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BOOK EXCERPT: A Taste of Paris by David Downie

Parisian café

A TASTE OF PARIS: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food is author David Downie’s latest book about Paris that answers the question: what is it about the history of Paris that has made it a food lover’s paradise?

The publisher’s description of the book says “Following the contours of history and the geography of the city, Downie sweeps readers on an insider’s gourmet walking tour of Paris and its neighborhoods taking us through Roman butcher shops, classic Belle Epoque bistros serving diners today, and Marie Antoinette’s exquisite vegetable garden that still supplies produce. Along the way, shedding light on why the rich culinary heritage of France still makes Paris the ultimate arbiter in the world of food.” 

Taste of Paris cover

Enjoy this excerpt from the chapter on Versailles:

“[T]he most impressive monument to Ancien Régime gastronomy at Versailles is still the Potager du Roi: Louis XIV’s vast royal kitchen garden. He was proud of this practical, perfectly symmetrical, handsome walled paradise of strawberries, melons, artichokes, asparagus, figs, and pears, and Louis greatly admired his Royal Gardener and Horticulturist, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, whom he raised from middling third-estate status into the aristocracy.

Standing at a safe and unsoiled distance on his viewing terraces, Louis would watch his beloved subjects toiling below, his mouth watering. You, too, can watch seasoned gardeners directing à la Quintinie while budding horticulturists from the National School of Horticulture based here do the spadework. With its central birdbath pool and walled gardens the potager is slightly seedier but little changed since it was created by La Quintinie in 1678. The rustic, twenty-five-acre plot is off the château’s grounds due south across the street from the doleful baroque cathedral of Versailles. There are no lines to get in. Depending on the season you might be able to buy pears, melons, strawberries, figs, cabbages, pumpkins, and peas, stuff them into your capacious 1970s string bag and take them back to your temporary Paris lodgings for a feast.

“Revolutionary” is not a word spoken aloud in Versailles yet the king’s kitchen garden was precisely that: It turned farming on its bewigged head. La Quintinie must have been a true homegrown French genius. Without formal training he perfected espalier techniques for growing trees against walls to protect them from wind and benefit from refracted heat. He created heat sinks and used cloches to raise fig trees and vegetables in cold weather to defy La Mère Nature—thus delighting the king who was, after all, a demi- god yet very much down to earth. A man for all seasons La Quintinie’s ennobled device could have run “Peas in April, Figs in June.”

At the height of summer the potager could produce four thousand figs per day and still produces many. Were they dried and fed to eager geese to make Louis’ foie gras? Perhaps, though I suspect the king gobbled many of them himself (he was a great believer in laxatives). Ditto the pears—forty-six varieties—and peas. Like Alain Ducasse, he was mad about peas.

Thanks in part to La Quintinie, France underwent the edible equivalent of the Tulip Mania that swept Holland in the early 1600s. “The craze for peas continues,” noted the Marquise de Sévigné, the ubiquitous, omniscient letter writer of the century, one of Paris’ most precious chroniclers. “The impatience felt waiting to eat them, to have eaten them, and the pleasure of eating them are the three topics on our princes’ tongues for the past four days.”

What Madame la Marquise and the folks in charge of the potager, not to mention Ducasse et al, don’t tell visitors is primo, those peas were brought to the king from Genoa, the maritime republic Louis XIV firebombed and humbled for its perceived arrogance, and, secondo, the genius La Quintinie learned much from the botanical gardens he made a pilgrimage to in 1656. Traveling to Turin, Pisa, Padua, and Bologna he debriefed horticulturists and watched them at work, a high-level agro-industrial spying mission. Historians speculate he also hit Rome, visiting Villa Aldobrandini, the Vatican gardens, and Villa d’Este in Tivoli.

You’ve already guessed it: La Quintinie’s “espalier” is French for spalliera, the technique invented in ancient Rome and used throughout the Italian Renaissance. La Quintinie brought it to France. Funny, isn’t it, how English language auto-correctors don’t mess with espalier, but run a red line under the Italian original.

Also unsurprising is how two native delicacies of the Latin homeland, beloved of Caesar and Caterina de’ Medici, were among the Great Louis’ favorites: La Quintinie was ordered to grow six thousand asparagus and a thousand artichoke plants in the potager for His Voracious Highness.

Artichokes had migrated north to France from Italy in 1532 and were on the Medici queens’ tables, but La Quintinie turned them into giant globe shaped French scepters presumably with new and improved powers of sexual arousal.

As to that other peninsular aphrodisiac, asparagus, when Augustus Caesar was in a rush he demanded things get done “in less time than it takes to cook an asparagus.” Jack Robinson hadn’t been born yet.

In the Augustan Age, this provocative plant’s phallic shape and pungent smell induced the Romans to dedicate it to Venus, goddess of amour, and ascribed to it performance-enhancing qualities. The ultimate finger food, designed to be gobbled al dente, it was perfect for greedy, impatient Louis: using a knife and fork to eat asparagus was and remains an insult in much of the Mediterranean world, indicating overcooked flaccidness. What could be worse than a limp royal asparagus? No complaints were heard from the Sun King’s bedmates in that wise. It is a matter of salacious record that a generation later, Madame de Pompadour was less interested in Louis XV’s greenhouse-grown coffee beans and handmade hot chocolate than in his Champagne and pointes d’amour—the succulent “love tips” of asparagus. Her suggestive not to say obscene recipe for Asperges à la Pompadour in a creamy, buttery white sauce is astonishingly popular today.

As heir to the Roman emperors and the ancient pantheon of gods, and the spiritual and perhaps genetic son of Mazzarino, there was no defeated- Gallic-warrior nonsense in Louis le Grand’s self-confident admiration of Italian manners, statecraft, and food. He never spoke of the cannibalistic barbarian Vercingétorix, preferring to emulate and dress like Augustus, another semidivine winner. The finest 3-D example of Louis’ imperial Roman fixation is a life-sized, highly flattering portrait by Antoine Coysevox, the Bernini of France, who also created many marble sculptures you’ve been admiring as you tour Versailles.

Coysevox shows a lithe, manly young Louis XIV with the attributes of Hercules and Augustus, though many-chinned Domitian, Vitellius, or Elagabalus would have been more appropriate. It’s the only original bronze to have survived the Revolution and stands in a courtyard in the Marais at the Hôtel Carnavalet. Coincidentally the Marquise de Sévigné once lived in the mansion, now the History of Paris Museum, and, it’s speculated, shared the king’s bed. Whether she preferred the king’s peas, asparaguses, or artichokes is not known. For a time de Sévigné was recklessly wild for chocolate, the beverage of Venus, but overdosed and soon swore off it.”

A TASTE OF PARIS: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food (St. Martin’s Press; September 2017)