineteenth century cook book writers, to show how the term hors d’oeuvres was interpreted by that time.
From The French Cook, by Louis UstacheUde (1815):
In France, between the dormant (centre stationary dish) and the entrées, it is customary to place hors-d’œuvres, viz. sallads of anchovies, canapés, sallad dishes filled with lemons, bitter oranges, butter, radishes, turnip radishes, of figs in autumn, what we call hors-d’œuvres de cuisine, such as saucisses, boudins &c, &x, which indeed give a good appearance to the table. In England it is not customary to serve hors d’œuvres, as in very few houses they keep a Confectioner, and that the hors d’oeuvres belong to his department.
From French Domestic Cookery,by an English Physician, (1825):
A French dinner is usually composed of seven sorts of eatables: firs the soup, second the boulli, third the hors d’œuvre, (by-dishes,) either hot or cold, fourth the entrées, (or regular first course dishes,), fifth the roast, sixth the entremets (or relishing dishes,) and seventh the dessert.
From: Domestic Economy, for Rich and Poor, by a Lady (1827)
Celery, Radishes, Cresses, &c. in Water.
There are deep glasses made on purpose for sending these to table in water. Radishes and cresses are excellent digestives, when eaten with oil before dinner. They are also very ornamental. The French use them as hors d’oeuvres, not belonging to the course, although placed on table.
And for the recipe of the day, I go back to the early days of use of the term. Oh for the days when an elegant dish of pigeon was a mere side-dish!
Pigeons au Gratin.
Having young Pigeons picked dry, blanch them again over a Charcoal Fire, then pick them very clean, and when they are well picked, split them in the Back; then take the Livers, which you mince with scraped Bacon, Parsley, green Onions, Champignons and Truffles, seasoned with Pepper, Salt, fine Spice and Sweet Herbs; but all moderately: Then put in a silver dish Slices of Bacon, of Veal, and of Ham; after that place in it your Pigeons and put your Forced-Meat, mentioned before, in their Bellies; and lay over each Pigeon a small Slice of Ham and Veal: There is no need to put Seasoning, by reason of the Ham: Cover them with another Dish, half as small again as the other, and take a white Napkin moisten’d, which put around the Dish, to hinder it from taking Vent; then put it a stewing over a small Stove; it being done, dish it up with Essence of Ham in another Dish, and serve it up hot for a small Entry, or Hors d’Oeuvre.
[The Whole Duty of a Woman, or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex, 1737]
Quotation for the Day.
Hors d’Oeuvre: A ham sandwich cut into forty pieces.