Gatherings & Celebrations: A Formal Dinner Party in the Loire Valley - #106

The Loire is the longest river in France and people have been living on its banks since the Stone Age.  The ancient Romans had a number of settlements in the area, and during the 400s locals of importance began turning the old Roman buildings into fortified strongholds. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Members of an important local family would take up residence inside.  It became the agricultural center of the area and if the lord was important enough, he would mint the local currency here.  But the single most significant function of the structure was as a place where everybody could come and take refuge when the bad guys attacked.

The baddest of the bad guys were the Vikings, and they came through during the 800s.  Building a defensive tower was a right that had belonged only to the King, but the lords of the Loire decided to skip over that ruling and construct the strongest fortifications that they could.  Nothing like finding out that the Vikings would Soon Be Coming To A Neighborhood Near You to make you want to build a fortified tower.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For hundreds of years, building yourself a defensive castle was the thing to do.  An expert would come along and help you design something that met your own very special needs.  Stone walls, high tower, reinforced turrets.  You needed a great hall, places for your soldiers and servants, storerooms, stables... You wanted all the basics in one building that was difficult to attack, yet easy to defend.

During the 1300s, however, things began to change.  Construction for conflict was becoming unimportant, while elements of comfort were becoming more important.  Less war meant more windows.  By the 1500s, sieges were out and sofas were in.  The fortified castle had become a French chateau.  Of course, you’d still build a moat now and then, but it was only there to reflect the beauty and elegance of your chateau.  By that point in the history of France, what kept people out of your castle was not a stone wall or a moat; what kept them out was their lack of status in your social set.

This is the Chateau Sully-sur-Loire.    It’s unusual because in it you can see the two distinct parts that illustrate the shift from conflict to comfort.  The older structure dates from the 1300s and was built as a fortress.  The wing that was added in the 1600s was clearly designed for pleasure.  The old section consists of three huge rooms that give you a snapshot of what life was like in the Middle Ages.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The real action took place in the giant halls. At the time, furniture was mostly made up of chests.  You stored things in them, and you sat on ‘em.  When it was time for a meal, trestles would come in, boards would go on top, cloth and service on top of the boards.  After the meals, the trestles and the boards would go away, and it became a sleeping area.  The Lord and his Lady may have had a private room but everybody else slept in the center... as many as twelve to a bed.  The twelve-to-a-bed thing wasn’t because they were such a close family -- it was about keeping warm.

The tapestries were also there to keep out the cold and to do a little room dividing.  The roof is considered to be one of the most valuable architectural elements of the period.  It’s over six hundred years old and was made in the shape of a boat’s keel.  The timbers that were used to make the roof were soaked for several months, then slowly dried, heated and bent.  I was told that it took fifty years to complete the process, but no one could tell me if the lord of the chateau had been warned in advance that the roof was gonna take fifty years or he just had a contractor that was running late.

And then there’s the 17th Century wing, which undoubtedly shows the influence of an early Martha Stewart.  Nice painted ceilings.  No more exposed construction.  Wood-paneled floors.  It’s a good thing.

The Loire was on its way to becoming the heartland of France.  For many years it was the center of the royal court, and when the court moved to Paris it still kept the Loire as its residence in the country.  As a matter of fact, when most people think about the traditional romantic beauty of a French village or the French countryside, the images that come to mind are pictures from the Loire.

This is the town of Gien, and it was built during the 1400s.  Almost everything about it, from the geometric pattern of the bricks used in the chateau... to the flower-lined streets... are typical of the Loire.  And this is Jean-Pierre Hurtiger, the Mayor.

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  The castle was built in the fourteenth century, and the daughter of Louis XI came here to live peacefully, because France was then going through another war, and she found the right place -- a quiet place, a peaceful place.

BURT WOLF:   It’s certainly that way now.

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  Yes, we try to keep it, even though we went through the last war, and the whole town was destroyed -- and a miracle happened at the castle.  After the bombing, a fire started, and a big storm, a rainstorm came down to stop the fire. 

BURT WOLF:   Somebody wanted it to be here.

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  That’s right; somebody wanted Gien to live peacefully.  That’s what we are trying to do still today, and I hope that everyone will come around to share peace with us.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, there’s a pharmacy; we can go in and have our mushrooms checked.

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  That’s right, we will go and ask the pharmacist if our mushrooms are the good ones.

