Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Countess Castiglione, Maison Dorée and Chicken Bordelaise

One of a series from 1863-66, taken when she was was not yet 30.

Have you seen this photograph?  Its arresting image has been grabbing imaginations since its first public viewing at the dawn of the 20th century.  It was loved by the Surrealists and has continued to captivate, surfacing throughout the 20th and into the 21st century as an iconic image from the early days of photography. 

At the opening of the 21th century, a book was published about the woman behind the frame, Virginia Oldoini, Countess Castiglioni.   La Divine Comtesse was created by Pierre Apraxine and Xavier Demange  (curators of the Gilman Paper Collection that was absorbed by the Metropolitan Museum in NYC) in 2000.   I found it on my bookshelf a few weeks ago and couldn’t resist peering at the remarkable images again –– they draw you in.

Robert de Montesquiou by Boldini, 1897

The title is an homage to an earlier, 1913 book by one of Marcel Proust’s inspirations, Robert de Montesquiou who idolized the countess even though he had never met her. He did see her in her coffin moments before it was closed forever “Time is running out, I must act…. At the hour appointed for the closing of the casket I went up the tiny staircase at Voisin which led to her suite of minute rooms…A narrow door appeared in front of me…. In the middle of the bedroom, on the floor, was a coffin about to be closed.  There was for me a flash of light in the brief glimpse of the pale, beautiful, noble, solemn face of death, on the point of vanishing forever.”

He bought many photographs and other personal items from her estate after she died, and created a shrine for her in his Palais Rose in Paris. The newer book tells the story of the image-obsessed Countess and includes many of the finest specimens of her self-obsession from the 400 photographs she had taken of herself over 40 years.  She’s been called everything from an insane narcissist to the original Cindy Sherman.  The truth is, Virginia was an original and in many ways a metaphor for the lost grandeur and beauty of the 2nd Empire that was not to be regained, no matter how much one wished for it to be so. She was also a tragic figure who could not accept the cruel truth that she had grown old and lost her greatest treasure –– her beauty. 

Countess Castiglione lived from 1837 to 1899,  but her star flared for only a few short years of the 2nd Empire –– during the reign of her one-time lover, Napoleon III. 

Henri de Pene (founder of Le Gaulois in 1868) wrote in the Nord in 1856:

"Decidedly, the queen of the season
has been appointed. It is that incomparable beauty
sent us by Italy, Madame the Countess de Castiglione.
The Italian woman in Paris, such is the title of a
symphony chanted by admiration from morning to
night and from night to morning. Every one seeks
to outvie his neighbor in praising her profile, her hair,
her eyes ; and, supreme consecration of her royalty,
she already has enemies."

The Countess, 1861-3, replaying her 1857 social triumph as the Queen of Hearts

Her great triumph came in 1857. Wearing the costume of the Queen of Hearts she stole the show at the ball.  That night, Princess Merrnich said that she was "rendered speechless by this miracle of beauty: wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the color of pink marble!  In a word, Venus descended from Olympus.  Never have I seen beauty to rival hers, not shall I see her like again.” 

But the flip side of the praise was also universal “She seemed so full of her triumphant beauty, she was so preoccupied by it that after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves.  Not a movement, not a gesture was unstudied.”

An 1898 book, The Court of the 2nd Empire quoted:

“A woman has just entered the ballroom, and all eyes are presently concentrated on her. It is the Countess de Castiglione, the most fashionable of the reigning beauties. For a year society has been talking of her. “

“The Countess is not lavish of herself. She seldom appears in society. Whenever she does so it is an event. Behold her entering the salons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the middle of the ___ She is dressed as the queen of hearts, a symbolic costume, for it is an allusion to the innumerable hearts which the Countess "draws after her," as
Racine would have said. On her head glitters a crown formed of hearts. Her marvellous hair ripples around her forehead and falls in cascades on her neck. Her skirts and corsage are laced with chains composed of hearts. Her train is caught up on the hip. 'Tis a bewitching costume.”

In the 1921 book, The True Story of Empress Eugenie, author de Savoie-Soissons found written about that night:

“Last night (February 17, 1857) there was a
fancy-dress ball at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Countess de Castiglione, who, they say, is on
the most intimate terms with the Emperor, had
the most fantastic and daring costume imaginable.
Half Louis XIV, half modern, it won her the title
of Dame des ronm [sp?], because of the numerous hearts
embroidered on the gown. Wise people murmured, '
There is not an Emperor, but the Emperor and La Castiglione
his prophet.' More than one woman let loose her jealousy;
impartial men thought, but did not say, ' I would like to be
the Emperor.'

