Tuesday, February 12, 2013

All for Show: Saffron and Gilt.

I came across a spectacular example of over-catering recently. The tragic waste of kitchen skill happened in 1660, in association with the wedding of Louis XIV of France, and Maria-Theresa, the Spanish Infanta. This is how a magazine in 1789 described the event.

France was, at this time, at war with Spain; and both nations, tired of the contest, and the long enmity which had subsisted between them, were glad to terminate their disputes by a marriage between the young Lewis [Louis XIV] and the Infanta; and which took place in 1660. The description of the festivity on this occasion, in Spain, Germany, and France, is truly characteristic. Marshal de Grammont, the most gallant nobleman of the French court, rode post to Madrid, with his whole suite, sumpuously dressed, to manifest the impatience of his master. The Admiral of Castile gave him a most superb entertainment, "but more for the sight than the palate.” “Seven hundred dishes,” says the Marshal, “with the Admiralty arms on them, were served; but so saffroned and gilt, that they went away as they came, without any one being able to touch them, though the dinner lasted above four hours.”

I am not sure how to interpret this. Were the dishes so beautiful no-one wanted to spoil them? Or did they look beautiful, but in an inedible sort of way? And how did the skilled kitchen craftspeople and artists who made these marvelous pieces feel about the waste of their efforts? And what happened to the dishes that were returned untouched? They would hardly have been recycled for the servants’ dinners, or given to the poor at the gate, would they? And what, then, did the guests at this superb entertainment eat?
So many questions, so few theories. While we jointly muse over the puzzles, please enjoy a nice saffron pudding.
Saffron Pudding.
Mix ¾ lb. of kidney suet, cut very small and free from skin, with 1 lb. of the finest flour, or ½ lb. each of flour and French roll crumbled; take 3 eggs and beat them up in a pint of cream, with a glass of cognac and a tablespoonful of real saffron boiled up until the flavour is extracted; season it also with a little pounded ginger. Put it into a floured cloth, tied tightly over it, but with room to let it swell, and boil it, without any intermission, for nearly 3 hours.
A few drops of the essential oil of saffron will give the necessary flavour.
Modern domestic cookery, by a lady (1851)

A tablespoon of real saffron – and a few drops of essential oil of saffron is still needed to give the necessary flavour? It sounds like the ‘real saffron’ was there only to give colour?
A lot of things are not making much sense to me today.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like they had the same problem we do now - fake saffron masquerading as the real thing. Either that or boiling it to "extract" the flavor actually destroyed it. I've seen modern instructions to steep the saffron in warm liquid, but never to boil it!

Piet B said...

I wonder if the cooks were told to double or triple the amount of saffron called for in their recipes (as a way of showing the richness of the Spanish Court?) and that was what made them inedible? Saffron's a lovely spice in small doses, but more than a little becomes far too much quite quickly.

Foose said...

It may be an anti-Spanish comment or a simple gibe at Spanish cuisine and ridiculous ceremony, i.e., the dishes were so gilded and impregnated with the spice saffron that no one (especially no one French) could touch them. The original French says, "... tous les mets sont doraient [gilded], et tellement charges de safran [loaded, permeated with saffron]..."

Saffron was particularly associated with Spain, having been introduced by the Arabs centuries earlier.

You can occasionally come across remarks from French period sources - an age when France was aggressively asserting itself as the leading European power against the decline of Spain - about the inedibility and bizarreness of Spanish cuisine; one example is Queen Marie-Therese's favorite chocolate drink, a sludgy beverage thick with cinnamon, ambergris, vanilla, and various spices.

The Old Foodie said...

Thanks everyone; all very interesting comments indeed. I suspect that there is truth in all of them.
it hadnt clicked with me about boiling the saffron!
and perhaps saffron suffered from long transport and not good storage too, so it went off in flavour.
And Foose, thanks for the linguistic insight! statements with and about food as political propaganda. Interesting.

Foose said...

"Tous les mets etaient dores," not "sont doraient." Gah.

The Old Foodie said...

I certainly didnt pick up that error, Foose :)