A Taste of Paris by David Downie

A Taste of Paris by David Downie

Author:David Downie
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: St. Martin's Press


Entrées, Quatrième Service:

Ancienne Nouvelle, 1700s


Sitting at a sunny table listening to the centerpiece fountain in the leafy, car-free heart of the Palais-Royal, I am often struck by the exquisiteness of the site and the historical aptness of its current occupants. Richelieu’s imposing palace on the southern end is now part of the Ministry of Culture and so is one of the Revolutionary period’s most famous restaurants, Chez Méot. On the north end of the compound’s airy arcaded perimeter is the city’s most venerable, grand Ancien Régime eating establishment, Le Grand Véfour, a worthy survivor.

Raise your glass to progress—though never a straight line, it does exist. As Catholicism transmogrified the pagan pantheon into God and his saints, French republicanism has transformed the monarchy, Revolution, and Napoleonic empires into a presidential democracy with an elected secular king. One of his duties is to glorify French cuisine, the unofficial state religion. Seated in his papal throne in the Palais-Royal, the Minister of Culture plays pontiff to the French president’s king or emperor. These potentates are committed to sampling and promoting native delicacies and potables, spreading the bounty of budgets among stellar restaurateurs, as they would have in the days of Louis XIV. Some entertain as lavishly as Fouquet. Culture and food are big business, France’s soft power. Unlike France’s armies so far they haven’t been beaten in battle.

Pry yourself off your bench and take a tour around the palace’s garden courtyard. On the façade of Le Grand Véfour, lettering spells out “Café de Chartres,” the name of the premises’ first occupant. The café opened in the late eighteenth century when Chartres was a hereditary title owned by the Orléans branch of the royal family. Most of the Palais-Royal as we see it today dates from the tumultuous last decades of the 1700s. But the history and gastronomic significance of the site are older.

Louis XIV’s nephew, the Regent, Philippe d’Orléans, lived, loved, feasted, and frolicked where the Minister of Culture now sits garlanded by contemporary artworks. The setting seems terribly grand, prim, and in some ways proper. It was grand but neither prim nor proper during the Regency, from 1715 to 1723, when Philippe transformed Richelieu’s former lair into party central.

Like French haute cuisine, the country’s history is an exercise in complexity. Here’s a nutshell version of the Regency.

In the late 1600s, Louis XIV deeded the Palais-Royal to the titular head of the Orléans branch. In his will, drawn up in 1714, the Sun King appointed as Regent his nephew, Philippe, the great-uncle of the king-to-be, Louis XV. Louis XIV died in 1715 after reigning for seventy-two years. His great-grandson Louis XV was five years old. When the time for succession arrived, Philippe the Regent, reigning temporarily, installed the underage Louis XV in the Tuileries Palace several safe blocks away from his own residence. He then got down to the business of picking apart the most autocratic elements of the Sun King’s heritage. A born dealmaker, Philippe turned out to be the proverbial skilled statesman, though his heart wasn’t in the job.


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