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Cornet (history of menus)

The Cornet and Its Menus

We have been blessed with some timely and generous assistance in tracing the origins of the very center-pieces of the Cornet dinners, namely the menus. These large-format menus are significant not only because of the exquisite lithography. Part of the lost art they convey also pertains to the fine cuisine. They testify to what the chefs prepared, and in which order the dishes were served. They honor a President, and in honor of the dinner each individual Cornet member was presented with a menu. Yet, without the help of two experts in the field of dinner menus, Daniel Rogov and Nicole Peyrafitte, it would have been difficult to understand these menus as a continuation and elaboration of a menu tradition which, in fact, originated in France. Here, with their help, we take a look at the origin and development of the menu and, in the appendix, provide an even closer look at one of our own menus, that from the 164th dinner, presided over by Fernand Chapsal. 

According to Daniel Rogov, “until the 19th century, [the menu] was meant as a working list, instructions to the kitchen staff about what dishes to prepare and in what order they were to be served at a given meal.” The first rule of order, of beginning with a salad, seems to have begun as early as the 15th century. Again, Rogov tells us: “The Florentine humanist and philosopher, Bartolomeo Sacchi, wrote a classic treatise showing how menus should be constructed. He suggested that meals be introduced with light, delicate dishes such as salads, raw vegetables dressed with olive oil and vinegar, cooked vegetables, fruits….”

However healthy and humble their origins were, it seems that at the end of the Renaissance, such dinners had begun to be orgies of pleasure, and that guests were not generally inclined, or allowed, to refuse anything that was offered:  

One 18th century menu prepared by an anonymous chef for the King of Piedmont listed eight courses, each consisting of at least six different dishes. In addition to eight soups, fourteen roasts, and twelve salads it listed sixteen different desserts. The oddest part of all this is that diners were given no choice in what they were served. Every diner was expected to sample at least a little bit of every dish put on the table. 

And yet for all the variety these privileged diners were offered, there was little variation in the meals served to wayfarers in public places, and the menus themselves still seemed to belong solely to the domain of the cook:  

No matter how plain or fancy these places were . . . every diner was given exactly the same thing to eat. If there were menus in such establishments, they were hung over the working stations in the kitchen and were solely for the purpose of the cooks. In most such inns, not even the waiters knew what the dinner would consist of until they were given the various dishes to bring to the table. 

Menus did not become public knowledge until the menus or bills of fare “originated in France towards the end of the 18th century, when owners of inns and the first true restaurants decided that diners should have the right to choose the dishes that most pleased them.” Chefs at prestigious restaurants adopted the habit of placing large posters called ‘escriteau’ near the entrances of their restaurants, and on these were written the names, and sometimes descriptions, of the dishes provided by the establishment.” 

It took a while before the bills of fare evolved from their descriptive or advertising function to acquire the more personal touches we shall see in the Cornet: “By 1850 it was considered essential that important guests be given their own menus. The most famous of these is probably from the meal served on June 7, 1867 at the Cafe Anglais. The diners were Czar Alexander II, the future Czar Alexander III and the King of Prussia and the meal has come to be known as "The Dinner of the Three Emperors." 

With such noble intentions and aspirations it is not surprising that it was not long before restaurants and artists began getting in on the act: 

During the last half of the 19th century, many restaurants outdid each other in trying to make their menus artistic and elaborate. The Tour d'Argent inaugurated its first menu in 1868, and it was 22 pages long, some pages being devoted to a single dish while at Laperousse the menu was only six pages long but was embossed with gold and bound in silver.

Indeed, a kind of symbiosis seems to have developed between the restaurants and the perhaps stereotypical starving artists. Judging from the ease and expertise with which so many of the Cornet menus were executed it is not hard to imagine that they had had plenty of practice. Indeed they seem to have been following in an occupation that other great artists had also performed humbly: “Great artists did not consider it beneath their dignity to illustrate such menus and menus decorated by Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir, Matisse and Gauguin have now become highly prized collector’s items. Sometimes the artists would receive payment for their work, but more often they would accept meals in return. Renoir prepared menus for his favorite restaurants and it is said that after the age of 35 he never again paid a restaurant bill. Toulouse-Lautrec, a respected gourmet, agreed to sketch menus for those restaurants to which he was invited to dine ‘on the house.’  

Thanks to Rogov, we can see clearly how the Cornet artists became such accomplished menu artists. The group’s most prolific menu artist, Maurice Neumont, must have gained great practice, and earned a lot of free meals. It seems that their days at the Chat Noir have also proved of benefit to the Cornet society, and to the very history of Montmartre that they emerged out of. 

A Gourmet’s Guide to the 164th Cornet Menu

Each illustration in the Cornet collection is part of a menu which was served at a particular gathering of the Society. The notes and recipe that follow are to give an overview of the potential of these menus. There are many ways one could approach them. We decided to give a short historical statement on each of the dishes served at the 164th dinner.  This perspective will interest gourmet cooks but also the more savvy reader. The information bears solely on the dishes from a classical culinary reference perspective, which we hope will interest not only gourmet cooks but also general readers.  

