Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chocolate in 18th Century France

The Chateau of Versailles homepage has a wonderful article on Chocolate, its admirers (including Marie Antoinette and Anne of Austria, and Mme Du Barry), makers, and availability in the 18th century. Suffice to say that unless you were of the nobility in France you did not get to enjoy this sweet delicacy. Sounds like a reason to revolt to me!


When envisioning the perfect 18th century party most of us reach for the champagne, but was this delightfully fizzy beverage available and in common celebratory usage then? The short answer is "Yes! Bien sur!"

The province of Champagne in northern France gave its name to this distinctive vintage when vintners there realized that their climate was not able to produce the heavy, full-bodied reds that could rival the acclaimed Burgundian wines to the south, and turned instead to making lighter white wines of superlative quality. Reims Cathedral, where the Kings of France were traditionally crowned, was in the Champagne province and so it became traditional to serve Champagne wines for the occasion; but when did the wine become the beverage we know today?

In 1531 the monks of the Abbey of Saint Hilaire produced the first sparkling wine, called Blanquette de Limoux, when they added sugar to the mix to induce a second fermentation, which in turn created bubbles of gas in the liquid. The force of the pent up gas was so great that bottles frequently popped or blew their corks, just as they do today. It was the monk Dom Perignon, now synonymous with champagne, who invented the wire collar that helps to keep them corked, as before his improvement those working with the bottles were forced to wear protective masks of iron to prevent injury.

While legend has it that the broad "coupe" style champagne glass was modeled on the breast of Marie Antoinette, it was in fact manufactured in 1663 for the use of English aristocrats. Charming as this shape is, it does lose oxydation quicker than the more common Champagne Flute, due to the increased surface area which allows the gas to escape faster.

Though the bubbles were initially seen as a fault by the French monks who made the wine, the English to whom they also sold the vintage, took a liking to them and soon the French court followed suit, making Champagne the beverage of royalty, and soon the rising middle class adopted this status symbol as well.

So break out the bottles; and whether you choose a coupe or a flute, let's toast to the joys behind us and the pleasures yet to come!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Let's Eat Cake!

"A cake and a bad custom ought to be broken." -French proverb

I couldn't agree more! Let's break out the cake and champagne and start celebrating the 1st Anniversary of this blog. In the days to come we'll look at what celebrations were like in the 18th century, including information on important topics like; costume, decorations, food, and gifts.

Have a burning question you'd like answered or a topic you want to know more about? Post it in a comment and I will do my best to find you the answers. And don't forget to enter the Blog-anniversaire giveaway!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 27, 1780

We have set out once again for Paris. The court is at Fountainebleu so I shall not have to announce my intent to marry to the King just yet, but I will have the opportunity to tell Christine when I see her in a few days. Maman insists that I look to purchase cloth for wedding clothes if nothing else, and she hints that she may visit, but I do not intend to stay long. Thierry writes that he has merited the promise of promotion from his superiors, but knows not for what position he is intended.

F- and R- travel with me, in part so that we may keep an eye on R- who, I am sorry to say, has drunk himself into a sad state. He challenged a man in Riom, but F- was able to soothe the situation so that no violence need occur; still, we fear he may come to harm if left to himself.

Thierry, in contrast, seems quite calm and I find myself listening just a little to Maman when she says that he may have been interested in the prospect of a title, after all. Surely after so many years I would know the truth of that suspicion, but I would feel a great fool were it true.

Olympe, Comtesse

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mozart's Opera "Zaide"

Okay, so the picture to the left doesn't look very much like an eighteenth-century opera, but I just finished work on this production of Zaide and despite appearances it was, in fact, written by Mozart in 1780, the same year as the current Diary. Never heard of this one? That's not surprising given that Mozart never actually finished the piece. He was working on it in Saltzburg as early as 1779, but dropped the project when a better opportunity presented itself in the form of a commission to compose Idomeneo. The opera was found amongst his papers after his death and published in 1838, but was not performed for the first time until 1866.

The story is similar to many "rescue" dramas of the time, most especially Voltaire's story Zaire, which features the Sultan of Jerusalem, his beloved slave; Zaire, and another slave; Nerestan. In Zaide there is a sultan named Soliman who is in love with his slave, Zaide, but Zaide is in love with another slave called Gomatz. In the libretto by Johann Andreas Schachtner the lovers flee with the help of another slave named Allazim, only to be recaptured and brought back to the sultan for judgement, torture, and very probably death. If this sounds familiar it's probably because the plot of Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail holds many similarities, except that in that story everyone goes free in the end, but Mozart never finished Zaide so we do not know what he intended.

