|The Treaty of Calais|
istorians have marvelled that the French and English, who went to war with one another at least once a generation, century after century through the time of Napoleon, can have been such amicable allies for the last 170 years. At least a partial answer to this mystery is now available. A heretofore unknown document, the Treaty of Calais, has recently come to light. This agreement was reached by King Lous XVIII of France and King George IV of Britain, after secret negotiations at the Hotel de Ville in Calais in the late Spring of 1821.
The royal meeting was requested by King George, who hoped to provide England with security against French invasion. George, though he had no great political or strategic mind, at least could perceive that France's advantage in population-- then forty millions to England's fifteen-- and her vast fount of national energy-- recently given such awesome demonstration by Napoleon's conquests-- would sooner or later overwhelm any protection the English Channel and the Royal Navy might provide. What George sought was a solemn pledge of nonbelligerence from the French. His private letters showed he was willing to sacrifice a great deal-- Canada, or perhaps even Ireland-- in return for an enduring agreement.
It therefore must of surprised George greatly when he heard Louis' terms. According to the notes of the British private secretary, the French King's response was, "Your majesty, we have no desire to conquer your island. Our two nations can live as friends as much as you and I ["Amis comme nous-meme"]. You are a nation of able seafarers, and we esteem your great Navy. We make only one request: that you allow France to reign forever supreme and unchallenged in the arts of cuisine."
Difficult as it may be to believe now, in the early 1820's English cooking was regarded as roughly on a par with the French, and both were considered the best in Europe. Nonetheless-- perhaps because of the gout from which he suffered particularly that Spring-- George hastened to assent to Louis' terms. The text of the Treaty was drawn up in the first days of June. The key clause of the agreement required George to do all in his power subtly to sabotage the strongest elements of English cuisine.
At this time, the British Royal Family was held in such high regard that their way of life was quickly imitated by the Court nobility. And likewise down the hierarchy of English society: country nobility mimicked Court nobility; the gentry followed the fashion of the local noblemen; artisans and merchants imitated the gentry; and the common labourers took their social cues from their middle-class neighbours. Thus, King George set forth to influence English tastes through firm Royal example. His aim was to destroy systematically whatever high ground English cookery held.
George's first target was the quality of his countrymen's roast beef and lamb. The "English joint" was, in that era, justly famed throughout the Western world: succulent, juicy, pink roasted portions of cattle and lambs that had been fattened on the rich countryside. George's approach was to have the palace kitchens cook these meats until they were thoroughly brown and dry. "Easier to chew and digest," he would declare, or, "It's shocking the way some people will have their meats positively bloody!" Amid such withering comments, the Royal example was quickly followed.
A few courtiers complained that well-cooked meats were too dry. They were placated by an invention of George's own hand: cornflour gravy. This concoction remoistened the meat, true enough, but the usual recipe for the gravy was so bland and salty that any remaining meaty taste was effectively neutralized. The English public, for reasons known only to itself, took things a step further when they developed the habit of spreading sense-deadening gravy over the vegetables as well as the meat of their main course.
The simple approach of overcooking proved equally adaptable to other glories of the English table. Soon the exquisite string beans of Kent, the famed Suffolk farm broccoli, Scottish peas, Cornwall spinach, and dozens of other regional delicacies were subject to merciless boiling. Toward that end, the King's stentorian voice was heard at many a municipal banquet or country-house feast: "This is indigestible!", or, "How dare you serve me raw greens-- do you take me for an ox?!", or simply, "Take this back and cook it properly!"
Fruit was not neglected in this inspired passion for overcooking. The habit of stewing fruits rather than serving them fresh dates from this era, and the revelations of the Treaty of Calais explain the cause. Only the English can make cherries taste like pears, and this is only accomplished through their unique technique of daylong stewing. And just as cornflour gravy did its work with the main course, a milky custard served the purpose of neutralizing any remaining fruit flavours.
The King's "cook it until it's done!" gambit could not work, however, on the splendid redoubt of English toast. The idea that bread could be improved by slicing it and toasting it was, after all, one of the brilliant discoveries of the English kitchen of the previous century. After giving the matter much thought, George hit upon the idea of the "toast cooler": a metal rack in which several toast slices could be held vertically, each spaced a little from the next so that cooling, drying air could circulate effectively. Within a few years this devilish invention had become common on the nation's tables. Whether wrought in sterling silver or plain iron, the effect of the toast cooler (of course it was never called by that name) was the same: to reduce delectable, soft, hot pieces of buttery toast to chilly, stiff, coagulated chunks of starch.