164th Cornet Dinner 4 July 1912 Restaurant du Palmarium (Bois de Boulogne)

This lunch menu is constructed in the manner of a classical 19th century menu: Hors d'oeuvres, releves, entrees, rots, entremets, desserts -- all served in sequence. This fashion was introduced in 1810 by Prince Kourakine, the Russian Ambassador in Paris, who was the first to serve hot dishes in sequence, an arrangement since then called service a la Russe. Before, festive meals were served as a succession of buffets — each one consisting of numerous dishes set on the dining table in front of the guests. Today we still serve courses in sequence from the kitchen -except for buffet style meals- but we have considerably reduced the number of courses. By 1920 a typical menu had Soup (dinner) or hors d'oeuvres (lunch), one entree - here meaning first course - followed by a plat de resistance -main course-, salad (not always), cheese and dessert. 

Hors d'Oeuvres Various:  The hors d'oeuvres are supplementary to the menu, the word itself means "outside the menu." They were adopted and modified from a Russian custom which consisted of serving an assortment of cold and hot "finger foods" served buffet style, in a room adjacent to the dinning room, where the guests were standing, drinking vodka while waiting to be seated at the dinner table.  In this particular menu we can assume that only cold hors d'oeuvres were served. All the writings on the subject of hors d'oeuvres specify that at lunch time they should be cold. 

Escoffier, for example, writes: "Cold hors-d'oeuvres are traditionally served for luncheon, and there, they are not only necessary, but indispensable. Their various combinations, enhanced by elegant and appropriate display, ornate the table and impress the guest as soon as they enter the dining room." The hors d'oeuvres are set on the table in different shapes of porcelain or glass dishes filled with colorful foods. Their content can be seasonably influenced but the basic hors d'oeuvres are often a combination of crudites (grated carrots, celeriac, cucumbers, tomatoes) and steamed vegetables (fine green beans -- haricot verts fins --, white beans, mushrooms a la Greek, beets, potatoes) all dressed with different and delicate oil-based dressings, enhanced with garlic or onions and topped with fresh chopped curled parsley. Deviled eggs topped with chives, marinated fish such as herring, sardines, anchovies or shrimp as well as various types of thinly sliced charcuteries accompanied by cornichons (gherkins) can also be part of the display. Guests would pass around the little dishes and serve themselves small amounts. Later the hors d'oeuvres would often be displayed on a rolling cart. A waiter would then serve the guest according to their selection. 

Hors D'oeuvres for 4:

Grated Carrots: Peel and grate 2 cups of carrots, dress with 1 tablespoon olive oil, half of a lemon juice salt & pepper to taste.

Celery Remoulade: Peel and grate coarsely the celery (some people blanch it for two minutes, I don't!) and add to the remoulade sauce.

Remoulade Sauce: Make or buy some mayonnaise. Add a small amount of Dijon mustard, very finely diced gherkins, capers, salt & pepper.

Betteraves en Salade: Cut two cooked red beets into 1/2 inch squares. Dress with a mustard vinaigrette, top with fresh parseley.

Comcombres et Radis Roses en Salade: Arrange slices of seeded and degorged cucumbers with red radishes and dress with walnut oil and apple cider vinegar; top with chervil.

Sardines ˆ L'huile: Arrange sardines with their oil and top with thin slices of onion and with fresh parsley.

Tomates Farcies au Thon: Take a small tomato, about the size of an apricot. Cut a circle around the stalk end and with a teaspoon remove seeds and juice. Save the top for final decoration. For 8 small tomatoes, mix 1/2 can of tuna fish, one diced hard boiled egg, 1 tablespoon finely diced onions, 1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chervil and tarragon finely chopped with 2 tablespoon of mayonnaise. Fill the tomatoes with the mixture, place the top back on with a black olive on top. 

As explained in the commentary these dishes can be complemented by some thinly cut salami or other charcuteries and smoked fish available at a good deli. It is common in France to buy some hors d'oeuvres at the traiteur —delicatessen— or often at the charcutier or the butcher shop if it is a boucherie-charcuterie.

Supreme de Barbue a la Russe: The English name for barbue is brill. It belongs to the turbot family. It is smaller than a turbot and considered inferior. They are often prepared the same way, but the brill with less pomp. Like turbot, brill doesn't occur on the American side of the Atlantic. In our menu the term "supreme" refers to the filets. The denomination supremes was primarily used for the wing and deboned breast of chicken or game accompanied by a fine sauce. It got extended to fine flesh fish filets in a raffin preparation. With Supremes de Barbue a la Russe, we are experiencing a gastronomical terminology quandary: a la Russe could be a lot of things!  

As we have seen with the hors d'oeuvres, French Haute-Cuisine has been influenced by a type of Russian cuisine, not really representative of Russian cookery, but a classical cuisine practiced at the time of the Tsars and particularly by French Chefs. I have not found records of Barbue a la Russe, but found a sole a la russe in Escoffier's "le Guide Cuilinaire." This is acceptable because for barbue entries both Escoffier and the "Repertoire de la Cuisine" direct us to look under turbotin - small turbot - for whole fish preparation, and to filet de sole for filet preparation. They both list Sole a la Russe as a poached fish, served with a light white wine sauce. 

