Gastronomy is the art of using food to create happiness, wrote the English historian, sociologist and philosopher Theodore Zeldin. I’ve never ever doubted it….at least until yesterday evening and my unexpected idea to bury myself in one of the most long-lasting and fascinating cookbooks in history: De re coquinaria by Apicius. This famous gourmet, who lived in the first century, is well-known as the cooker of the Emperor Tiberius but also as the writer (even if his best-known work is in fact a compilation made by an anonymous editor in the fourth century AD) of the most complete cookery book to survive from this period. However, cookery-books seem to have been numerous in antiquity.
Some of Apicius’ personality traits are related by different sources; Athanaeus, for instance, a Greek gourmet celebrated for his Deipnosophistae, a treatise on food and food preparation written in the end of the 2nd century BC. As for the poet Martial, he wrote about the unconventional motive for Apicius the gourmand to commit suicide: “Apicius, you had spent 60 million (sesterces) on your stomach and as yet a full 10 million remained to you. You refused to endure this, as also hunger and thirst, and took poison in your final drink. Nothing more gluttonous was ever done by you, Apicius”. The Kitchen Table, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin:
So, why was I uncertain about finding culinary delight with this book? Well, let’s say that I was just not prepared for such a cuisine and it was not really in my intention to cook “wombs from sterile sows, skin, fillets, ribs and trotters” or flamingo’s tongue either. Anyway, here is a recipe that caught my attention. It is a snail one. I love snails. But wait a minute. Snails feed on milk? “Take the snails, clean with a sponge, remove the membrane so that they may come out (of their shells). Put in a vessel with the snails milk and salt for one day, for the following days add only milk, and clean away the excrements every hour. When the snails are fattened to the point they cannot get back into their shells fry them in oil”. Slightly disconcerting.
Let’s try another one…A boar recipe. Sounds good, I’m very fond of this big game. According to what I’m reading, I should boil the meat in sea-water with sprigs of laurel until it is tender. And then take off the skin. Well, I will think of it next time even if it’s a bit perplexing. Foie gras was already known by Romans, Apicius provided us with a recipe about pig’s liver fed on dried figs. Besides I should be honest and confess that lots of recipes in this book seem to be delicious and I will try them, if only I can manage to find the herbs and spices mentioned. You at least need honey, wine, pepper and liquamen, a condiment sauce used almost everywhere, a fermented fish sauce that we might nowadays replace by nuoc-mam. The most simple and easy recipe that you can find in the book is probably the following: “Meat roasted plain in the oven, sprinkled with plenty of salt. Serve with honey”. Believe me; this is worth trying with any kind of meat.
After this mise en bouche, I was wondering what I might discover in our collections about cookbooks. At the manuscript department, I’ve found some writings from the 17th century. One manuscript, bought by the library in 1994 in Stockholm at an antiquarian shop, is particularly interesting. This collection of various recipes was owned by Christina Oxenstierna (1651-1711), member of one of the most illustrious noble families of the country, and is mainly written in Swedish and German. The curious reader will find many and varied cooking and beverage recipes but also remedies, the two things being commonly gathered at this time. Lemon Sorbet, if you can understand the old Swedish:
The 17th century breaks with the Medieval Ages and the profusion of spices and sweet and sour blending, especially in France. This is the beginning of the French Grande Cuisine and its influence. In the 18th century, the French way of cooking is imported in all the great tables of Europe, Stockholm being one of them. Arthur Young (1741-1820), Englishman, is a witness of this passion and enthusiasm:
One of the most amusing circumstances of travelling into other countries is the opportunity of remarking upon the difference of customs amongst different nations in the common occurrences of life. In the art of living, the French have generally been esteemed by the rest of Europe, to have made the greatest proficiency, and their manners have been accordingly more imitated, and their customs more adopted than those of any other nation. Of their cookery, there is but one opinion; for every man in Europe, that can afford a great table, either keeps a French cook, or one instructed in the same manner. That it is far beyond our own, I have no doubt in asserting. We have about half a dozen real English dishes that exceed anything in my opinion, to be met with in France (…). It is an idle prejudice, to class roast beef among them; for there is not better beef in the world than at Paris. Large handsome pieces were almost constantly on the considerable tables I have dined at. The variety given by their cooks, to the same thing, is astonishing; they dress an hundred dishes in an hundred different ways, and most of them are excellent (…). A regular dessert with us is expected, at a considerable table only, or at a moderate one, when a formal entertainment is given; in France it is as essential to the smallest dinner as to the largest. (…) The whole nation is scrupulously neat in refusing to drink out of glasses used by other people.
