The art of cuisine – who would have expected that from Toulouse-Lautrec? The brilliant artist’s depictions of the life of the theatres, cafés, bars and brothels have become part of our perception of 19th-century Paris, but we know little about his other skill.
To his friends, he was also a great cook and a generous host. As he saw it, everything deserved a celebration, particularly the completion of a new work of art. The art of cuisine was one of his abiding passions.
The Art of Cuisine Recipe Book
After Toulouse-Lautrec’s death in September 1901 at the age of just 36, his friend and art dealer, Maurice Joyant, collected together the menus and recipes of the artist. He also added recipes they had discovered together from others.
As you’ll discover from the book, Toulouse-Lautrec was an outlandish and adventurous cook.
For Joyant, putting the recipes together was a labour of love: “Each recipe brings back a memory of sheer delight, a moment of perfect relaxation.”
Toulouse-Lautrec the Gourmand at Home
The artist’s upbringing was in a privileged, aristocratic family whose wealthy ancestors as the counts of Toulouse played quite a part in French history. The young boy spent his time between the town house of the Hôtel du Bosc in Albi and the countryside pleasures of the Château du Bosc in Camjac, around 48 kms (30 miles) north east of the city.
On their country estate, the family fished and hunted; the servants cooked and served the results. It was all part of the natural order, but for the Lautrecs, there was with an added element.
“When my sons kill a woodcock they are delighted three times over: once when they shoot it, once when they sketch it, once when they eat it”, the artist’s grandmother wrote.
Toulouse-Lautrec the Gourmand in Paris
In Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec’s life revolved around painting and those Belle Epoque Parisian pleasures. His circle of friends was wide, and often eccentric, made up of poets, fellow artists, and men like Thadée Natanson, publisher of La Revue Blanche. He remarked about Toulouse-Lautrec’s continual drinking: “He does not give his moustache time to dry”.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s cooking skills – and his capacity for eating and drinking – were admired by every one of them. The Symbolist poet Paul Leclercq remarked that “He was a great gourmand…He loved to talk about cooking and knew of many rare recipes for making the most standard dishes… Cooking a leg of lamb for seven hours or preparing a lobster à l’Américaine held no secrets for him.”
Lobster was his favourite seafood and on a ship travelling between Le Havre and Bordeaux he insisted that the captain go off course for a few miles to catch lobsters.
Throughout his short life, Toulouse-Lautrec ate, and particularly drank, as if there was no tomorrow. One of his great pleasures was cooking for his friends, captured in Vuillard’s portrait of the artist at the stove at Thadée Natanson’s country house at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in 1898.
Weekly Food Parcels
Every Friday a hamper would arrive from his mother’s château near Bordeaux. Adèle had moved there after she had left her charming, but philandering husband, Alphonse. For her son, living in Paris, it was a weekly excuse for a feast.
He sent out personal invitations and wrote out the menus, delightfully illustrated with sketches.
The menus were invariably elaborate. For his Irish dancer friend, Miss May Belfort, the feast consisted of:
Lake Michigan trout
Haunch of venison on a purée of chestnuts
Foie gras in a crust
Grand table wine – Vouvray, Corton
Cooking for Friends
Friends would often ask him to prepare a meal for them, though if unfamiliar with his approach they could get caught out. The artist Georges Henri-Manuel invited him to his pristine bachelor apartment to cook a lobster. Lautrec arrived, refused to use the kitchen and instead set up an electric hot plate in the drawing room. His cousin Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran was there as well.
“George Henri-Manuel, in great anguish because a lobster lobster à l’Américaine has to be cut up alive, hastily covered his most precious pieces of furniture with sheets. Then, wrapped in a long white apron in which his short legs kept getting entangled, brandishing a spoon as long as himself, and moving saucepans about, Lautrec prepared the lobster lobster à l’Américaine whose memory lingers with me yet.”
