Along the road from us is Mirepoix: the pretty town, the one with the half-timbered houses set round a central square, where it’s good to sit outside with a nice cool beer of a summer evening surveying several centuries of history. A bit of a contrast with shabby old Laroque. It’s something of a Mecca for both locals and tourists, as it has a busy programme of festivals throughout the year, celebrating everything from Jazz and Swing to the apple harvest.
There was new one the other week, La Fête de la Gastronomie. We missed most of the talks, walks, demonstrations and foodie events, what with being in Bilbao. But we did get back just in time to catch the visit to a tiny church in the tiny nearby hamlet of Mazerettes. This was no church guided tour however. We’d come to hear Martine Rouche talk about the fresco there, depicting the feast of Herod during which the head of John the Baptist was dished up. No, it wasn’t an art history lecture either, nor a biblical exposition. Martine Rouche has researched this fresco – one of several recently restored in the church – to help us understand dining and feasting in this part of 16th century France.
The fresco is dated 1533, so Herod’s feast reflects the customs in use at that date. At that time, there was no special room designated for dining. The host had the table arranged wherever it suited him best, whether it was the main hall or a bed-chamber. In contrast with the fine elaborate costumes worn by the guests, the table itself is quite simply and starkly dressed. Not so many years before, food had been served on ‘tranchoirs‘, thick solid slices of bread. Now, simple round plates were provided.
There weren’t many glasses on the table either. These were expensive rare items still, so guests expected to share . Servants would hover, ready to refill glasses as required, and everyone would drink from the glass nearest them. Glasses didn’t come as a matching set: there were as many designs as there were drinking vessels.
Besides these, there were drageoires of crystal, designed to hold sugar and spices, which guests would nibble at throughout the meal. This fashion for having these expensive and elegant tit-bits spread from Italy through southern France and Lyon , eventually reaching this area.
There were knives. These were personal property. You’d take your own with you and use it both to cut food, and as a means of conveying it to your mouth: no forks yet. Then you’d take it home with you again.
And this curved implement is a furgeoir. You may not want to have one at table yourself. The pointed end is a toothpick, but you’d have used the spoon-like end to scoop out earwax when the fancy took you.
Under the table is a nef. Though this one isn’t, such containers were often in the shape of a nautilus shell. The principal guest at a banquet might have one as a sort of superior picnic hamper. He’d use it to keep his knife, his napkin, maybe some spices, and some anti-poison specifics. Later, the nef was replaced by the cadena, which might have several different compartments.
As to the food served, there are few clues here. Apart from the head of John the Baptist, which was not intended to be eaten, there were some sides of ham and other fairly unidentifiable items. More information comes from contemporary receipt books. Local grandee Phillippe de Lévis, who was responsible for commissioning the frescos in the church, also hired patissiers, who of course submitted detailed bills . These confirm what we already know: that the church calendar ruled. Periods of plenty (‘régimes gras’) were interspersed with simpler and restricted ‘régimes maigres‘. Every Friday, Lent and Advent among others were ‘maigres‘ . Meat and dairy products were avoided in favour of simpler, less rich foods. Fish was generally allowed, but for the wealthy, this was scarcely a privation. The River Hers was rich in salmon, and would be prepared with fine and not-at-all-simple spices: cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves – and sugar. Even certain water fowl, such as the moorhen – ‘poule d’eau’ – were considered honorary fish.
But outside those periods of abstinence, what feasting took place! A meal might begin with individual tarts, and go on to several courses of salads, fruits, boiled meats, roast meats, sauced meats. From our point of view, the courses differed little from one another. Our clear expectations of the kind of things that might appear as an entrée, a main course and a desert did not hold good back in the 16th century.
It all sounded pretty unappetising. What with sharing glasses, enduring course after course of rich and highly spiced food, it would probably have been a relief to go home . The men at least had opportunities with hunting and other manly pusuits to burn off a few calories. Not quite so easy for the women, I think.
And thank you, Martine Rouche, for a fascinating and entertaining afternoon.