Filet de Barbue a la Russe:  In a medium size sauce pan lightly saute in butter without browning one carrot (cannelee'd) and one small onion also extremely thinly sliced. Add 1 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of white wine, place the filet on top of the pan under gentle heat. Baste regularly and cook for about 7 minutes (Cooking time will depend on the thickness of your filet). When the filets are cooked remove them from the pan, keep them in a warm place covered - in between two plates for example. Finish your sauce with a dollop of butter and some lemon juice and pour it over the fish. 

Contrefilet a la Brillat-Savarin--Petit Pois a la Paysanne: "Tell me what you eat . . . I'll tell you who you are" is one of the most famous aphorisms that French magistrate and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) wrote in La Physiologie du Gout. His name has been given to a variety of preparations but Contrefilet a la Brillat-Savarin is not found as such. Although we do know that one of the "la Brillat-Savarin" ways was to accommodate smaller pieces of meat such as noisette of mutton or lamb - small round steak cut from the ribs or loin — accompanied with a garnish made of salpicon de foie gras and truffles, placed in a small shell of duchess potatoes, with asparagus tips on top. The Contrefilet is the part of the beef sirloin located on either side of the back bone above the loins. It is fattier and less tender that the fillet but has more flavor. The Contrefilet was probably roasted and served with this very distinguished salpicon garnish along with the petit pois a la paysanne.  

Peas were a very classical accompaniment for lamb and veal but less so for beef. Here, —  and given that the Brillat-Savarin garnish was also usually served with lamb — we can extrapolate that the chef probably didn't get his order of lamb or veal that day and used the contrefilet that he had available! Both Escoffier and Curnonsky have a similar entry for petit pois a la paysanne. Escoffier recommends to use large fresh peas, and to prepare them like petit pois a la Francaise, (those were very popular in traditional french cuisine, my grand-father had those once a week on the menu at our hotel in Luchon), finished with a beurre manie -kneaded butter- before serving. 

Poulets Nouveaux en Chaud-Froid l'Estragon:  Chaud-froid, meaning hot-cold, is a dish prepared hot but served cold which might have its origins from Roman times. A vase with the inscription caldus frigidus and with remains of meat in it was unearthed in Pompei. There is a second interpretation supported by Phileas Gilbert, brilliant chef and food writer, according to whom the dish was created at the Chateau of Montmorency in 1759: one evening when the Marshall of Luxembourg was entertaining he was summoned to leave without delay to the king's Council; when he returned late that night he was served the remains of a cold chicken fricassee, congealed in the ivory sauce. He found it so delicious that he ordered this dish to be made again and named it himself chaud-froid.  

Today, and since the nineteenth century, chaud-froids are known as pieces of meat, poultry, fish or game, coated with white or brown sauce, glazed with aspic and garnished with nicely cut vegetables and truffles set in the aspic. The meat is first poached in broth, reserved and let to cool, a roux-based sauce is made with the broth, warm aspic jelly is mixed in and poured over the meat in several layers over a rack. The final touch is to place the decorations and then glaze with a clear aspic jelly. Even though the brown sauce is given equal status with the white sauce in culinary reference books, I have personally never seen a brown chaud-froid, nor have yet encountered it in menus. Young chicken chaud-froid style with tarragon, our present dish, would use a white sauce decorated with tarragon leaves instead of vegetables or truffles. Chaud-froids were a very popular item on buffets because elaborate display could be created ahead of time. 

Salade de Romaine: Because we are in July, we can assume that Salade de Romaine means a plain Romaine green salad. Romaine was found in the French markets from May to July and is said to have grown first in the papal gardens in Avignon where it inherited its name. The dressing might have been a simple vinaigrette with mustard. To dress a salad properly it takes "a close-fisted man for the vinegar, an unsparing one for the oil, and for the salt a wise one," as Le Roux de Lincy wrote in his collection of proverbs. Rabelais, Ronsard, and Brillat-Savarin all praise the virtues of salad in their writings. At least since Louis XIV we find a salad course before the entremets. It is a modern matter to have a salad course as a first course. 

Glace Marie-Louise:  I found several entries under the name Marie-Louise. Originally named after Napoleon's second wife, La Bombe Marie-Louise figures in Careme's, Escoffier's and 'The Repertoire de la Cuisine' books — all with different flavors. Our present menu lists a "glace" Marie-Louise, rather than a "bombe" so I presume they took a short cut and served a two flavor ice-cream. Bombes are molds filled with two different mixtures. The bottom and sides are lined with a mixture of plain ice cream, or fruit ice or sorbet; the inside is filled with a chosen bombe mixture. Escoffier's bombe Marie-Louise, for example, is lined with raspberry ice cream and filled with a composition of vanilla bomb. The composition was made with 32 egg yolks for a liter of syrup and one liter and a half of cream!





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Written by Jason Smith
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