Instructions to Friends
Toulouse-Lautrec would send a letter well ahead of the proposed feat with a list of the ingredients he needed to cook for his friends. Jacques Bizet, son of the French composer was asked:
“Dear master, here is the list of fish to be obtained, Eels, (one pound), 2 gurnards, 1 hake, 1 sole, 1 small lobster. Seasonings: garlic, cayenne pepper, olive oil. Have all this at 5 o’clock Sunday. We will be there at 6.15 o’clock… Our humble respects to Madame Bizet and to you. H.T. Toulouse-Lautrec.”
In December 1896 he moved into a studio opening onto a garden on avenue Frochot. The following spring he invited his friends around with an invitation that read
“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec will be very flattered if you agree to take a cup of milk on Saturday 15 May at about half-past three in the afternoon.”
This was not the turning over of a new leaf, but a dig at the new fashionable habit of drinking milk. “I’ll drink milk when the cows graze on grapes,” was his reaction.
When the book was written, recipes were inspirational rather than exact. There are no precise ingredients listed, nor any measurements or cooking times. The reader was expected to be a pretty mean chef already.
If you get a modern copy, there are measurements listed. But the recipes are still a challenge.
The Art of Cuisine Book
This is an unusual cookbook which has some real gems.
Chapter headings are intriguing. The first chapter is called About Certain Soups, but what of The Rainbow of Sauces, About Certain Game of Fur and Feather, and finally About Certain Domestic Animals? In fact, those ‘domestic’ animals are beef, veal, lamb, and so on. So no need to worry that they ate cats and dogs in 19th-century France.
Sweet things go into About Certain Flatteries.
An Unusual Approach
The book is full of delightful anecdotes and advice and descriptions that take you by the imaginative hand and offer nuggets of information. Take the unusual recipe of Stewed turbot Livers:
“Towards Christmas time, when the turbot come upstream and are caught in large quantities in the eel pots…”
Who knew turbot were caught in eel pots?
Or one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favourite dishes: Stewed fillets of Porpoise
“When mounted on the bowsprit of a cutter you have harpooned a porpoise in the English Channel, open it lengthwise and take from it some nice fillets of fish.”
Once caught they should be cooked then and there on the boat.
Different Century – Different Tastes
People were less squeamish in those days and methods of killing, cleaning and cooking are set out in detail. I won’t describe how to empty a minnow (though you’d have to be pretty desperate to cook them anyway). And as for pressed duck – it takes a strong cook for this one. The dish is famous, best known at La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris.
French cooking still centres around the best products from the right region as it did in the past. The book recommends using trout from the Bresle river in Picardy; or black trout from the Black Forest or French mountains for truite au bleu; pike from the Somme to roast; crayfish from the Ardennes; wild duck from Champagne, wild boar from the Solonge (where they still hunt wild boar in great style), and lamb from the Auvergne.
The Art of Cuisine Goes with the Seasons
The seasons ruled a cook’s life and the Art of Cuisine follows the rules. 19th-century technical advances might have brought more modern ways to preserve food but the best always reflected the time of year.
The Start of the Year
There are plenty of tips that modern day foragers might find useful. So for a dandelion salad: “In the fields at the end of January or February, after a thaw, pick some dandelions which are beginning to grow – whose hearts already show signs of yellow.”
Summer brings mullet roe to spread on toast.
“Toward July, when the gray mullet, coming from the Mediterranean return to the estuaries to swim up to lay their eggs in fresh water, and are full of roe…” Steep them for 48 hours in salted water, then lay the strings of roe between ‘two very clean white wood planks’ and put a light weight on top. Hang them in the hot sun when a mistral blows (strong, cold north westerly wind blowing from south west France into the north Mediterranean). Voilà…
“Thus you will have poutarde, which is eaten with bread like chocolate and which, by its special taste of fermented fish, pleases connoisseurs, although its flavour is less subtle than that of caviar.” But of course, much less expensive.
