Viviane Mesqui: “Under the Ancien Régime, there were New Years Eve parties all year round”

La Croix: For the 280 years of the Manufacture de Sèvres and the 10 years of the classification of the “gastronomic meal of the French” as a UNESCO heritage site, the Musée de Sèvres exhibits the history of this tradition. We learn the origin of our “New Year’s Eve” …

Viviane Mesqui: The “medianoche”, or New Year’s Eve, was the meal rich in meat taken at midnight, to celebrate the transition from a lean day to a fat day. It was not reserved at the end of the year, because the liturgical calendar imposed many lean days. At the court of Louis XIV, “New Year’s Eve” was even a very popular entertainment.

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From the Middle Ages, the “French service” appeared among the elite. What does it look like ?

VM: It is a choreography, a ballet of servants bringing dishes: first starters and “soups”, soups or stews cooked in a “pot”, then “roasts”, roast meats, until the end. of “fruit”. Exceptional meals have up to eight courses!

Viviane Mesqui:

Each guest picks from the dishes within their reach, by hand, or using a knife or a small fork that is not yet in their mouths. And he drinks from a goblet, presented on a tray by a servant.

Cutlery, like the individual plate, do not become essential until much later?

VM: The plate made its appearance in the Renaissance, the fork at the court of Henri III, but it was not really adopted until the middle of the 18th century.e century. Glass forests will not bloom on our festive tables until the 19th century.e century!

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If the notion of table service emerged in the Renaissance, it was more a question of ceremonial pieces that were not always utilitarian. As for the gold-plated, luxurious nave, it houses the damp towel with which the king washes his hands. This object, in the shape of a vessel, will give our word “dishes”.

What flavors were popular in the Middle Ages?

VM: France practices very spicy, tangy European cuisine. We drink white or clairet wine, served chilled. During the Renaissance, sugar invaded everything, even meats and vegetables. It was not until the XVIIe century that French gastronomy asserts itself with a pronounced taste for butter, the decline of spices in favor of bouquet garni.

Viviane Mesqui:

Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie, at the King’s Potager, is developing the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Tea, coffee and chocolate are all the rage in the 18th centurye century. Gastronomic literature developed and new recipes developed at court were immediately taken up by the first Parisian caterers.

Louis XIV’s table then impresses all of Europe?

VM: It marks a certain peak of tableware. The services are sophisticated, with decorative elements to present the salt shaker, the oil cruet, the spices. Every day in Versailles, the king has dinner alone at the Grand Couvert, a moment of theatricalization of power.

Viviane Mesqui:

The XVIIIe century is infatuated with enormous terrines created by the earthenware factories of Strasbourg or Lunéville, in the shape of lettuce, turkey, boar head, witnesses of the importance of hunting in the entertainment of the nobles. Little by little, more intimate “fine dinners” appear, where the label is lightened.

Your catalog speaks of “symbolic waste in a society which has not wiped out food shortages”…

VM: The opulence of these meals is up to the rank of the master of the house. Many dishes leave barely touched but, in reality, nothing is lost. They then feed all the domestic staff. In Versailles, under Louis XV, the last remains are even sold.

Did “French service” disappear during the Revolution?

VM: It continued until under Napoleon III for official meals, but was gradually replaced by the “Russian service”, where all the guests eat the same dishes, brought one after the other. With industrialization, table services and goldsmith’s work became accessible to a wider population. The dining room wins over bourgeois interiors. Parisian restaurants are famous throughout Europe. And the hours change.

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Lunch (breaking the fast), taken on awakening until the 17th centurye century, is postponed to 12 or 1 p.m. in the XIXe century. The dinner, taken at 2 or 3 pm, supplants the supper that Louis XIV took… at 10 pm.

You show how France has also developed a whole gastro-diplomacy …

VM: Louis XV and Louis XVI offered services in Sèvres porcelain to the courts of Spain, Italy, Marie-Thérèse of Austria, promoting the reputation of the manufacture. Catherine II will order a service with a celestial blue background of 706 pieces from her!

We also exhibit the “Especially the scarf game”, a jewel of Art Nouveau, offered in 1901 to Tsar Nicolas II. Today, contemporary creations by Sèvres are offered as diplomatic gifts, such as ” cloak vase »By Matali Crasset. And the Elysée table remains the center of influence for these arts and our gastronomy.


A postponed opening

A confined exhibition. Scheduled from November 18, 2020 to June 6, 2021, the exhibition
will open in January if government orders allow.

A festive catalog. Written by a series of historians of epular culture, as well as Viviane Mesqui, Anaïs Boucher, curators of the exhibition, the catalog contains a
mine of information on the history of French meals, illustrated by nearly 200 works. Ed. Gourcuff Gradenigo, 255 p., € 39.


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