In the production I just finished we played chose-your-own-adventure-opera and let the audience decide each performance which of three endings there would be, but we only gave them a single word clue as to what each ending would entail. If you're interested in what those three possibilities were I encourage you to read this review by Washington Post writer Anne Midgette, for a full and less biased report than mine.

To enjoy a sample of the music I give you the final quartet from Act II.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

June 17, 1780

Many letters have come to me in Riom recently; idle gossip from Thierry that he may say as little as possible, apparently the Duchess de Polignac is delivered of another son. One wonders when the queen will be delivered of even one. It only serves to remind me of my own barren state.

A letter from Christine urges me to consider returning to Paris, but it is so hot in the summer and I know I will have to return there sooner than I would wish to announce my marital arrangements with the Marquis de Franconville-aux-Bois. F- has been very dear and little has changed, but the Comte de Rodez is in a very sad state and has been keeping company at one of the local inns, returning only very late at night, or not at all. I fear for he and T-, for in their different ways they both suffer by my decision.

Maman is greatly delighted to think that I shall soon be married, but I think she remains blind to the true nature of things. It is a trial to keep her from announcing matters to the whole town, if not the province. Mattieu is likewise excited, but Andre has not responded as of yet. F- and I are unwilling at the moment to discuss what the terms of our marriage will be, but we cannot wait much longer if we are to reach an understanding.

Olympe, Comtesse

Monday, June 14, 2010

Blog-Anniversaire Giveaway!

The votes are in and the winner is A Book! All you bibliophiles get ready, because starting today anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by June 30th is entered in the drawing, but there's a catch; you have to let me know which book you would like.

a) 400 Years of Fashion by Natalie Rothstein

b) Passionate Minds by David Bodanis

One additional lucky commentor will receive a surprise gift; hints to come!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 10, 1780

Yesterday was my youngest brother, Mattieu's, birthday and being in Riom I was happy to be a part of the celebrations. Seeing my mother's husband, Msr Cordelay, after so many years was as formal as ever, but dear Mattieu is much grown even since the winter and as kind and sweet and clever as could be hoped. Andre remains in Ferney with Mlle Delacour, and everyone knows that is the reason, whatever else he may say. I asked Mattieu when we were able to walk alone in the gardens, it being a very fine day, what he thought of me finally marrying, and he said he wished it greatly for my happiness, but that I should not do it to please him. Of course, I am inclined to please him when it comes from a heart so unselfish, but that only makes my decision harder. I returned to the estate as yet undecided, to find Thierry packing his things.

The Ferme has recalled him to Paris and so he must go, and in point of fact he left this morning, but not before we had an enormous argument over what to do. On the one hand he urges me to consider F's proposition and says that he cannot see any other solution to all of my tribulations, but at the same time he selfishly wishes to keep me for himself and cannot be made happy by this solution. I tried to reason with him and asked if he thought it would make me happy, for it certainly could not, but perhaps a swift marriage and a quiet separation later would enable us to find the future we have been straining towards if we could only wait a little longer. He said that we have waited and waited endlessly for a future that never comes, and to that I have no answer for he is right.

I went to F's room where he and R were playing cards, but all I could do was sob in their arms, much to my embarassment. They have been so kind, though their situation is no less difficult than mine, for they can never be together openly.

There, I have said it. The situation as it truly is. The King must have an answer, and soon. I must find a means of acquiring more money to maintain my title and estates. I must have an heir. I must marry, there can be no more waiting. Perhaps all of our trials, mine and Thierry's, have only been God's way of ensuring that we follow the path we were meant to. Either that or there is no God and he is not watching us and there is no help to be had. These stolen golden days are quickly coming to an end.

Olympe, Comtesse

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Bergere Hat

In the mid-eighteenth century in both France and England the simple, flat style known as the bergere (French for "shepherdess) came into popularity. It seems to have started as a low-crowned, wide-brimmed straw hat, and the brim could be turned up at the front, back, or sides, or
trimmed with fabric, ribbons, and flowers.
1750s Boucher paints Mme Bergeret

Gainsborough 1777-79Vigee le Brun 1782