Once upon a time, every duke and lord in the kingdom coveted his neighbor’s French cook (or chef). And no duke showed his ire and disappointment more than did the Duke of Newcastle [Thomas Pelham-Holles, British Secretary of State for 30 years and later Prime Minister] when chef Pierre de St.-Clouet left the duke’s entourage.
By way of introduction to this most fascinating of tabloid-worthy stories, Elizabeth Robins Pennell*, an oft-quoted culinary bibliographer, wrote a small blurb about these gentlemen for The Atlantic Monthly in 1902.
It’s when you come upon something like this that all those dead and gone people from the past suddenly come alive.
It was, however, reserved for William Verral to give me the greatest thrill. His A Complete System of Cookery is little known even to bibliographers; its receipts do not seem exceptional, perhaps because they have been so freely borrowed by other compilers; in make-up the book scarcely differs from the average, nor is there special distinction in Verral’s post at the time of his writing, — he was master of the White Hart Inn, Lewes, Sussex; “no more than what is vulgarly called a poor publican”‘ is his description of himself. But his title-page at the first glance was worth more to me than a whole shelf of his contemporaries’ big fat volumes.
Let me explain.
By no great man in the annals of cookery have I been so puzzled as by that once famous “Chloe,” French cook to the Duke of Newcastle, and important enough in his own generation to swagger for a minute in the Letters of Horace Walpole and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. I had heard of Chloe, the beloved of Daphnis; I had heard of Chloe, the rival of Steele’s Clarissa; I had even heard of Chloe, the old darky cook of the South. But of Chloe, a Frenchman, I had never heard, and I knew, without consulting the Encyclopaedia, he simply could not exist.
Who, then, was the Duke of Newcastle’s Chloe?
Fortunately for the Duke of Newcastle’s purse, St. Clouet must still have been with him for the famous banquets celebrating his installation as Chancellor at Cambridge, when, according to Walpole, his cooks for ten days massacred and confounded “all the species that Noah and Moses took such pains to preserve and distinguish,” and, according to Gray, every one “was very owlish and tipsy at night.” This was in 1749; 1759 is the date of Verral’s book, by which time St. Clouet had become cook to the Marechal de Richelieu.
I think it but due to him to recall that he was “of a temper so affable and agreeable as to make everybody happy around him. He would converse about indifferent matters with me (Verral) or his kitchen boy, and the next moment, by a sweet turn in his discourse, give pleasure by his good behaviour and genteel deportment, to the first steward in the family. His conversation is always modest enough, and having read a little, he never wanted something to say, let the topick be what it would.”
How delightful if cooks today brought us such graceful testimonials!
To be continued, wherein the details become quite clear about why French cuisine became the food of the lords and ladies …
*Antiquarian cookbook collector Elizabeth Robins Pennell, author of My Cookery Books and very possibly the food writer who most inspired M. F. K. Fisher, left her fabulous collection of cookbooks to the Library of Congress.