By odd coincidence, the great inventor Thomas Pickering filed for a patent for his "toast cosy" in the same year as the Treaty of Calais. This device consisted of a little metal box with thick sides and bottom and a hinged door, meant to be placed on the stove to get warm; the toast would then be put in it, and the ensemble brought to the table. If the little door were kept shut, the pieces of toast would remain warm for half an hour. On hearing word of this invention, the King directed his Chamberlain to seize the patent papers and have Pickering, on trumped-up charges, arrested, convicted, and transported to Tasmania. (Pickering attempted to gain revenge by creating Vegemite, but this invention never caught on outside Australia and New Zealand.)
The next proud culinary fortress to fall before the King's assault was the English breakfast. The problem was the English egg-- fresh from the farm, rich and nutritious, even the most amateur or ill-meaning cook could hardly fail to produce from it a tempting result. It seemed impossible to besmirch all the many virtues of the egg.
It was here that King George devised his most brilliant strategem: the introduction of smoked kippers as an integral part of the English breakfast. The taste of smoked kippers is such that nothing else in the meal seems to have any taste at all. Thus all the delights of the breakfast table-- eggs in any form, bacon, ham, porridge, coffee, whatever-- were neutralized at a single stroke. In fact, for the poorer classes of the realm who dined in the same room where their meals were cooked, no other dish could be tasted or smelled for several hours after the morning kippers had been cooked. But these little fish were wonderfully cheap and their taste, like garlic, had a certain addictive quality, so it was to be expected that by 1830 three English breakfasts in four included them.
There was then the question of English tea. For more than a century, the East India Company had been seeking out the finest teas of Asia. Plantations had been established, growing methods had been refined, storage and shipping techniques had been perfected-- so that, by 1820, some forty varieties of this splendid stimulant beverage were available to English households of every level of wealth. The varieties of tea-- from perfumed to pungent, from fruity to smoky, from flowery to musty-- were so rich that a fourth meal (between lunch and supper) was created to celebrate them. From Portugal to Siberia, civilized households praised and practiced the institution of the English tea.
How could this paragon of culinary virtue be compromised, to satisfy the terms of the Treaty? This was a problem that frustrated George and his confidential advisors throughout the fall and winter of 1821. It was George's Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Sir Herbert Houseman, who stumbled across the answer. He awakened before dawn on Thursday, March 14, 1822, shouting, "Sugared milk!! Sugared milk!!" as he ran frantically about the palace chambers. When he had calmed down, the genius of his dream-revelation was quickly grasped: if the English public could be induced to take their tea with milk and sugar, the forty exquisite variations of tea could be reduced to a single common (albeit seductive) taste. The King lost no time in putting his Royal example to work once again. Within three years, the great majority of Englishmen were drinking sugared milk at their tea-time-- and the national treasury was being enriched by the additional tax revenues from the porcelain and silver manufactories, which now had several more items of tea service to produce for millions of English families.
These examples of King George's ingenuity could be multiplied; suffice it to say that by the end of his short reign, the magnificent heights of English cuisine had been levelled and no longer offered any serious challenge to the French. King Louis kept his end of the bargain, with his own skillful array of subtle manipulations. In a hundred ways, the French people found their aggressive nationalistic attentions diverted away from England, and the French Navy found its appropriations reduced or made less suitable to cross-Channel invasions. The monarchs imbued their legacy of cooperation to their successors, as well. The Treaty of Calais was reaffirmed, with minor changes, by William IV and Louis-Philippe in 1832 and by Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III in 1853. These sovereigns continued the undercover work that George and Louis had begun. In this work, Victoria displayed particular zeal, and Napoleon a fiendish sense of humor. We can now unravel some of the baffling mysteries of French naval policy of the Nineteenth Century, such as why the entire Atlantic fleet ("La Grande Flotte de l'abysse") was refitted with eucalyptus-wood hulls.
Some Englishmen or Frenchmen may accuse their rulers of having betrayed their national interest, but the heritage of the Treaty cannot be called an unhappy one: in our time, France and England have fought each other neither on the battlefield nor in the kitchen.(printer friendly version)