Chantilly's whipped cream frequently tops the desserts, ice creams and fruits of those prone to love to indulge a sweet tooth. Yet, its history is uncertain and its true origins remain, to this day even, strangely mysterious. Legends were born over time, and one of them, the most famous of all, ties it to the great Vatel. Let it be known that none of these stories is true. We felt the need for a few historical details.
The paternity of Chantilly's whipped cream is frequently and wrongly, attributed to Vatel, and linked to a dark day of 1671, in the château of Chantilly's kitchens. François Vatel (Paris, 1631 - Chantilly, 1671) was the head-waiter of Nicolas Fouquet (superintendent of Louis XIV finances) at Vaux-le-Vicomte. After Fouquet's disgrace, Vatel went to work for Louis II of Bourbon-Condé, known as the "Grand Condé", cousin of the king and owner of Chantilly. In April 1671, as Louis XIV arrives in Chantilly to seal his reconciliation with his cousin and the return to grace of Grand Condé after his betrayal during the Fronde, Vatel was in charge. The reception offered to the king and the court, from April 23 to 25, is a succession of feasts, illuminations, hunts, and other entertainments of rarely deployed sumptuosity. On Thursday, when the kitchens faces a shortage of roast, Vatel is humiliated. On Friday, after anxiously awaiting the arrival of a massive fish order, Vatel commits suicide, unable to face the humiliation and his failure to honor his charge.
Most likely inspired by these two shortage issues, the story says that Vatel also ran out of cream and that, in a desperate attempt to make up for the small quantity he had left, he whipped it to increase its volume and called it "Chantilly". It's a nice story. It's also completely untrue. A great many mysteries surrounding this character (his origins, his training, his actual duties...) have contributed to create the "Vatel myth", and he is often misrepresented as a cook, and considered the father of Chantilly's whipped cream. In fact, not one text from this period, including the letters of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter Madame de Grignan, or even the depiction of "La Feste de Chantilly" in a Gazette of the May 8, 1671, mention Chantilly's whipped cream, despite an incredible quantity of details pertaining to the meals and the chain of events during all three days.
Let’s reestablish a bit of truth here. What we do know is that “whipped” creams were indeed served and enjoyed as early as Catherine de Medicis. In 1650, Marie de Bourbon-Condé received the Court in Bagnolet for a meal in which “a lot of milk and a great amount of whipped cream” were served (Lotret, 1650). And, Nicolas de Bonnefons presents, in his “Countryside delicacies”, in 1654, an “arranged cream” recipe:
"Should you whip the cream with birches and add a bit of egg white, it will take the turn of a very light snow, half a foot high in the dish; to maintain its state for a long time, a slice of white bread dough should be placed below to attract any to keep the snow from melting".
Note that there is no mention of sugar in this recipe. A century will pass before the appellation "Chantilly" appears in cookbooks. In 1750, culinary author Menon publishes his book “The Legend of Vatel: the Science of the Super intendant and confectioner destined to officers, with commentaries on the knowledge and proprieties of fruits”. Enriched with drawings and parterres for desserts, it gives the recipe of a cheese à la Chantilly:
"Take a pint of good double cream, add to it a spoonful of orange flower water, you must whip this cream until it rises well, as much as you would of egg whites whipped for ladyfingers. Take a lemon and grate it over half a pound of sugar that you will dry in the oven, you will then grind it and sieve it, in order to incorporate it into the cream & mix them well together, you will leave the result in its dish until you put it on ice. This cheese forms itself in its pan and you do not work it like others; you will need ensure that you have hot water at hand in which to soak your pan before turning it out, you will have to encircle the top of your cheese with a knife around the pan, to soak it only halfway down in water".
Only at the end of the eighteenth century can a real connection between the so-called Chantilly cream and the site itself, be found, at the Hameau of Chantilly. In 1775, Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, prince of Condé, owner of the Chantilly Estate, finds inspiration in the writings of Rousseau and return to nature and to the healthy, simpler life of the farmers as praised by the writers of the time. He asks from his architect, Jean-Francois Leroy, the construction of the Hameau of Chantilly.
Seven farm houses are built, East of the park: a stable, a dairy, a mill, a village cabaret, a barn and two rustic cottages, covered with thatch, form a small village in a shady landscape. While the barn, the dairy and the mill honor their actual functions, the interior of the other buildings offer the unexpected luxury of the Princes’ apartments: a dining room, a pool room, a living room… As early as 1775, the prince of Condé hosts regular dinners and small meals for his close entourage. He also receives quality guests such as the Emperor Joseph II, brother of Marie Antoinette (who will find inspiration for the Hameau of Trianon) in 1777, or Louis XV's daughters themselves. Lit up from every direction, the Hameau becomes the setting for magnificent feasts, concerts, boat rides along the small canal and refined suppers. In 1782, Louis-Joseph even receives the Count of the North, the future tsar Paul Ier, travelling incognito to visit France with his wife, Marie Feodorovna.
Among the guests, there is Marie Feodorovna’s childhood friend, the Baroness of Oberkirch. She provides us with precious details in her memoirs: "Dinner was served at the Hameau, a picturesque reunion of country-style buildings in the middle of the English garden. The largest cabin is covered with foliage of greenery in its interior, while all the tools that a good ploughman might need, can be found outside. We had supper in this cottage’s single oval room, around ten small tables that held ten to twelve seats each. It was convenient, cheerful, unceremonious and perfectly well put together.”
Two years later, the Baroness is, yet again, among the guests for a lunch served in the large thatched cottage. She mentions in her memoirs that "never has she eaten such good cream, so appetizing and well-prepared. There was a certain dish of preserved and early fruits mixed together, wrapped in mousse, wild flowers with birds nests at all four corners, that formed the prettiest possible sight for the eyes."
At last and for the first time, a mention of Chantilly's whipped cream in connection with Chantilly! What still remains is the missing link between the seventeenth century "arranged cream" and the actual whipped cream of 1784. Which cook came up with the idea of adding sugar to the cream? Which guest among those of the Princes of Condé named it Crème Chantilly? Many recipes throughout history have held on to some of the secrets, giving us the opportunity to invent wonderful and entertaining stories.
Often, in gastronomy, names are more than simple historical markers. Rather, they are used trigger and amplify our pleasure through images and evocative dreams. Therefore, as we indulge in Chantilly whipped cream, let us daydream about the fabulous gardens of Chantilly and the delicacies offered during an eighteenth century's country feasts.