BURT WOLF:   So whenever I pick mushrooms here, I can just go into the pharmacy, show him what I’ve picked, and they’ll tell me what’s good to eat and what’s dangerous.

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  That’s right, but --

BURT WOLF:   What a nice service!

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  -- how to double-check, because if they’re bad they won’t see you again.  [laughter]

BURT WOLF:   I wonder who the first person was that had the sense of adventure to pick and eat a mushroom?

JEAN-PIERRE HURTIGER:  I guess he picked the wrong one; that’s why we don’t know him.  [big laughter]

The Loire is where the great cooking of France got started.  It’s the place where many of the most classic of French dishes became part of the national cuisine, and eventually the cooking of many of the most respected restaurants around the world.  When you look at the menu of a traditional French restaurant in Paris, or London or New York, very often the dishes that are being described are dishes that began in the Loire.

For the most part, the recipes of this region produce straightforward, down-to-earth home cooking.  The talents of the cooks, however, have made the dishes famous.  One of their most traditional recipes is for noisette de porc aux pruneaux, roast pork with prunes. Simple idea, but when it’s done well it’s a knockout.

For centuries the noble families of France have come to this region to hunt. The woods are filled with wildlife. The Loire is clearly the national center for great game.  And the rivers supply top-quality fish. There’s pike and shad, fresh water salmon, carp, trout, eels, even crawfish.  The poultry is excellent and often prepared in what is called a fricasse.  The chicken is cut into parts and sautéed with an assortment of vegetables.  When it comes to baking, the specialties are fruit tarts and macaroons.

The Loire is also well-known for its charcuterie.  Charcuterie is a word that traditionally refers to prepared pork products.  But here it’s used to describe all sorts of sausages, cured meat recipes and pates

Many of the recipes include wine as an essential ingredient.  Coq au vin, chicken cooked in wine, which may well be the most widely-exported French recipe, is a specialty of the Loire.  Gerard Salle, one of the outstanding chefs of Paris, was born in the Loire, and regularly presents the traditional dishes of his native district.  Here’s his take on coq au vin.

Gerard starts by cutting a chicken into pieces that are all about the same size.  The uniformity of the chicken pieces makes life more convenient for each of the people at dinner, and it appeals to the French sense of justice.  After all, the national motto is “liberty, fraternity and equality.” If everyone gets an equal portion of free-range chicken the meal is more politically correct.  A little salt and pepper goes on and the chicken is set to rest in a deep-sided dish. 

Then a marinade goes on that is made from red wine, rosemary, bay leaves and celery leaves.  The chicken rests in the wine marinade for twenty-four hours.  At which point the cooking begins.

A few tablespoons of oil are heated in a saucepan.  The chicken pieces are removed from the marinade and placed into the pan, where they are browned on all sides.  That takes about ten minutes.   Then a few tablespoons of flour are added. The flour forms a liaison with the oil in the pan and becomes the basis for the sauce.  A little turning.  A little cooking, and the marinade is poured in.  Additional wine is added until all the ingredients are covered.  A cover goes on the pot, and it’s into a 375 degree oven for an hour. 

When it comes out of the oven, the chicken is transferred to a shiny copper sauté pan, which will become the serving dish that is brought to the table. Some sautéed baby onions are added, plus some sautéed mushrooms.  The sauce is poured on.   Finally, a few pieces of toast that have been cut into heart shapes have their tips dipped into the sauce and then into chopped parsley.  They are set, point side up, into the pan and everything is ready to serve.  Those little hearts, by the way, are purely optional.

Gerard is the executive chef at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, which is situated in the middle of Paris, on the Avenue Montagne, which is where many of the great fashion houses of France are located.  And the hotel itself is pretty fashionable.  It was originally opened in 1911 and has been able to maintain its classic beauty ever since.

The main restaurant is Le Regence.  It opened in 1937, and remains the place to see, be seen, and enjoy Gerard’s cooking -- which today includes a dessert of mini-savarin cakes with a vanilla sauce.