"As to the Countess, she carried the weight of
her beauty insolently. The proud Countess does
not wear corsets ; she would willingly be a model to
a Phidias, if there were one, and she would pose
clad only in her beauty. La Castiglione is a
courtesan like Aspasia ; she is proud of her beauty
and she veils it only as much as is necessary to be
admitted into a drawing-room."

While Vieil-Castel christens her Aspasia, Fleury
calls her a female Narcissus, always in adoration
before her own beauty, ambitious without grace
and haughty without reason.

Her reign was of a short duration ; it lasted only
about one year, during which time she resided at
53 rue Montaigne.”

Triumph was fleeting.  Her hauteur ticked a lot of powerful people off…

Castiglione as The Queen of Ertruria, 1863

She virtually disappeared from the world after she convinced Otto von Bismark not to pillage Paris in 1871 (she had been involved in political intrigue for many years, perhaps taking lovers to advance various causes at the request of her ‘handlers’).  She had lost her shine much earlier and was considered passé by 1863 when she wore the costume of a Queen of Ertruria for another grand fancy-dress ball.  Her performance was lauded by the press but ridiculed by her detractors (most notably, the Empress and former fan, Princess Mernich).

After many travels and much moving between Italy and France with decreased circumstances (she had run through 2 million francs of her husband’s money before he died in 1867, wiping out his family fortune on top of more millions from ‘admirers’), she entombed herself in black, mirror-less rooms on the Place Vêndome in 1878, only venturing at night, veiled, to walk her precious dogs when lighting was more kind. 

1895 photograph by Pierson

She came out again in the 1890’s to have more photographs taken by Pierson –– photographs of the ruin she had become –– a lonely, toothless, probably mad alchoholic wearing 30 year-old clothes.

However, for a bright moment she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world.  And in the mind of many, she was a symbol of the beauty of a lost radiant world.

Portrait as a young woman of 20 by Watts  in 1857

Thing is, the 2nd Empire was considered a golden time by Proust and many of his fin de siècle pals, especially Robert de Montesquiou.  Most of them came of age just after it ended with a crash in 1870.

In a way, that world ended with the Siege of Paris, not unlike the way the culture of the anti-bellum American South evaporated with the Civil War –– many felt the wrenching loss of a way of life that had seemed gracious, fine and full of glorious, hoop-skirted excess.  Proust often referred to that life before the Siege of Paris in 1870 with enormous longing –– the beautiful Portuguese word, saudade, says it best –– " a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist ... a turning towards the past or towards the future."

I have often wondered if Proust's obsession with food (which he thought about more that he ate) came from the want of those times when rich and poor had nothing to eat (there is a famous menu from one of Paris' finest restaurants that featured dog and rat). Stories of golden meals at places like Maison Dorée and Café Anglais must have replaced some hunger pains with dreams of better times.

Very few places were more golden than La Maison Dorée.
Maison Dorée

Originally called “Restaurant of the Cité”, its gilded balconies and luxurious interiors soon had the public to referring to it as Maison Dorée and the name stuck.

Cabinet at Maison Dorée

Wikipedia said that the restaurant had different entrances for different classes of patrons. The entrance on rue Lafitte was for the best patrons, the boulevard entrance for the well-heeled masses.    The rue Lafitte entrance led to the infamous private rooms or ‘cabinets’ where rich and famous men entertained their lady friends ‘privately’.

Maison Dorée saw the very best of society and the arts.  Proust staged an important scene from Remembrance of Things Past there.  Everyone from Edward VII to Balzac and Alexander Dumas (who had the offices of his newspaper, Le Mousquetaire, in the building) were regular patrons. The neighborhood hummed with creative energy, lubricated by the monied class and the fabulous food of the restaurant.

An 1847 article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine exclaimed “The potage a la bisque is irreproachable: the truffles, those black diamonds of the epicure, are the pick of Perigueux: the chambertin is of the old green seal, the sparkling ai frappe to a turn, and, whilst we tranquilly degustate and deliberately imbibe, the influence of that greatest achievement of human genius, a good dinner, percolates through our system…. We feel ineffably benevolent…. Sad is it that not even in this Golden Mansion can a feeble child of clay dine twice.  We long for the appetite of a Dando, for the digestion of the bird of the desert, to recommence our meal form the soup to the fondu.”

The Boston Evening Transcript mourned the loss of Maison Dorée in 1903 “ The Maison Dorée held out the longest.  Casimir, a true Verdier chef, has not yielded to democracy nor has he given up primeurs [first vegetables of the season] for preserved vegetables.... But the character of the place has departed, as the Parisian life which once animated it has dwindled…. The Olympians of the Boulevard are forever gone.”

