A meal in honor of Gallic gastronomy
On an April evening this year, 650 guests, yours truly among them, arrived at the Chateau de Versailles, the former home of Louis XIV, to dine on a meal of classic and innovative French dishes: lobster de Bretagne in a sauce of lobster roe and caviar; bass with cockle jelly and a jus mariniere; Challans duck breast with seared foie gras in a bitter-chocolate and orange-powder sauce; and tarte Tatin and other French desserts, all of it served with well-chosen wines.
The occasion for such a meal as this was to celebrate such a meal as this. We were dining in honor of French gastronomy, which—along with falconry, the Peruvian scissors dance, and 33 other practices—UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) had named last November to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a group of traditions deemed essential to global cultural diversity. The listing—which includes the food, as well as the ambience, of a meal—recognized the French repast as a “practice for celebrating important moments” that “strengthens social ties.”
The diners at my table were, indeed, getting along, and all else was perfectly in place. According to UNESCO, the French gastronomic meal includes the “selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire” (60 chefs from the Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant group devised dishes for 20 different menus—check); “good, preferably local products” (scallops from Normandy; proper French Roquefort—check); “the pairing of food with wine” (check); “a beautiful table” (check); and “specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items.” As to this last point, I must confess, as an amateur historian of gastronomy, I’ve studied many feasts of Versailles, but I have never quite reveled in the details as I did on this night.