Two cups of flour are mixed together with two tablespoons of sugar and two eggs.  Two-thirds of a cup of milk, mixed with two teaspoons of active dry yeast, is blended in.  Then the batter is left to rest for twenty minutes.  At which point it is poured into mini savarin molds and set to rise for another hour.  Then they go into a three hundred and fifty degree Fahrenheit oven for fifteen minutes of baking.  When the savarins come out of the oven they go into a syrup, which is made from water, vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, anise, coriander, orange peel, and lemon peel.  They soak there for thirty minutes.  Then the savarins are placed into individual soup bowls, a strip of vanilla bean is laid in, and then the syrup and a little ice cream.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   And finally, the Loire may be responsible for the high quality of the wines of France.  There’s an ancient legend about a local monastery where the young leaves of the vines were eaten by farm animals that had escaped from the stable.  The monks thought that the winery had been destroyed.  But the reality was that the next year, the vines that had lost the most leaves gave the best grapes.  The monks had discovered pruning. Or was it Divine Intervention?

The Loire river runs through France in a strip that covers over six hundred miles.  And from one end to the other, the hillsides that build up from the banks are used for the growing of wine grapes.  Most of those grapes are used to produce white wine.  In the middle of the district, in Touraine and Anjou, the winemakers make sweet wine.  At both ends of the region, the winemakers make dry wines -- Muscadet in the west, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the east.

This is the eastern winemaking area of Pouilly-Sur-Loire and, as you might expect, it has a Chateau.  In this case it is the Chateau du Nozet... a parcel of land that has been growing wine grapes for over six hundred years.  And since 1792 it has belonged to the family of Baron Patrick De Ladoucette.  Now, in North America we have a rather limited knowledge of royal titles.  We all know that Elvis is the King, Basie was a Count.  There was a Duke of Earl, and for a while we had Prince.  But I’m not quite sure what a Baron is.

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  Well, it depends on which days.  In the 1100s, when my family was first entitled, the title of Baron meant you were very close to the king.  Today it means a different story; it means you have been carrying along a very long tradition of nobility, and you must find a way to pass it through.  The way I found has been to try and make the best white wine in the world.

BURT WOLF:   You’d better -- your family name’s on every bottle.

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  That’s right.  So here we have been cultivating for centuries the savignon blanc, and this is the grape that we use to make our Ladoucette pouilly fume and sancerre.

BURT WOLF:   How do you know when to pick the grapes?

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  We do tests for about a month, and then we see the evolution of the sugars and the acidities, and when we have the best balance, then we start the crop.  Sugar is not everything.  If you are in a very, very warm climate, you will have the sugars all the time, but you will miss the acidity.  When you have a cooler climate, then you will miss sometimes some sugar, and you will have the right acidity.  So you always have to get to a compromise where you get to the best wine.  But also it depends which style of wine you want to do.  If you want to do a wine that’s very rich, very big, then with plenty of sun you’ll have it all the time.  But if you wanted to do something a little more subtle, which sometimes will have a little more finesse, then it’s a good balance between the acidity and the alcohol.  . . .  So there’s an interesting story about this staircase; it has been carved by our own people on the estate, as well as the stones come from the estate itself.  All the woods and the panellings and everything are in the same way -- they have been made from the woods from the estate and they have been panelled and carved by our own people as well.

BURT WOLF:   It’s a homemade chateau!

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  Yes, exactly, a make-it-yourself!

BURT WOLF:   Does it come in a little kit, with numbers...?

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  Yeah, “Number one, number two...”  So there are three floors, three main floors, and this staircase leads to seventy rooms.

BURT WOLF:   Do you know where all seventy are?

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  Oh yeah, sure.  Sure, because we’ve been restoring them over the years...   . . .  Burt, this is your room.  Take your time, relax.  Dinner will be at eight.

BURT WOLF:   Dinner at eight!


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Thank you.  Good -- because the real reason I came to the Chateau was to take a look at the rituals that are part of a formal dinner -- to find out what it is we do at a structured meal, and why we do it.  And this is definitely the place to take a look.

Patrick’s ancestors moved into this part of France at the time when the nobles were settling into the rituals that are now considered to be the standard for polite behavior at dinner.

At a formal meal, the host or hostess is expected to have a seating plan.  The precise position of each guest at the table should be marked with a card.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The kitchen at the Chateau du Nozet, like all kitchens of noble households constructed during this period, are far away from the dining room, downstairs.  As a result the food makes quite a trip to the table. 

When Louis XIV was King of France and living at his little place in Versailles, his food had to travel for a quarter of a mile to get from the kitchen to his table.  Covers were put on the dishes to help hold some of the warmth.  They were also on to help prevent anyone from adding a little poison during the trip. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The end result is that the poor king actually never had a hot meal.  Things, however, are better here -- it’s only fifty yards from the top of the stove to the top of the table.

