Review: Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, by Ian Kelly

Subtitled A biography with recipes, this is the biography of Marie-Antoine Carême, a man from extremely poverty-stricken origins who grew to become a celebrity chef – he cooked, at one time or another, for Napoleon, for the Prince Regent, for the Tsar and for the Rothschilds.  He helped bring into fashion the form of dinner party we know today, with courses following one another (service à la Russe), rather than having nearly everything served simultaneously, with only a handful of dishes ‘removed’ (service à la française).

Carême was also one of the first people to write down his recipes in the style we expect today – with quantities listed next to the ingredients, as well as detailed methods.  Previously to this era (which was the late 18th to early 19th century, incidentally), recipes tended to assume that any competent cook would not need more than a list of ingredients and a brief mention of what to do with them.  I don’t know about you, but I need more help than that.

Most interestingly of all, some of his recipes are still in use today.  Take, for example, his recipe for Béchamel sauce, which contains half an ounce of butter, two tablespoons of flour, half a pint of milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, bouquet garni, and a shallot stuck with a clove (removed before serving).    These ingredients and proportions are not at all far from what I have in my Margaret Fulton cookbook (one of the Bibles of Australian cookery): 30g butter, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 1/4 cups of milk, 1 bay leaf, one onion (removed before serving), salt and pepper.  The proportions are not all that different, even accounting for Carême’s unique system of measurements (which, incidentally, do not match anything in my conversion tables), and the ingredients virtually identical.

The main thing that strikes me in reading this book was how different cooking was, and particularly how hard it was.  The hours were long – 12-18 hours per day, because you had to do so much preparation before you could even start.  If Carême wanted to make jellies, he would have to start by making his own isinglass (a form of gelatine from fishbones), and if he wanted his toffee to set, he could control his climate by opening or shutting the windows, or getting someone to turn on the indoor fountains.

Naturally, one made one’s own bread, stocks, sauces and pièces montées (the huge confections of toffee, meringues, marzipan, cream and cake that were the centrepiece of any meal), and all of this had to be made as close to serving as possible, because it wouldn’t keep.  Freezing and chilling ingredients required blocks of ice which melted rapidly in warm weather, and cooking was done over coal, the fumes of which were toxic and shortened the chef’s lifespan.  And this was simply accepted – Carême himself died before he was fifty.

“Our work destroys us,” he wrote, three years before he died. “Our only duty, after cooking, is to record and publish, or if not we will suffer such regrets”.

Of all the things that struck me in reading this book, this absolute acceptance that a career as a cook would mean a slow and early death was the most alien to me.  I love cooking, and I love feeding people, but enough to shorten my lifespan by twenty or thirty years?

And then you have the hair-raising descriptions of how to check whether one’s sugar is sufficiently caramelised to be used in spun sugar edifices.  Apparently it’s quite straightforward, and requires no technology at all; you simply plunge your hand into a bowl of ice to chill it thoroughly, then plunge it into the boiling toffee, then immediately into cold water, which will make it come off your finger.  If it cracks, it’s ready.  Simple!

Authentic as it may be, that’s one method I will not be trying in my home kitchen.  I gather that Carême himself treated this as theatre as well as a practical measure.  Even so, I’m not quite that much of a risk-taker.

Magnificent though he was as a cook, it seems that Carême’s personality left a little to be desired.  He commanded stupendously high salaries, but still insisted on his perqs, such as the right to sell unused or uneaten ingredients or foods to tradesmen – undermining the ability of lesser-paid kitchen staff to do likewise.  And he seems to have been significantly fonder of his apprentice than of the daughter who married the apprentice.

And did I mention he wrote cookbooks?  This biography is ornamented with his original recipes in every chapter, as well as a more extended recipe section at the end.  I have to confess, I haven’t tried any of them yet – I found the book more exciting as an immersion in the life of a very successful chef in the 19th century than as a recipe book, though I am tempted to try his strawberry soufflé.  And maybe his apple meringues.  The soufflé for the Rothschilds that contains gold leaf, however, I’ll probably skip.  And I have no interest in cooking anything involving rooster testicles.

Incidentally, that was another interesting thing to note in reading the book.  There are pages and pages of menus for major events he cooked for, and hardly a vegetable in sight.  Dinner party food, at least, was very meat-heavy, with vegetables merely a garnish, or occasionally something to put in soups.  After a page or two of these menus I start craving salad in a big way.

All in all, this is a great book to read if you have an interest in the history of cooking.  The style is engaging – it’s a very easy read – and the examples of menus and recipes really add flavour (sorry) to the biography.  The sad news is that it seems to be out of print – though there seem to be a fair number of second-hand copies floating around at Amazon and such.  Your library might have it too.  I definitely recommend it as an entertaining and educational read.

Edit: I am informed by the author that Cooking for Kings is not actually out of print, just in between print runs.  Look for it at The Book Depository or on Amazon – and I’ll try to let you know when it’s available again.

And while I trust this food blog won’t destroy me, there is something to be said for the rest of Carême’s motto:

Our only duty, after cooking, is to record and publish, or if not we will suffer such regrets.

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5 comments for “Review: Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, by Ian Kelly

  1. Heath
    May 14, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Saw some rooster testicles on Heston Blumenthal’s show the other night – they’re ENORMOUS.

    • May 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm

      I really need to see some Heston Blumenthal – he always manages to be on when I’m out at choir.

  2. May 16, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Dear Cate -Thank you for your thoughts on my Careme biography from a few years back (with recipes!) which were sent to me via a friend in New York. It was a joy to write as to research…I’d only want to add that it is not out of print in the USA or in deed the UK but from time to time is between reprints as I understand. The hardback cannot be had, but there is a US paperback with new preface by Anthony Bourdain. Congratulations on a truly beautiful website – worthy of its subject: food!
    Ian K

    • May 16, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      Dear Ian,

      How lovely of you to come and comment! I very much enjoyed your biography of Carème, and am glad to hear it’s still available around the place – I couldn’t find it in print on Amazon or The Book Depository, but will keep an eye out for the next edition and link accordingly (I’ve had a few friends ask after the book, so they will be very happy to hear this too!).



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