The Duke of Newcastle’s Pique, or, A Good Chef is Hard to Find

The Duke of Newcastle and His Cook (British Museum Print no. 2684)

The diarist Samuel Pepys,  no mean observer of human foibles that relieve the monotony of day-to-day human life, recorded — almost in real-time —  the Francophilic transformation of the English nobility after the 1660 Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Since Pepys devoted a portion of his library to cookery, it’s not surprising that his diary records some of  the culinary aspects of the Restoration. One of Pepy’s most favored books bore the title L’école parfaite des officiers de bouche, written by Jean Ribou.  Pepys owned the third edition, published in 1676.

Samuel Pepys

From even a quick reading of Pepys, what happened was that the upper-class English soon equated French cuisine with political power. The hoity-toities of the Whig government nearly all came to employ French male cooks, thus making French cuisine the food of diplomacy. The precursor, as it were of the cigar-smoke-filled saloon teeming with Tammany Hall types.

How did this transpire? Why did proud Englishmen fail to ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Royal English exiles, Charles II and James II in particular, “disappeared” in France while waiting out the political turmoils of the Cromwellian period. After the Restoration in 1660, when the Stuart monarchy marched (or rather sailed) home, French influence sailed with them and soon permeated English court life.

William Keppel, Earl of Albemarle

The Duke of Newcastle, as we have seen, enjoyed the services of a chef named Clouet, until that gentleman decided to cut and run to the service of another, William Keppel (Earl of Albemarle),  the Duke’s friend and then the British ambassador to France and later governor of Virginia. Clouet specialized in a form of nouvelle cuisine made popular in the 1730s.

Human nature being what it is, regardless of era or place, the Duke of Newcastle complained to his friend that he needed a new cook, badly.  Since Clouet, the object of his despair, worked for Albemarle, for whom the situation could have been anything but comfortable, Albemarle consulted Clouet and together they came up with a chef named Hervé (Hervey in Franglish).

But, alas, like the ugly older brother of a handsome  fairy-tale prince, Hervé couldn’t capture the heart of the Duke. And this is where the story really becomes a classic: Newcastle wrote (in French) to his old cook, Clouet, pouring his soul out:

It may be that the new cuisine does not please us here, but I cannot believe that he has mastered the art. His soups are usually too strong and his entrées and entremets are so disguised and so mixed-up that nobody can tell what they are made of. He never serves small hors d’oeuvres or light entrées, and he has no idea of the simple, unified dishes that you used to make for me and which are so much in fashion here, such as veal tendons, rabbit fillets, pigs’ and calves’ ears, and several other little dishes of the same kind. … In other words, he has no resemblance to your ways and your cuisine, and to what I require.

Reproduction of 18th-century stockpot

Clouet responded firmly in phonetically written French:

As regards his mixed-up entrées and entremets, French cuisine has never been anything but mixtures. This is what gives it that great variety which places it above all the other cuisines of Europe. Masters who do not like these mixtures should be so good as to inform the cook of this, and to let him know how they wish to be served, so that the cook can show his skill by conforming to their desires. It is also most unfortunate  for a cook that his master should be incapable of judging his performance for himself, so that he is often judged by critics who are totally ignorant.

That’s telling  him, Clouet!

Fortunately, an English sous chef named William Verral, who worked with Clouet at the Duke of Newcastle’s estate, wrote A Complete System of Cookery (1759), recording the recipes with which Clouet enchanted the Duke of Newcastle.

To be continued …

For more on the Newcastle-Clouet saga and the time period, see:

Driver, Christopher and Berriedale-Johnson, Michelle. Pepys at Table (1984)

Lehmann, Gilly. The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2003)

_____. “Politics in the Kitchen,” Eighteenth-Century Life 23 (2): 71 – 83, 1999.

Pepys, Samuel. The Joys of Excess (2011) [Excerpts about food from his diaries.]

Sedgwick, Romney. “The Duke of Newcastle’s Cook,” History Today 5: 308 – 316, 1955.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen



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