Blood is an essential ingredient to the vintage French dish, lièvre à la royale, or slow-cooked hare that’s dressed with a sauce made of the red stuff. Food writer David Downie makes the connection of blood’s role in the dish and French history in his latest book, A Taste Of Paris. In the excerpt below, Downie rehashes the history of King Louis XIII’s fatherhood troubles through a bloody lens while looking at the how lièvre à la royale is served today by the likes of Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse.
Thicker Than Water
As any cook will tell you, blood is not just thicker than water it takes longer to come to a boil or reduce in a recipe for slow-simmered pressed duck or, better, lièvre à la royale. The creature’s vital juices are an essential part of the regal hare recipe, and blood is equally essential in the tale of Mazzarino and Louis XIV.
For centuries a controversy has boiled and bubbled about Louis XIII’s presumed inability to sire an heir, and the “miraculous” birth of the little Sun King after decades of barren wedlock to Anne of Austria. Both putative parents were thirty-seven years old, he a geezer with “the libido of a goldfish” as one pundit has put it and she an old maid by the standards of the day. Royalists and other apologists explain the miracle with meteorology, calendars, and dynastic pressures, which presumably spurred performance. Conspiracy theorists, most of them left-wing “republicans,” ferret out “real” biological parents and have turned up many, especially on the woman-shy father’s side.
Among the candidates for biological father is the sly, red-robed Cardinal Richelieu, though he was an antique by 1637 when conception occurred. Alternates are a collection of noblemen including a naturalized German, and that other wily lay cardinal, Jules Mazarin.
As the godlike Divine Right arm of church and state, the Sun King was not just any old French monarch. It is bad enough Louis’ putative mother Anne was a Habsburg therefore a blend of Austro-Hungarian-Spanish. Imagine him a bastard with a German or, God forbid, a low-born Italian father—and no French blood à la royale. Maria’s grandson, Luigi, not français, impossible!
Mazzarino wasn’t just Louis XIV’s closest advisor and minister, the anointed heir of Richelieu. He was said to treat the king as if he were his son. It’s clear from the secret correspondence of Mazarin and Anne of Austria that they were in love. Louis responded to Giulio with filial adoration. Not even the most flagrant nationalist hagiographer can deny Mazarin molded Louis’ taste in everything—especially art and culture—and they even looked like father and son.
Blood to the rescue again! After centuries of quarreling, a Franco-Spanish crack team of historians, forensic scientists, DNA experts, and others in the medical community joined the fray a few years back. Exhibits were produced. One was the presumed mummified head of Henri IV, fountainhead of the Bourbon bloodline, another an heirloom handkerchief soaked with the presumed blood of Louis XVI, blood mopped up by an admirer when the king was guillotined in 1793 and jealously preserved since then by an aristocratic Italian clan.
What were the conclusions? Initial reports claimed the two samples had an identical genetic profile determined by male descent. What did that mean? It meant Louis XIII was perforce Louis XIV’s father and therefore the genetic, biological forebear of the rest of the Bourbon kings. Joy! The honor of the nation saved!
Like rival chefs cooking up the same royal jackrabbit, however, hairsplitters soon spoiled the dish. The controversy continues to simmer. Richelieu and Mazzarino are still in the running much to the chagrin of royalists, of which there are distressingly many in France. Why Richelieu isn’t exhumed from the crypt of the Sorbonne and why Mazzarino’s many relatives’ genetic material is not tested is an open question. Maybe no one has thought of that or maybe the investigators fear the results?
The upshot is there’s no guaranteed genetic explanation for why the Bourbon dynasty boasted so many Maria de’ Medici spin-offs: large, ravenous specimens of humanity; robust eaters, lovers of strong meat and flowing wine; kings, queens, princes, and princesses whose tumultuous Old-Régime love affair with food has inspired generations of Frenchmen and -women who emulate their example today and devour lièvre whenever possible.
Peppery, winey, long-cooked jackrabbit in roulade or pudding form, with or without foie gras has become a cult revival dish served by better bistros like Café Tournon and multiple-starred temples alike. The televangelists of revamped nouvelle and the high priests of haute have conveniently rediscovered not just terroir but also their royal roots. Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Eric Fréchon, Paul Bocuse, and who knows how many other stellar performers feature the dish on their menus at premium prices. Some insist on Chambertin for the marinade and sauce—that’s $50 a bottle and up, up, up for a single ingredient. The foie gras comes gilded.
Perhaps part of the attraction of this longest, most complicated and challenging of classic recipes of early haute cuisine derives from the prophetic words of Senator Couteaux: “The garlic and shallots must be minced so fine that each attains a near-molecular state.” Molecular, did he say? There really is nothing nouveau under the Parisian sun.
Paroxysms of contemporary jackrabbit fever have even engendered an annual competition in the town of Romorantin in the hare heartland of the Sologne region south of Paris. Battle lines are drawn, there’s no running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, you belong to one side or another. Historians writing in learned journals wrangle with populists and their tabloids. Chefs fling spoons, roulades, and molecules; gourmands and gourmets come to blows over which recipe is the most “authentic,” “oldest,” or “the best.” No one is really sure when the concoction was invented or named and by which chef, probably because there are so many variations on the theme spanning centuries. The deboned “pudding” recipe was supposedly perfected for the elderly, toothless Louis XIV who died in 1715, but the closest thing to it I’ve found only dates to 1755 so this may be yet another apocryphal tale. As Anglo-Saxon partisans of simplicity have observed, it’s instructive to recall what the original gastronome Archestratos urged four centuries before the Christian era. “Many are the ways and many the recipes for dressing hares,” the wise man wrote. “But this is the best recipe of all. Place before hungry guests a slice of roasted meat fresh from the spit, hot, seasoned only with plain simple salt, not overdone. Do not be put off by blood trickling from the meat. Eat eagerly. All other ways are superfluous, especially the cooks’ pouring of sticky gooey sauce upon it, shavings of cheese, and lees, and dregs of oil, as if they were preparing a dog’s breakfast.”
A select reading of Archestratos by French chefs focuses on the appetizing “blood trickling from the meat,” not for this recipe, perhaps, which requires long simmering, but for so many others.
Conventional wisdom has it that to understand the modern French, questers must unravel the mysteries of the Sun King’s court. Louis XIV is a French god even to republican atheists. This adage is assumed to apply not just to politics, culture, and behavior in general, but also to cuisine, manners, and art de la table. Conventional wisdom is not always wrong.
Now that you know the Sun King’s hare was around in one form or another and perhaps under a pseudonym before he was born, and the French Academy was also already in session, and that nothing comes from nowhere, including forks and foie gras, you can safely board an RER commuter train a few blocks upstream or downstream from the Mazarin Library and ride out to Versailles for a look-see.