As Arthur Young notice, French cooks were to be found in kitchens all around Europe. In 1741, Ulrika Lovisa Tessin, wife of the Swedish Ambassador in France, has a more modest favour to ask to her husband. After a stay in Paris, she was back in Sweden alone because the lifestyle was too expensive in Paris and at the court of Versailles. Both the count and the countess were Swedish but they were, a usual habit at this time in the European aristocracy, corresponding in the language of Molière. I’ll try to translate this 18th century French as best I can:
« I’m not satisfied at all with my housekeeper who is unable to accommodate a single piece of good food (…). My project is for you to bring me some apprentice or boy that is more affordable than great Chef, it seems to me that it won’t be wrong because with this one it is impossible to have a living soul for dinner or supper and we even told me that it’s an unobtainable good here (in Sweden) to have a housekeeper who knows how to cook.” The Bourgeois kitchen by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand:
Her husband – you can find some of his letters at the manuscript department – was ready to do anything to please the one he called “his Queen”. The couple was really in love which was not that common at that time and even surprised people at the French Court according to the testimony of Ulrika Lovisa Tessin. The count is firstly quite annoyed by the request because it is the summer and at this time of the year, all of good society leaves Paris and Versailles to go to their provincial estates. Thus, his answer is the following: “I will see to find a cook; it is as you know, the most difficult thing in the world, especially at present that everybody needs them in their Countryside. Those who stay in Paris are abysses.” However, he quickly managed to grant the wish of his wife to whom he wrote with satisfaction a month later: “Bohlin will bring you a Cook (…). I did not try him, but as long as he knows how to make a soup, a boiled lump and a stew, it is enough for us. Isn’t it my Queen? Besides, it seems to me to be kind and obliging (…). I want you to be pleased with him, otherwise he would have just come all this way to go back”.
Another tasteful option was to send young men in France to be taught at the French cuisine. We know, for instance, that the count of Creutz, Swedish Ambassador in France between 1766 and 1783, was hosting some young cooks in Paris sent to him by the count von Fersen, father of Axel von Fersen, renowned lover of the queen Marie-Antoinette.
In Sweden, the first cookbooks are adaptations of French works written by male chefs to other male chefs. And it is something paradoxical in the history of cooking. Women were traditionally taking care of the food, making in the everyday life, but chefs were men, and it is mostly they that wrote books. However, the tradition was different in Sweden where a great amount of cookbooks writers in the 18th century were actually women. I won’t go further in the historical description but I can only illustrate my words with two books sheltered at the Cultural Heritage Group…without paying any attention to the remarks of the Swedish author August Strindberg (1849-1912) that wrote, in his essay The Inferiority of Women, that cookbooks can have authority only if they are written by men.
Cajsa Warg (1703-1769) is definitely the most famous Swedish author. In 1755, she published her best-seller Hjelpreda I Hushållningen För Unga Fruentimber that can be translated to Assistant in Housekeeping for Young Women. It was indeed very common to stir together recipes and household guidance. We keep an edition from 1773 of this Swedish culinary Bible in the Hammarby collection (the attentive reader probably remembers that I’ve written an article about this collection: https://uppsalalibraryculturalheritage.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/the-hammarby-book-collection/). We also keep some writings of Anna Maria Rückerschöld (1725-1805), another Swedish author.
If cookbooks are not enough to ignite your imagination and awaken the great Cook you were surely born to be, you can also ask us to have a look at the Henriik Svanfeldt’s collection. This man (1876-1964) used to be the director and Head Sommelier of Flustret, a restaurant in Uppsala created in 1842 and still open. He collected thousands of menus from various restaurants and events and assembled them in seven massive and heavy volumes. Refined menus. A menu for the birthday anniversary of the Japanese Emperor written on silk paper. Good wine, turtle and champagne sorbet…
It is an invitation to a sensory voyage of discovery into the world of gastronomy. By reading these menus one can almost get a whiff of delectable dishes. It is to be noted that most of them are written in French. But quite often, even French won’t be able to decipher the poetic charm of the menus. Saumon gai à la vieillard d’Halmstad avec sauce capricieuse:
A delicious mystery… until the plate is finally within sight…and mouth! And don’t forget what Harriet Van Horne (1920-1998) said, “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all”.