September and October bring a wealth of game. Wood pigeons appear in October as they migrate and those birds in the shooting season get their own recipes like quails in ashes, and partridge with cabbage.
Some of the dishes are not possible today. Neither fillet of herons, nor thrushes with juniper would go down well even if you could somehow get hold of them.
Squirrels are not protected but they have very little flesh, unless they are marmots which are bigger. But you have to feel sorry for the marmots:
“Having killed some marmots sunning themselves belly up in the sun with their noses in the air one sunrise in September…”.
There’s even some health advice from marmots which I will pass on free to health fans. Apparently you should keep the fat ‘which is excellent for rubbing into the bellies of pregnant women, into the knees, ankles, and painful joints of sprains’. If there’s nothing wrong with you, you can always rub it ‘into the leather of shoes’.
The Rainbow of Sauces deals with white sauces from A la Poulette to one for asparagus. Yellow sauces cover Aioli and mayonnaise which can be made into a green sauce by adding chervil, tarragon, parsley, chives and watercress.
A rose-red sauce is an exotic concoction.
“Incorporate in your sauces made of butter, bouillon, flour and binding also: tomatoes, cooked, strained and seeded; puree of sea-urchins’ roe; puree of crabs’ roe; butter – melted and passed through a sieve after having been coloured with the cooking juices of prawns, female crabs, crayfish, lobster, crawfish , crushed anchovies.” Brown sauces come with Madeira, Miroton or mustard.
The Rainbow of Sauces chapter heading might well refer to Toulouse-Lautrec’s love of cocktails. When inviting his friends to see his latest work, he advised them that “Properly to appreciate a painting one has to drink a good cocktail first.”
He had his own cocktail shaker to rustle up some pretty deadly concoctions. The Earthquake was four parts absinthe (which was 63% proof) to two parts red wine and finished off with a splash of cognac.
The rainbow cocktail was copied from one of his favourite bars. Known as the ‘corpse reviver’, it was made from 12 different liqueurs poured carefully over a small spoon so they didn’t mix.
Late 19th-century Paris was a good time for anyone interested in cooking. The great food market Les Halles was built between 1851 and 1854. Called the ‘Belly of Paris’ by the French novelist Émile Zola, the market supplied the capital’s voracious appetite with oysters from Brittany (and lobster), grain from the centre of France, meat from the Auvergne, mirabelles, plums, apricots and chestnuts. They came daily by river and the newly built railways making Les Halles the biggest wholesale market in the world.
The Great 19th-century Chefs and their Cook Books
The 19th century was the start of a new golden age of gastronomy. It all began in France with Marie-Antoine Carême who changed French haute cuisine for ever. He was a master at producing extraordinary magical feasts, dishes and edible replicas of buildings from ancient Roman temples to Turkish mosques. The world had never seen anything like it, buying his new cookbooks in such quantities they became bestsellers.
While England had the homely Mrs Beeton whose books were first published in 1861, France had writers like Brillat-Savarin who published his meditation on culinary matters, La Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste) in 1862. Later, Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) updated and popularized classic French cooking methods.
To find out more about Escoffier, visit the Escoffier Museum of Culinary Art in Villeneuve-Loubet in the south of France.
The Last Word
The sting in the tail is the tongue-in-cheek last chapter Ultima Ratio Finis (the ultimate goal) which is pure fantasy, and a dig at the Catholic church. Grasshoppers should be grilled in the fashion of Saint John the Baptist; you might try Saint on the Grill: ‘With the help of the Vatican try to procure for yourself a real saint’.
And the final recipe?
“Full of mystery. It will never be known. God revealed the knowledge only to his Prophet, who uttered no word about it. This recipe will, therefore, remain forever unknown to all other human beings.”
More of Interest to Food Lovers
More on Toulouse-Lautrec
Toulouse-Lautrec and the Tarn where he grew up. What to see and where to stay and eat
Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi