Discover the cuisine credentials of France’s most famous novelist – Alexandre Dumas…
In 2002, for the bicentennial of Alexandre Dumas’ birth, then French President Jacques Chirac arranged a ceremony honouring the renowned author by transferring his ashes to the Panthéon, a mausoleum for France’s most distinguished citizens, in Paris. The most read French novelist in the world, Dumas’ remains were laid to rest alongside those of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola, his casket was carried through the street of Paris by Four Republican guards dressed as the 4 Musketeers
Dumas, wrote in an amazing variety of genres – plays, essays, short stories, histories, historical novels, romances, crime stories and travel books. And he also wrote a cookbook: the 1,150-page, Le Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine for he was not only a prolific writer, but a consummate gourmet cook and bon vivant.
Alexandre Dumas – nom de plume
Alexandre Dumas was born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie in 1802 in Villers-Cotterêts, Picardy, France, to Marie-Louise Labouret and General Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie. Dumas’ nom de plume derives from his grandmother on his father’s side, Marie-Cosette Dumas, a Haitian slave, and his grandfather, the Marquis Alexandre– Antoine Davy de La Pailleterie.
His father, Thomas-Alexandre, rose to the distinguished rank of general at the young age of 31 under Napoléon Bonaparte’s command, but died a few years later when Dumas was still a child. His mother, Marie-Louise, struggled to make ends meet and provide an education for her son using the few resources she had. The precocious Dumas’ young appetite lusted for literature and he read everything he could find, while his mother’s stories about his father’s bravery during Bonaparte’s campaigns fuelled his imagination. And, although poor, his paternal grandfather’s aristocratic lineage and his father’s illustrious reputation eventually helped him secure a place in school, and then, in 1822, at the age of 20, a position at the Palais Royal in Paris in the office of the Duc d’Orléans. In his spare time, while working for the Duc, Dumas began writing plays in a Romantic style similar to his contemporary (and later rival) Victor Hugo. They were so popular that he made enough money to quit his job and write full-time.
A man of prodigious appetites
In 1830, King of France Charles X was overthrown and the Duc d’Orléans became the ruler of France: King Louis-Philippe. By now Dumas was making good money and founded a writing studio with a willing cadre of assistants and collaborating writers. His novels including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were so popular they were first translated into English, and then into a hundred languages, and were eventually transformed into over 200 films. The books earned him enormous sums of money and enabled him to indulge his love of sumptuous living. He loved rich food and expensive wine and was said to have more than 40 mistresses – despite being married. He was a man of tremendous energy and enormous self-esteem, described by peers as a giant, both in mind and body. Dumas boasted, “If I were locked in a room with five women, pens, paper, and a play to be written, by the end of an hour I would have finished the five acts and had the five women.”
He also had a castle built which he called the Chateau de Monte-Cristo. In the grounds was a smaller castle which was his writing studio. He called it the Chateau d’If after the setting of The Count of Monte Cristo, a small fortress island in the Bay of Marseille. Here he hosted fabulous parties, serving up dishes he created. The castle is now open to the public, a legacy of Dumas’ fertile imagination.
A consummate cookbook
The idea of writing a cookbook had been in Dumas’ mind for years. He would begin it, he said, “…when I caught the first glimpse of death on the horizon.”
In 1869 he retreated to Normandy with his cook. Six months later, his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine was finished. Of his book he said, “It will be read by wordily people and used by professionals. In cookery as in writing, all things are possible.” He called it his “pillow of my old age.:
True to his vision, Dumas succumbed to a stroke in December 1870.
Dumas’s epicurean tour of the alphabet, from absinthe to zest, is a treasure chest of hundreds of recipes, and reminiscences. Written without measurements, it is a master storyteller’s collection of consummate prose, worthy of being read as literature. Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine was published posthumously in 1873 and remained in print in its original form until the 1950s. In 1882 Le Petit Dictionnaire de Cuisine was published consisting of just Dumas’ recipes. In 2005, Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine was edited, abridged and translated into English by Louis Colman.
Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine is truly a monumental work. Not only amazing for its collection of old world recipes, stories and historical facts, it creates a cumulatively unique portrait of the man himself. Dumas avowed he would not eat pâté de foie gras because the ducks and geese “…are submitted to unheard of tortures worse than those suffered under the early Christians.”
A literary work – not just recipes
And his description of the perfect number of dinner guests within the parentheses of ancient history still holds true today: “…Varro, the learned librarian, tells us that the number of guests at a Roman dinner was ordinarily three or nine. As many as the Graces, no more than the Muses. Among the Greeks, there were sometimes seven diners, in honour of Pallas. The sterile number seven was consecrated to the goddess of wisdom, as a symbol of her virginity. But the Greeks especially liked the number six, because it is round. Plato favoured the number 28, in honour of Phoebe, who runs her course in 28 days. The Emperor Verus wanted 12 guests at his table in honour of Jupiter, which takes 12 years to revolve around the sun. Augustus, under whose reign women began to take their place in Roman society, habitually had 12 men and 12 women, in honour of the 12 gods and goddesses. In France, any number except 13 is good.”
For Dumas a perfect dinner is also “a major daily activity which can be accomplished in worthy fashion only by intelligent people. It is not enough to eat. To dine, there must be diversified conversation which should sparkle with rubies of wine between courses, be deliciously suave with the sweetness of dessert and acquire true profundity by the time coffee is served.”
Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France where she runs French Country Adventures which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Tarn, Provence and beyond…