At Napoleon’s Table – Service a la Russe

At Napoleon’s Table – Service a la Russe
While Tolstoy detailed the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, en France the impacts of the Patriotic War of 1812 reached well beyond the borders of la Russie. Today the French dine daily à la russe—perhaps the greatest impact Napoleon made on modern French culture. While French courtly cultures historically dined à la française,  Napoleon and his armies adopted the idea of course-by-course dining while en campagne, bringing back to la République a Russian tradition that changed the way the French—and therefore the world—eat. Until then, dining in the French courts was a royal buffet piled high, à la an upscale Western Sizzlin’, with mountainous heaps of edible processional showpieces. A small intimate dinner for 40 close friends and family of the French aristocracy would have required nearly 100 dishes spread along the table like a still life while an artist hovered on the horizon, capturing their feasts in la nature morte. The royal tradition of dining à la française was typical of the Louis’ love for indulgence. Such was the extravagance of dining during the Ancien Regime that guests were actually invited to watch the show. Similar to how the queen would birth her husband’s heirs with an audience, crowds elbowed their way to the front of the gallery to watch as whole fish, birds, and haunches of meat surrounded by moats of gravy were paraded to the royal table and consumed. The dining implements were legendary—gorgeous silver platters, porcelain tureens, shellfish étagères and decanters for vinegar, wine, moutarde and more littered the table. Guests, according to their rank, would either help themselves to the bounty or be served by waiters. And while this was all fine and dandy, the best eaters were the ones who kept a wary eye on the royal host—for when he was finished eating, the food would be briskly whisked away from the table regardless of who still had their spoon in their mouth. And while the pomp and circumstance of dining à la française was a visual feast, as anyone who frequents the Golden Corral knows, buffet dining isn’t the best way to enjoy a meal. Hot dishes cool to lukewarm, while sauces congeal and cool dishes rise to room temperature. Meat dries out and a film forms over the soups in a globby mess reminiscent of Thanksgivings gone awry. Buffet food, however extravagant in presentation, loses its potential for flavor. Napoleon wanted nothing of the courtly culture loved by the Louis. The little general fell head over heels for the dining concept he experienced in Russia— today what we know as the French style of dining course-by-course traditionally was adopted from Napoleon’s conquerers. In the traditional French dining style the emphasis was on the feast itself, not necessarily upon the food which was being consumed. Napoleon and his army’s new style of eating à la russe shifted thinking away from the procession and onto the food, forming the modern day French gourmet sentimentality.  As diners began to taste the food they were eating—giving one item their sole attention—the focus shifted to how the food was prepared and then served. Great discussion was given on how to best move cooked food from the kitchen to the plate. Instead of entire pigs displayed on the table, they were now carved at the sideboard and served to guests in an orderly fashion.  Dishes and cutlery were cleared between courses and replaced with clean ones filled with food from the next course. The place setting became an art form with each guest given identical plates—a concept born to be beloved by the children of the French Revolution. Guests were seated by place card and some of former French court foundations remained. Guests didn’t take a bite until the host or hostess first began to eat, but courses were small and finished as a group before the next course was brought to the table. Meals began with a calligraphied menu and courses were anticipated as diners waited for the feast that would follow. The table was set with flowers and candles and beside each plate a host of necessary cutlery alongside stemmed glasses for waters, wines and champagnes. Napkins were rolled and laid atop the plate and each guest was given their own salt cellar for seasoning their meal to their taste. The essential change in dining in the Russian style was that hot food was eaten hot and cold food was eaten cold. Less food was prepared overall, but more food was appreciated. As food began to be truly tasted and appreciated almost as art form, those preparing the food, formerly merely considered staff, were elevated in position. In fact, the Belle Epoque birthed the first “Top Chef”. A product of the Revolution, Antoine Carême, a man born into a poor family with 25 children, worked his way up from restaurant kitchens, achieving a Guy Savoy-sort of French fame previously thought impossible amongst the servant class. Chefs became known and discussed, lending their name to their best creations. Adolphe Dugléré, the chef of Café Anglais in Paris in the 1850s, became the namesake for Sole Dugléré while restaurateurs such as César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier changed the way the world dined forevermore. And by the end of WWI the traditional service à la française was a thing of the past. The new French style of dining was service à la russe and with it came new gentry in the kitchen and at Napoleon’s table.

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