Élisabeth Latrémolière, chief curator and director of the royal château and director of the royal château and the museums of Blois, unveils the meanings attributed to the dishes of the sovereign's feasts which became a show-piece of court life during the Renaissance.
So, what was the role of mealtimes at the court of the Valois kings?
On special occasions, the primary objective wasn't eating at all, it was more about the meeting. The feast served as a stage upon which the sovereign or the prince appeared before his court. Henry III started the tradition, creating a system of protocols in which the princely meal would unfold. His aim was to restore royal authority, undermined by wars of religion.
Can you describe these protocols?
On becoming king in 1574, Henry III stepped back from the familiarity that had existed between the king and his subjects under François I and Henry II. The king's table was raised on a platform and overhung with a canopy, separated from the court. The dishes arrive in procession, carried by bakers, butchers, squires and fruiters, each preceded by a butler.
They arrived in waves, and the food was laid on the table at the same time. The courtiers would eat what was put before them, only the king had the right to choose from the dishes as they passed. Several courses followed one another: sweet and savoury pastries, soups, boiled meats, roasts, and the table dressings. Extra sweet treats were served in a separate room. The wine, diluted with water, was brought by drinks waiters.
How often did such meals take place, outside the big ceremonies?
There were two meals each day, one at the end of the morning, which was called dinner, and the other at the end of the afternoon, which was called supper. No-one ate in the morning until after mass - the first meal was always the body of Christ. At the court, there were always snacks and sweetmeats available for the courtiers.
Until the eighteenth century, the fork was considered to be an instrument of the devil!
What was on the menu?
Cooking was one of the main markers of a social status. If you were at the bottom of the social ladder, you consumed what was near the ground, and the closer to heaven, nearer God you were, the better. Aristocrats shunned salad, vegetables and pork, but ate huge quantities of poultry and game birds, as well as venison and other animals from the hunt.
From Henry II onwards, greenery and vegetables made their way into the royal diet, the artichoke being particularly fashionable. Sugar, butter, fruit - François I loved quince - jams, turkey from America... all were gradually adopted into aristocratic cuisine.
What did they eat with?
Basically, the table was set with a plate and nothing else. Everyone came with their own eating instruments. The king's were placed in a container called a "vaisselle" (vessel) which became the modern French word for crockery. Later, the king's knife and spoons were kept in a locked box. The ceremonial service - dishes, ewers, large cups, and so-on were place on a buffet.
The fork was almost non-existent at that time. Why is that?
Known since the thirteenth century, the fork was used in the Renaissance for picking candied fruit. It only became a regular feature at the table in the eighteenth century. Before then, it was considered a diabolical instrument, allowing faster eating, promoting the sin of greed. Louis XIV actually forbade his grandchildren from using one!