Memories of Gruyere

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Although it was still storming back in 1816 outside of Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati, I returned to my own timeline and into a warm library with a soft, first snowfall taking place outdoors. The pungent smell of Gruyere from Byron’s buffet table was still fresh in my memory.

Those savory little pastries served to his guests that blustery night appeared to be Gougères – delicious, small, hollow pastry puffs made of a rich egg, butter and cheese dough. Byron’s chef had wisely chosen to use Gruyere cheese in his creation.

Seated at my library desk, I began my search for a period recipe for them and reached for the book L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle by Chef Marie-Antoine Carême. This book is undeniably a triumphant culinary work of encyclopedic proportions.

Careme was a legend in his own time and took his celebrity chef status very seriously – cooking for Kings, a Czar and at least one Emperor. As a test to his creativity, he once prepared a years worth of menus using only seasonal ingredients with no repetitions. His cookbook was a fine first choice but a little over the top. I instead decided to explore an earlier work.

I turned to The Art of French Cookery written by Antoine Beauvilliers – a classic of French gastronomic literature written in 1814. Beauvilliers was both a chef and trendsetter, who very cleverly launched the splendid idea of a “restaurant”. His establishment, La Grande Taverne de Londres, opened in late 18th century Paris and was considered very cool; for up until then, nobody had come up with the notion of customers being able to visit a chic dining room and order from a menu what one wanted to eat. Sheer profitable brilliance!

Antoine Beauvilliers was a charismatic kind of guy who really enjoyed his own cooking. He was a savvy dresser and partial to wearing a sword. Charming and also armed with a memory like that of an elephant, Beauvilliers was known for never forgetting a guest who had visited his restaurant. Superb branding actually and his dashing choice of weaponry probably contributed to minimizing guest complaints. Not that he would get any, his food was considered delicious. Jean Brillat-Savarin, the founding father of gastronomy, regarded him as the finest of the early restaurateurs.

I made a note to myself to go back and visit this trendsetting restaurant in Paris one day – I admit to a weakness for elegant eating establishments with full wine cellars.

But now back to my search for a particular recipe, I had chosen my cookbook well. I found exactly what I was looking for on page 221…

Meanwhile Back at the Buffet…

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It was still a dark and stormy night.

With my foodie instincts on high alert, I reached the sideboard at last! What had this small group of five English free-thinking writers eaten tonight? The candles were burning low, but I was able to see what I had traveled there for.

Interesting…, it appeared that the Napoleonic wars and the cold weather caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora had little effect on with what Lord Byron entertained his guests, with one exception. I had hoped to find Fraise du Bois, but alas, no alpine woodland strawberries to be seen.

The fierce weather outside could not distract me from a glorious cheesy smell wafting up from a plate of rather innocent looking little puff pastries. Their aroma was braver than their appearance – mummmm, no mistaking the pungent, savory smell of Gruyere cheese. The cook wisely used plenty of it in baking them. They appeared to be Petits Choux Ramecains, a particularly delicious edible in the early 19th century.

Also sharing the table were plates of Sweetmeat and Jam tartlets, sliced ham, dried apricots, candied ginger and Gateaux Madeleines. Unfortunately, several plates were emptied of what they had once held, sigh.

So despite war, cold temperatures and stormy weather, Byron was still able to be a generous host. The rather simple cold buffet offerings looked to be inspired by a French chef cooking for an English nobleman plagued with a prodigious amount of debt. Not surprising, Geneva was only recently liberated from French control and Lord Byron was an enthusiastic Napoleon groupie. His private horse carriage was custom-made to duplicate one of Napoleon’s.

I noticed an abundance of sweets and only one choice of meat offered – unusual for a typical late-night meal during this overtly carnivorous period. It may be that the chef was mindful of the guest’s proclivities – Percy Shelley had a weakness for sweets and was also a vocal vegetarian. The choice still appeared limited though, perhaps due to Byron’s avoidance of eating with his guests? He remained exceedingly fixated on the degree of rotundity of his waist.

Had Byron eaten earlier? I think I will take a peek in his private writing room next door for any indication.