Lessons from French literature: Balzac food inspiration – top 5

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Lessons from French literature - Balzac food inspirationAfter a year in France, returning to university was a food culture shock. I’d experienced la captiale de gastronomie française in Lyon, the beauty of French patisseries in Lille, and of course the Parisian chocolat chaud in Café de Flore – a dream of French cuisine.

Now living at university, I was struggling to find any inspiration in my local supermarkets. As a French literature student, I buried myself in Balzac praying my problème de cuisine would vanish, until I realised Balzac was the inspiration I had been looking for.

Join my quest for cuisine inspiration as I venture into the master chef kitchen of Balzac’s fictional universe! Balzac’s interest in food was encyclopaedic. With many of his characters spending endless hours in dining rooms, restaurants, and cafes, it’s time to seize inspiration for my own cooking!

Thanks to Balzac and his work I now have food’spiration!

1. Wine – and lots of it!

Anka Muhlstein’s Balzac’s Omelette is the perfect book to read to find references to Balzac’s eating habits, descriptions of food in La Comedie Humaine, and nineteenth-century culture.

Her book opened my eyes to the chapter ‘Balzac At Mealtimes’, in which she describes Balzac’s moment of relaxation to eat and enjoy himself after his proofs were sent off to his publisher, drinking ‘four bottles of white wine’ in his celebratory meal (p.18).

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Lessons from French literature - Balzac food inspiration

It was surprising to read in Muhlstein’s book that Balzac practically starved himself when writing and seemed to take the pleasure of wine only when his work was done.

Actually, I found more about Balzac, and his relationship with food, in order to set the scene for my challenge. From London Food Film Fiesta, I quote:

…Evidently, Balzac could be something of a glutton. But he could also be an abstemious and even a careless eater. During his legendary intensive bouts of writing, he would wear a monk’s robe and resented the intrusion of mealtimes, preferring to keep himself going with endless cups of stomach-cramping black coffee.

But, when it comes to wine, Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin recommends only the most luxurious of wines

Les vins de Bordeaux, de Bourgogne, blancs, rouges…

Something that apparently, Balzac himself adored.

My Balzac food inspiration:

I think one bottle will be enough to share for my meal!

2. Le Père Goriot or Father of Pasta?

Muhlstein’s Balzacian food book refers to Balzac eating pasta, noted at the time as ‘the height of fashion in Paris’ (p.19).

Balzac apparently had his own pasta supplier on rue Royale, Paris

…where they prepared the pasta by cooking it in the oven, while restaurants usually served it like a mini cannelloni, stuffed with meat, fish or mushrooms (p.19).

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Lessons from French literature - Balzac food inspiration

Perfect for a small starter or a main meal! Before the Revolution, Balzac’s character le Père Goriot was a vermicelli maker and a wise one at that!

Vermicelli is thinner than spaghetti.

With ingredients imported from Sicily and Russia, the ‘Father of Pasta’ knew not only how to make an incredible pasta – but how to make a small fortune from it.

What better than to take advice from the great Père himself?

My Balzac food inspiration:

My research into dishes with Italian Vermicelli found an Italian stew – perfect for those winter nights!

3. The Balzacian main meal

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Lessons from French literature - Balzac food inspiration

After Balzac’s long periods of writing, he apparently loved nothing more than dining on oysters (a hundred or more!)

This was accompanied by…

…salt meadow lamb cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge and a Normandy sole (p.18 – Muhlstein)

My Balzac food inspiration:

These large dishes gave me inspiration in a modern context. I chose to cook Chinese duck with stir-fry, a lamb roast with potatoes, and the occasional fish dish – salmon is my personal favourite!

4. Desserts richer than the King!

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Lessons from French literature - Balzac food inspiration
In Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, dessert was served like an enchantement with pyramids of fruit piled up high: strawberries, oranges, pineapples, and even fruit imported from China.

Balzac then describes the table to be laden with many luxuries such as “les miracles du petit four” – miniature sweet desserts.

And of course, all served with dessert wines!

My Balzac food inspiration:

Although supermarkets occasionally sell French-style cakes, nothing compares to the patisserie française in France.

Alternatively, I recommend making homemade desserts such as eclairs, choux buns, and chocolate petits fours.

5. Une carafe d’eau s’il vous plaît ?

No object in Balzac’s world appears without its inner depth of symbolism, even a jug of water! L’Auberge Rouge shows that the simplicity of a carafe d’eau can, in fact, have a darker, deeper meaning.

The consistent removal or decapitation of the top of the large carafe is associated with the dark crime of M. Taillefer. His actions are shown to reflect his murder.

The emphasis of this carafe is not to be ignored, proving the guilt of the character.

My Balzac food inspiration:

A dark reminder to always have water to hand on the table!

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Lessons from French literature - Balzac food inspiration

What do you think of my Balzac food inspiration? Have you experienced food inspiration from any other French authors? We’d love to hear your comments in the box below.

Image credits:
1 © Jessica Rushton
2. Balzac Vilnius via Facebook
3. Vermicelli, via Flickr
4. Honoré de Balzac, via Wikipedia
5. Macarons via Max pixel
6. Books, via Wikipedia

About the Contributor

Jessica Rushton

I'm a final year French student at University of Nottingham. I am passionate about French literature, in particular nineteenth-century French novels and love escaping to Paris for chocolat chaud. Follow me: my year abroad bloginstagram & twitter!

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