Let them eat cake…

AntoninCaremeOkay, the quote is attributed to Marie Antoinette but it was the original “celebrity chef”, Marie-Antoine (known as Antonin) Carême, the culinary genius named in honour of the Queen, who turned the words into reality for Parisian high society. Acknowledged as the father of classical French cuisine, Carême rose literally from the gutters of Paris to be the most celebrated chef of his, or perhaps any, age.

He was born in 1784 to a poor family, perhaps the sixteenth of up to twenty-four children and he was abandoned by his parents on the streets of Paris to fend for himself when he was eight or nine years old. Luckily for him he was taken in to skivvy at a Paris chophouse and there he began to learn the trade of cooking. At 14 he was apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous patissier and from there he never looked back.

In his two years under Bailly he began to work with the head chef of one of Paris’s most renowned society figures, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord and when Talleyrand bought a large country estate in 1804 he hired Carême as his head chef. It is said that Talleyrand set Carême a test, to concoct a year’s worth of menus without repeating a dish and using solely seasonal produce. Carême passed the test easily and was hired.


Some of Carême’s creations

While working for Talleyrand, Carême also ran his own specialist pastry shop, Patisserie de la Rue de la Paix, which became famous for his beautifully crafted decorative centrepieces made out of nougat, marzipan, sugar and pastry. Even Napoleon commissioned Carême and the master chef created the Emperor’s wedding cake.

After the fall of Napoleon, Carême moved to England for three years where he was the principal chef to the Prince Regent. But the climate in London did not suite him so Carême moved back to Paris where he was hired by Baron Rothschild with whom he remained until he retired in1829. By that time he was paid an annual retainer by the Baron of 8,000 francs (equivalent to about £125,000 today) to cook at a handful of setpiece dinners.


More of Carême’s creations, inspired by his interest in architecture

From 1829 until his death in 1833, brought on early due to the years of poisoning he had been subjected to cooking over charcoal, he dedicated himself to writing and became one of the most prolific and influential cookery writers.

Not bad for a boy from the gutter.

Madame Bubbles…

veuve clicquot

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in December 1777 and was the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer and politician in Reims.  Through her father’s political nouse and careful choosing of sides the family survived the Revolution relatively unscathed and in 1798 Barbe-Nicole married  Francois Clicquot, whose family was active in textiles and wine. The young man was particularly interested in wine, and his new bride joined him in learning the business but they struggled to make it work.

In 1805, Francois Clicquot died suddenly, leaving behind a 27-year-old wife, a young daughter and a failing business. The widow Clicquot, rather than withdrawing into domesticity or finding herself another husband, instead threw herself into the business, focused on wine production and changed the company name to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. “Veuve” being the French for “widow”.

veuve-clicquot-labelThe task before her was daunting with the Napoleonic Wars raging across Europe, disrupting trade and flattening national economies. But her father-in-law believed in her and backed her with sufficient finances.

Under her management and her skill with wine, the company enhanced the production of champagne using a novel technique called riddling.



Prior to this invention the second fermentation of wine to create champagne resulted in a very sweet wine with large bubbles and sediment in the bottle from the remains of the yeast used in the fermentation. This residue resulted in the wine being cloudy. Veuve Clicquot’s technique still used the original English technique of adding additional sugar, but after this second fermentation was complete the bottles were held upside down. They were then turned a fraction each day so that the dead yeast would all gather near the cork. This is what became known as remuage (or riddling in English). Once the settling was complete, the wine near the cork was removed and topped up with fresh wine to refill the bottle.

The widow’s commercial breakthrough came in 1814, ironically with the defeat of France by the allied forces ranged against her. She managed to ship her 1811 vintage, regarded as the first truly modern champagne, to St. Petersburg where it was an immediate hit and opened the door to the Russian market which Veuve Clicquot would dominate for the next 50 years. Pushkin, Chekhov and Gogol all praised her champagne.

The company went from strength to strength. By the 1820s Veuve Clicquot was exporting 175,000 bottles of champagne a year. By the time of her death in 1866 the widow’s house was the largest champagne producer in the world. Now the company has a revenue of over one billion pounds a year.

By way of a footnote, in 2010, diver Christian Ekstrom discovered 46 bottles of Veuve Clicquot near the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. The bottles had been lost en route to Russia, dated back to 1825-1830 and were likely made by the widow. They were remarkably well preserved due to the dark and cold of the seabed and one of the bottles was auctioned in 2011, fetching €30,000 which was a new record for a bottle of champagne at auction.

auction bottle

The most expensive bottle of champagne in history

One other bottle was chemically analysed and showed some interesting results. The level of sugar was much higher than modern champagne. There were also much higher levels of salt, iron, lead, copper, and arsenic(!) compared with modern vintages. The iron probably came from nails used in the wine barrels, and the lead leached from brass valve fittings of the winemaking equipment. It is believed the arsenic and copper originated from antiquated pesticide applied to the grapes.