Dining at Versailles: food at the time of the French royalty

Jil Hogan
Soup, like L'Oille, was popular in France in the 16th Century.
Soup, like L'Oille, was popular in France in the 16th Century. Photo: Atelier Mai 98

To be invited to a feast at the Palace of Versailles in the days of French royalty was quite a prestigious honour - but that didn't mean you got to eat. Instead, you got to stand in a crowd and watch.

"The king ate in front of an audience - so you weren't actually invited to eat with the king, you were invited to watch the king eat," says the National Gallery of Australia curator Simeran Maxwell.

"So the king would eat and then his close members of the royal family would also be allowed at the table. Depending on your position you would be further and further back. And you would either be allowed to sit on something or you would have to stand."

But the food was in abundance, unsurprising given the opulence of the French palace. Meals included courses upon courses upon courses - a dinner set for what was considered a full French-style dinner contained 283 pieces for about 24 people.

"From the 16th century, soup was usually the traditional thing that started a meal. So on the menu we have for Louis XV [in the Versailles: Treasures of the Palace exhibition], he'd start his meal with four different types of soup. You didn't just get one, you got a lot," says Maxwell. 

"Then you would have your entrees, and then a sort of pause which would include three or four other dishes, then you would have roast meat and that was traditionally served plain, spit roasted and sauces and salads and sides would come as separate courses. Then you would finish with what we would call dessert."

"They wouldn't necessarily eat everything but they would partake in some of everything. So in a course of a meal like this, you could be expected to try 20 to 30 dishes." 

It was in fact food that not only played a part in the story of how the palace of Versailles came to be, but also in the French family's downfall. It all started Louis XIV was invited to his finance minister's estate for a feast, and he noticed something a bit fishy.

"He suddenly realised that this man had been siphoning money from his pocket creating this enormous estate - so he put him in jail and took his gardener, his architect, his painter and also his chef and so that starts the story of Versailles," says Maxwell.

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"And then the revolution occurred. And it was not just because of the lack of bread and salt, but food again played a real contributing factor in the downfall of the royal family."

These days the palace is home to chef Alain Ducasse's Ore restaurant. The elegant French contemporary café by day and private function restaurant by night sits in the renovated pavillon Dufour, with a menu that speaks to what would have been available at the time of the kings.

You can recreate some of that French grandeur at home with this recipe from a private function  at Ducasse's Ore restaurant.

Recipe: Herb and leaf "Oille" from Ore – Ducasse au château de Versailles

The genuine Oille was a kind of soup served as amuse-bouche. It was originally made with meat; at Ore – Ducasse au château de Versailles, it is vegetable to make it lighter. The name of this dish conforms to the Choisy menus, dating from the mid-18th century.

Serves 4

Lettuce purée:

•    1 head of lettuce                

•    60g baby spinach    

•    ¼ sweet onion                

•    1 unpeeled clove of garlic

•    1 bunch of parsley        

•    2 tsp. olive oil            

•    20g unsalted butter                

Royale:

•    50g heavy cream        

•    50g unskimmed milk                

•    1 whole egg            

•    180g lettuce purée            

Watercress condiment:

•    1 bunch of pepper watercress 

•    40g baby spinach        

•    1 clove of garlic         

•    1 tbs. olive oil                 

•    10g butter                 

•    lemon juice (to taste)             

•    chicken white stock (to taste)            

Broth:

•    2 deboned chicken thighs 

•    1 tsp. olive oil     

•    1 tsp. butter        

•    1 tsp. black pepper corns    

•    3 green cardamom seeds            

•    1 star aniseed            

•    1 tsp. fennel seed            

•    1 shallot

•    50g ginger                 

•    200g chanterelle mushrooms    

•    1 lemongrass stem        

•    2 bunch of chervil             

•    1 bunch tarragon        

•    1 bunch flat-leaf parsley            

•    1 litre mineral water    

•    1 bird's eye chili    

•    ½ lime    

•    juice from ½ lime        

•    olive oil (to taste)

•    4 gold leaves   

Methode            

Lettuce Royale:

Wash the lettuce, remove leaves and cut in strips.

Place a cast iron pan over the heat, add the olive oil and then the butter, sauté the onion and garlic still in its peel, add the lettuce and cook very quickly. When cooked, add the baby spinach leaves and the parsley.

Cook then immediately place on ice.

Once cooled, press through a cloth, reserve the cooking juice to add to the broth.

Using a blender, mix the lettuce puree with the milk, cream and eggs.

Adjust the seasoning and mix all the ingredients together. Filter through a conical sieve and set aside in a cool place for at least 3h.

Watercress condiment:

Heat another pan, add the olive oil, then the unsalted butter. Once the colour turns nutty brown, place the watercress and the baby spinach leaves quickly, then deglaze with a little white stock.

Cook quickly and place on ice.

Using a blender, mix everything with a little olive oil, a clove of garlic cooked in water 10 minutes, relax the purée with some of the white stock or water to obtain a supple and light green watercress purée, then set aside. 

The broth:

Using an average size cast iron skillet, add the olive oil and sauté the boneless chicken thighs without colouring them too much.

Once golden in colour, add the butter followed by the pepper and the other spices (Cardamom, star aniseed, fennel).

Roast, then add the sliced shallot, ½ stick of lemongrass and ginger cut into pieces, continue to colour on the heat.

Add the chanterelles. Deglaze the pan with mineral water.

Bring to a boil, then skim and cook slowly for at least 1h30.

Add the chopped herbs (chervil, tarragon, parsley), the remaining lemongrass, a bird's eye chili, cover with a damp cloth and reduce to 2/3. At the end of the cooling time, add the lime zest and infuse for 10 minutes.

Filter through a conical sieve and set aside.

Finishing touches:    

In the bowls that will be placed in a bain-marie, add a small ladle of the Royale, cover with cooking film and cook in a 90° oven for 25 minutes.

In the meantime, cool the watercress condiment, adding a dash of lemon juice. 

Heat the oille, add a dash of olive oil, make an emulsion and a dash of lemon juice. 

Place a spoonful of watercress condiment on the warm Royale. 

Serve with the hot broth on the side, to pour over at the last moment. 

Versailles: Treasures from the Palace is on at the National Gallery of Australia until 17 April.