The art and skill of creating the ‘subtelties’ which played a hugely important role in the great feasts of medieval times has never really, truly died out – or at least, the wish for them has not, even if the realization of the concept is a rare event nowadays. There was a resurgence of the idea during the so-called ‘freak dinners’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were events held by the obscenely wealthy and terminally bored citizens whose main pre-occupation, it seems, was the search for ‘novelty’ to impress their obscenely wealthy and terminally bored friends.
There are some fine examples of outlandish theme dinners in the chapter entitled Fantasies of Party Givers in The Steward's Handbook and Guide to Party Catering (Chicago, 6e. 1903). I give you a short piece from the book about a reception held by the extremely wealthy Gilded-Age New York matron, Mrs. Vanderbilt. I think the dishes described could qualify as subtelties. Do you agree?
DECORATED DISHES AT MRS. VANDERBILT'S RECEPTION.
“One piece was a game pie of pheasants, the pie resting on a flat surface of wax, the entire piece upheld with deer's antlers. The sides of the pie were trimmed with quails. Underneath were two rabbits playing cards, while to the side of the players was a bridge, under which gleamed a lake of water with goldfish swimming about.
“Another was a fruit dish in wax, in which were placed imitation eggs and potted reed birds.
“Another piece was a fillet of beef, with a garniture of vegetables of all kinds resting on the shoulders of a Hercules; on either side were placed some cupids, the figures being of wax and very cleverly executed.
“One of the most artistic pieces was a two-foot salmon, resting in a wax boat, while on the back of the fish sat a cupid; the boat was supported by a Neptune at each end, seated in sea shells and driving sea horses before them in a lake of real water in which fish were swimming around.
“A fine piece was a flying Mercury poised upon a ham, the ham being finely ornamented with a delicate tracing of truffles.
“About midnight the following artistic supper was served:"
MENU DU SOUPER.
Consommé en tasse Huitres à la poulette
Croquettes de volaille Bouchées à la reine
Terrapin à la Maryland Canvas-back duck
Galatine de chapon
Filet de boeuf , jardinière
Aspic de foie-gras, belle vue
Chaudfroid de mauviettes Pâte de gibier, chasseur
Pâte de Strasbourg, naturel
Saumon à la Vatel Jambon à la gelée
Salade de poulet Salade de homard
Volière de cailles Sandwiches varies
Gelée macedoine aux fruits Glacés assorties
I chose it because although quail (caille) is one of my favourite foods, I rarely seem to feature it!
Cailles au Riz.
To return to my list of specialties of Parisian restaurants, I would advise all diners who visit Laperouse's house on the Quai des Grands Augustine during the autumn months to order, whether it be on the daily menu or not, a dish of cailles au riz, sometimes called cailles a la Duchesse. To prepare them at home proceed as follows: Clean and scorch 12 fat quails, putting their livers back; put them into a pan with some lard and about ½ Lb. of salt pork (petit sale) cut into little dice. Brown rapidly by tossing them in the pan over a brisk fire; when three-quarters cooked, pour over 2 glasses of good bouillon, add a bouquet of parsley, a leaf of laurel, a clove of saffron, and some cayenne-pepper. Let the liquor reach boiling point three or four times, and then pour into it ¾ Lb. of picked rice which has been previously washed with care. Three minutes later cover up the pan, and allow the rice to cook over a slow fire. When this has taken place, take out the bouquet of parsley, and serve the rice on a plate, surrounded by the birds.