The brilliant chef, Casimir Moisson was a gem.  When he retired in 1903, Le Petit Journal du Passé wrote (in French and translated):

"Mr. Casimir was primarily an artist, he left nothing to chance. Only the finest food entered his kitchen. He triumphed in the art of preparing fish (including carp in red wine) and, by popular demand, his handwritten recipes have been around the world without ever having been executed. The braised dishes, under his hand, attained a succulence that won admiration. His chops a la Soubise, his loins of veal, its fricandeaux, plats de côte, its tails and beef skirts, his stews, its fat melted in the mouth like candy. His stews developed an aroma that enveloped the house and neighborhood. As gourmets wanted to be warned of the presence of certain dishes on the menu of the day!"

"Has ever a more perfect food come out of a kitchen than his “chicken Maison Dorée?”  He was renowned for his game pâtés and foie gras. He had a special reputation in Maison Dorée with blocks of woodcock stuffed with foie gras and fresh truffles we tried in vain to imitate.”

One has only to look to the great Alexandre Dumas (pere), of 3 Musketeers fame,  and his Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (available in its 1200 page entirety online HERE if you read French) to see what was eaten in the golden time of the boulevardiers, grissettes and lorettes  (the women of money or beauty who chased life and love for money or for fun – often kept by gentlemen of means) who frequented Maison Dorée.  

Alexandre Dumas (fils)’ 1848 La Dame aux Camellias captured the grissettes and lorettes  beautifully – both the bright flame of their youth and beauty and the wrenching misery of their later lives past their prime when they were heartlessly discarded like an out-of-fashion frock. Our Countess was surely a casualty of this cold reality –– the madness that descended upon her may have shielded her from knowing it.

Alexandre Dumas Dictionary of Cuisine was a labor of love that was published after his death.  It is an amazing work that talks about food in a creative, joyful way.  The man loved to eat well and it shows.  Fortunate for me, it also contains menus from that golden age of Parisian dining in the 2nd Empire.  The menu that follows comes from a meal at Maison Dorée that he had shared with friends one Spring… could be anywhere from the 1840s to 60s.  That is not clear.  What is clear is that is it a brilliant offering of food that would delight any gourmand today.

Menu d'un dîner, 15 Avril. 

Deux potages. 

Printanier aux oeufs pochés. 


Un relevé. 

Truite saumonée genevoise. 

Quatre entrées.

Côtelettes d'agneau pointes d'asperges. 

Ris de veau petits pois. 

Poulet sauté bordelaise. 

Mayonnaise de homard.


Caneton de Rouen. 

Quatre entremets. 

Asperges en branches. 

Haricots verts nouveaux. 

Plombière dans une croustade. 

Gelée d'ananas. 


Fruits de saison.

Vins rouges.

Bordeaux et Bourgogne. 

Vins blancs. 

Clos Saint-Robert Poncet Deville et Champagne Saint-Marceaux.

In considering what to make with so many glorious choices, I went for something familiar…Poulet sauté bordelaise –– chicken bordelaise. Bordelaise is just one of those sauces that defines old haute cuisine and with reason, it is terribly good (and not that hard to make!).

A little investigation showed me that bordelaise was not always the dark, red-wined version we know today.  It seems when the wine sauce was used with chicken or fish it was made with white wine.

A charming 1914 book that I have found indispensible is Le Repertoire De La CuisineIt explains all the terms that are used in classic French cooking.  In it, the directions for chicken with a sauce bordelaise are: “ Saute, swill with white wine, half-glaze (demi-glace) and chopped shallots, garnish with artichoke bottoms in quarters, roundels of fried onions, and sauté potatoes.” 

In Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine the recipe is  slightly different: “6 T wine (white or red), 1 t chopped shallot, pinch of course pepper. 2 T demi-glace sauce, a little tomato sauce, 1 ½ oz beef marrow.  You reduce the wine to half with the shallot and pepper then add demi-glace and tomato.  Boil and strain.  Add beef marrow cut into rings and poached in meat stock…”  but then, this is a sauce for beef.  

I read an early version of the sauce was made with sauterne in The Royal Cookery Book (Le livre de cuisine) by Jules Gouffe from 1869.  It used “2 gills of sauterne reduced to half with 1 pinch pepper and 1 T of shallots (blanched and chopped) as well as 1 pint of Espagnole sauce (a butter and flour thickened meat sauce), reduced for 5 minutes to which is added 1 T chopped parsley”.

I combined a bit of all of them for my recipe and added a few mushrooms to the mix. Let me just say, this stuff is awesome. It makes anything it touches taste madly delicious –– the potatoes and artichokes are perfect for the dish.

I am looking forward to doing the whole menu one of these days to give my friends a taste of that golden age.  Something tells me they will be thrilled.  We won’t forget to toast the Countess, wherever she may be. My toast??  I hope she has had her beauty restored and is posing happily in the Empyrean.

