Marie Antonin Carême

Adapted from the article “Fit for a King” by Ann Noon, The Royal Pavilion Review, April 1997.

Portrait of Marie Antonin Carême
Portrait of Marie Antonin Carême

Nearly twenty years after the storming of the Bastille, a French Revolution of a very different kind was to change the course of culinary history. The birth of gastronomy captured the imagination of diners across Europe and one of the leading exponents in the brave new world of haute cuisine was Marie Antonin Carême, possibly the most head-hunted chef of his generation.

 

Carême’s  Background

The face of nineteenth-century cookery might have looked very different indeed were it not for an episode in Carême’s childhood that precipitated his dogged determination to reach the top. Born in Paris in 1783, he was abandoned by his impoverished and hard-drinking father before reaching adolescence. Not content to be a victim of circumstance, the young stray found an apprenticeship in a modest cookshop and set about improving his rudimentary education, spending almost as much time in the library as in the kitchen. A two year stint with Bailly, one of the most acclaimed pâtissiers of the day, gave Carême his first taste of the beau monde and laid the foundations for his meteoric rise to the rank of king of chefs – and the chef of kings.

Having cut his teeth on royal weddings (for both Napoleon and Jerome Bonaparte) and christenings (for the King of Rome), the new heir apparent to the epicurean throne soon had the cream of Europe knocking at his door. Carême’s appetite for recognition had been well and truly wetted, but his obstinate perfectionism and lifelong horror of mediocrity would not allow him to preside over any one table on a permanent basis. His twelve years with the Prince de Talleyrand were essentially formative ones, spent understudying the talented cuisinier Boucher who encouraged his pupil to branch out from the art of confectionary.

It wasn’t until his twilight years that Carême took up a lengthy residence again, at the Château de Boulogne with Baron James de Rothschild. He had, in the meantime, taken his recipes for iced bombes and jellied truffles halfway across the continent, tickling the palates of Tsar Alexander, the British ambassador in Vienna and that most notorious of bon viveurs, the prince Regent, for whom he created Pike à la Régence.

 

The Great Kitchen, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, by John Nash, 1826, BHTMP400421
The Great Kitchen, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, by John Nash, 1826, BHTMP400421

The Prince Regent’s Chef

 

Pairing the cordon bleu chef with the royal gourmet ought to have been a match made in heaven, but Carême’s reign over the taste buds of the soon-to-be monarch lasted little longer than eight months, even though the Prince Regent entreated him to stay.

 

Why did Carême leave the Royal Pavilion?

Contrary to earlier experiences, Carême’s conditions of service were not entirely unfavourable to him. He received the princely annual sum of £500, half of which was paid as a life annuity in the event of his patron’s untimely demise. With George’s own blessing, he made money on the side by selling left-over pastries filled with foie gras and pheasant to local aldermen. He was only engaged to superintend the Regent’s kitchens (whether at Carlton House or at the Royal Pavilion) for one week in two, leaving him free to work on his ambitious but seminal oeuvreL’Art de la Cuisine Française, three volumes of which were published in 1833 and the other two posthumously. Lastly, Carême deemed the Prince’s outstanding collection of silver plate worthy enough to do his culinary creations justice. So what went wrong?

That the damp English climate didn’t agree with him is certainly one theory. Another is that the somewhat solitary chef missed his French wife and daughter, but the Prince Regent would surely have had them send for had this been the case, and, moreover, Carême himself scarcely mentioned his family. His own reason for leaving the Prince’s employ was ambiguous: L’ennui extrême que j’éprouvais en Angleterre m’a seul decide à rentrer dans ma patrie. (The unhappiness that I felt in England was the only thing that made me decide to return to my own country.)

Homesickness was but part of the problem. There were, quite simply, too many cooks spoiling the broth. The one week in two rota meant that the duty chef would concoct the entrées and generally sauces and the one resting would take care of the soups and grosses pièces. Add to this a head pâtissier to cater for the sweet-toothed and you have a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Only the conrôleur knew how the three menus would merge to become one and the lack of communication between each department led to chaos and confusion. Carême made no secret of the fact that he would have made a better job of coordinating the menu, an opinion that was hardly likely to gain him any favour with his fellowcuisiniers.

 

Some insights on the English culinary scene

If the Frenchman’s arrogant and cocksure ways upset his colleagues, nothing disturbed Carême more than the state of his adopted nation’s cuisine. To him, English cooking could be summed up as various meats cooked in salt water, fruit preserves, puddings of all kinds, chicken and turkey with cauliflower, salt beef, country ham and several similar ragoûts. Such insularity and timidity must have offended the adventurous mind of a chef who considered confectionary to be a principle branch of architecture and whose elaborate pièces montées sculpted from spun sugar and coloured almond paste graced some of the finest tables in Europe. Carême even went so far as to draw up a detailed structural plan of how to improve St. Petersburg, an act which the Tsar rewarded with a diamond ring.

One of Carême's pièces montée creations
One of Carême’s pièces montée creations

Not everything about the English food scene met with his disapproval however. He was particularly impressed by the quality of British meat – and more specifically beef – which he considered to be superior to French cattle, partly because the animals were slaughtered at a younger age but also because the French had not yet discovered the advantages of charcoal, preferring instead the spits fuelled by firewood which burnt too quickly, leaving roasts chargrilled in the middle and raw at each end.

 

Carême also preferred the cleaner Anglo-Saxon method of suffocating poultry in contrast to the butchery that took place in Parisian kitchens, although he did find fault with the London poultry sellers who had fallen into the bad habit of dusting chickens to make them appear whiter. Similar tid-bits can be found in his book Le Maître d’hôtel français (1822) where he reveals, for example, that game birds were only available on the black market, that it was difficult to find truffles in this country, and that the lower classes were as likely to tuck into a hearty roast dinner as the nobility were.

 

Carême’s legacy

Carême has often been hailed as a creative genius and there can be no denying the contribution he made to both the art of cookery and the etiquette of banqueting. It was he who initiated a kind of back to basic cuisine by simplifying menus and emphasising natural flavours instead of smothering them with spices. It was he who perfected cold buffets with his recipes for galantines and savoury aspics. And it was he who once said that desert was a way of keeping women at the table longer.

However, despite his prowess in the kitchen, he cannot have been the most congenial of characters to work with. His harsh early years infected him with a puritanical streak that that saw him rising at dawn to choose the freshest produce at market and only retiring for the night when he had meticulously copied down that day’s recipes. Carême was also a terrible snob, forever fretting that diners might not have sophisticated enough tastes to appreciate his aesthetic masterpieces.

The fact remains, however, that over 160 years on from his death, this extraordinary Frenchman – whose surname ironically means Lent – continues to haunt the dinner tables of Europe in his own inimitable fashion. For a fitting epitaph, we need look no further than his own proud remark: Charcoal kills us, but what does it matter? The shorter the life, the greater the glory.

 

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