The French royal court was not only a difficult place to get a hot meal -- it was a difficult place in general.  The king had gathered all the nobles into one spot and set up his own school of manners, and it had an amazing impact on everyone’s lifestyle.  In the same way that the designers of the chateaux shifted their interest from armies to amenities, the route to power amongst the nobles shifted from muscles to manners.  Combat was out, courtliness was in.  The king actually made table manners a political issue.     If he liked your manners, you got to sit next to him.  The tax collector would notice the power of your new seat and reduce his demands accordingly.  The importance of the new table manners spread throughout the noble houses of France, and eventually throughout Europe.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, whenever food comes to the table on a big tray like that, it’s gonna come from the left, because most people are right-handed.  And it’s a lot easier to reach with your right hand and put it there than to try and reach across to the other side.  It’s just... logic.

Wherever you look at a formal dinner, you see the influence of the French.  It was to the French Cardinal Richelieu, arch-enemy of The Three Musketeers, that we owe the blunt-ended table knife.  Richelieu saw a guest at one of his dinner parties picking his teeth with the point of a knife.  Richelieu was so upset by it that he ordered all the knives in his household to have their points ground down to a round end.  Eventually a law was passed making it illegal for French knife manufacturers to produce dinner knives with points.  The only exception was the “steak knife.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Up until the 1800s, formal meals were served in a style called a la francaise, “the French style.” It was the same system that had been used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  When you got to the table, the food was already there -- an enormous amount had been laid down in the center of the table.  Meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits, sweets -- everything you could imagine.  You took whatever you wanted.  After a while, it was cleared away, a new tablecloth was put on... and another round of food!  Same thing -- meat, fish, poultry, sweets, vegetables, fruits -- but different ones.  This went on for three or four courses.

Then in the early years of the 1800s, a Russian Prince by the name of Kourakin introduced an entirely new way of serving a formal dinner.  Everyone sat down at the table and the food was brought to them one course at a time.  It became known as feasting a la russe, “in the Russian style.” And it is that form that we are still using.  Service a la russe required lots of servants to handle the last minute prep and presentations and the rich liked that, but it deprived them of the pleasure of showing their great collections of valuable dishes.  They solved that problem with display areas against the walls of the room.  Nice touch.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  You’ll notice that everybody who lives in Europe is using their knife and their fork this way -- they hold their fork in their left hand and they keep it there.  They cut whatever they’re going to cut, with their right hand, and then they eat it with the fork in their left hand.  In the United States, we’ve done things differently.  We cut it, and then shift everything to our right hand, and eat it that way.  Well, that was the original way, and people did that until the 1860s, 70s, 80s.  And at that point, everybody became concerned about knives.  They didn’t like knives at the table, and they thought the less you used the knife, the more polite it was.  So they put the knife down as soon as they could, and switched the fork to their right hand because they were right-handed.  About 1880, the English decided that there was a better way to do that, and that would be to keep the fork in their left hand.  And the reason they did that is because it’s much harder to eat with your fork in your left hand; you have to kind of balance everything on the edge of the fork, and it’s backwards -- you’re not using it like a spoon.  That’s more difficult -- and we always think that the more difficult it is to do something, the more “mannerly” it is.  So the English started this, everybody in Europe accepted it, but the Americans said “No -- we’re sticking with the old way.  We’re gonna take the fork and shift it over to the right hand.”  And we never adjusted to the new system.  And this is the actual old way of eating.

The French word desservie means “to clear the table,” and that is where our word “dessert” comes from.  We clear the table and serve our sweet endings.

BARON PATRICK DE LADOUCETTE:  Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to come with me for a little cup of coffee and a little cognac.

These days, when we rise from the table at the end of a meal we’re supposed to leave our napkins loosely folded on the table, never on the chair.  There’s an old European superstition that a guest who leaves his napkin on the chair will never come to dinner again.  The slightly unfolded napkin shows that you know that your host is going to wash the napkin before it is given to someone else to use.  If I folded it very neatly it would be a signal that I intended to stay for another meal.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   That’s a look at a formal dinner -- but it’s a modern formal dinner.  Two hundred years ago, when the Baron’s family first started giving formal dinners in this chateau, they were much more formal.  And the formality was used to keep people apart.  During the last two centuries, there has been a big move towards informality, in the hope that the informality will bring us all back together again.  It is a revolutionary idea -- even for France.  And for more revolutionary ideas, please join us next time as we travel around the world looking at Gatherings and Celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.