Chicken Bordelaise inspired by Maison Dorée, serves 2

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2- 4 T butter (you can use smaller amounts of butter if you want the sauce lighter)
1 shallot, chopped
8 chanterelle mushrooms (optional)
8 morel mushrooms (optional)
½ c white wine
1 T sauternes (optional)
 ¼ c demi-glace (available from D'Artagnan)
salt and pepper to taste
1 T chopped parsley

1 artichoke, steamed till done then peeled and sliced in half
4 asparagus, sliced in 1/2 and steamed

*Fried Potatoes

1 large potato, sliced thinly
1 T butter
1T oil
½ t thyme
salt and pepper to taste

**Fried Onions

1 small onion, sliced.
1 T olive oil

Sauté the chicken breasts (after seasoning them with salt and pepper) in 2 T butter and remove when nearly done.  Reserve, covered.

Sauté the chopped shallot in the remaining butter.  Add the mushrooms and sauté.  Remove the mushrooms to the plate with the chicken and cover.  Add the white wine and sauterne and reduce by at least half till it thickens.  Add the demi-glace and warm.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

*Heat the butter and oil for the potato cake.  Place slices around the skillet in 2 circles or ovals and season.  Sauté on one side until brown and then gently flip the potatoes and brown the other side (this will take about as long as making the chicken).

** Sauté the onion slices slowly until translucent and slightly browned.

Warm the chicken and mushrooms in a separate pan. You can strain the sauce if you wish and re-heat. Place the chicken on the potato cakes with steamed artichoke hearts, asparagus and fried onions. Sprinkle with mushrooms and spoon the sauce over the chicken.  Sprinkle with parsley.


SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I would guess the idiom "The bigger they are, the harder they fall" holds true here! Don't you just wonder what it would be like to hold a conversation with her! What a grand rise and amazing fall from grace and interesting read!

No fall from grace as far as the Chicken Bordelaise, though. Although I'll probably not be using morel mushrooms, it sounds like a delicious dish.

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

Ooo! What an interesting read on Countess Castiflione. I love the first photo you posted. What a fabulous phote!

Forex Expert Advisor said...

beautiful photos. i like all the photos you have posted over here . Thanks for such snaps.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of her before but she sounds like an absolutely fascinating woman! :o

Diane said...

I really found this post full of interesting things and very educational. The recipe looks delicious, but I just love your plate :) Have a great weekend. Diane

Barbara said...

Fascinating, Deana. And I loved this quote: “She seemed so full of her triumphant beauty, she was so preoccupied by it that after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves. Not a movement, not a gesture was unstudied.” No wonder her star didn't last...other women would have put an end to that.

Now...morels. If I were in Michigan, this is the season for foraging for them. We did it every year. Did you find some fresh at Dean and Deluca? (I've seen them there in the spring, and in Paris....they were HUGE!)
A magnificent plate filled with luscious food!

Fresh Local and Best said...

This is an epic story! Oh those beautiful dresses that she wore! How magnificent! What a time to be a socialite. The chicken Bordelaise looks so elegant against the beautiful sunny plate.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

My dear,

Your historical articles are just mesmerizing here! And the photos are equally eery in the sense that we so often see vintage photos of people in grand costumes (my grandparents especially), but when you learn more about these people and what they did, I could just stare into their gaze for hours and examine and only WONDER how they saw the world. What a beautiful woman indeed, and the magnificent artifacts of Paris at this time. CAFÉ ANGLAIS....I remember this from Babette's Feast, which I know you are so familiar with.

You are amazing. Your comment on my post was so eloquently written and is dear to me. Our mother's indeed allowed us to be who we are, not knowing the full impact of their character in the shaping of our womanhood. Oh, if only my mother knew how much I turned out just like her.

I send you greetings of LOVE and friendship dearest! BON APÉTIT! Anita

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating photo, the first one, and very interesting to learn about Countess Castiflione. The chicken bordelaise sounds fantastic!

Sarah said...

Looks delicious but I am always amazed by the wonderful serving pieces you have.

Noree said...

What an entrancing story! And such mesmerizing photos, her dresses were beyond beautiful!

Linda said...

Deana...every time I leave here I am better for it...
Thank you so much!

Kathy (Kieliszewski) Widdis said...

Thank you for sharing this recipe and of course, the story. I made a simpler version with just the chicken, morels (they are in season in Michigan!) and roasted some potatoes with thyme. The sauce was amazing and I'm glad I made enough for leftovers!

Lucindaville said...

Loved the post. We wrote about it here: http://lucindaville.blogspot.com/2012/05/countess-de-castiglione-and-joy-of-blog.html

Lori Lynn said...

Your posts are always so interesting and unique Deana. The dish sounds lovely.
P.S. I adore your china!