Surprising Stories: Chantilly Cream

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Chantilly cream is a crowd-pleaser: from a dollop on fresh summer berries to a transformative spoonful that makes a cup of coffee into a tantalizing dessert, Chantilly cream is a world renown gastronomic delight. This week’s Surprising Story looks at the history of this Chantilly cream—whipped milk combined with sugar—and how it was concocted for celebrations at the most famous garden parties in seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

La confection de la crème fouettée à l’aide du fouet composé de plusieurs tiges nouées. The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro Cuoco, Translated with Commentary by Terence Scully, Toronto, Buffalo, London, University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. 639.

To understand the history of Chantilly cream we actually have to go back to the sixteenth century and the arrival of Catherine de Medici. The future Queen of France is credited by food historians with introducing Italian milk and cheese recipes to the French court. Catherine, who toured France with her son Charles, spread many innovative Italian foodways, including the use of the fork, north of the Alps. It was not until a century later that French chefs began to experiment with creams, notably for sauces and soups, when it was used to blend butter and cheese. In his early eighteenth century cookbooks, the author known ad Menon advises that creams should be set in cheese molds and then flavored with rose water which still evokes the Italian traditions. However, it was not until the importation of sugar to Europe that Chantilly cream could be invented. 


Whipping Cream, Ryan Hyde / Flickr

When Nicholas Fouquet, one of the young Louis XIV’s most talented ministers, hosted a party in the king’s honor at his private estate at Vaux le Vicomte, he commissioned François Vatel, to create a sumptuous feast. Born Fritz Watel in 1631, after finishing his apprenticeship in pastry, he served as a royal “ecuyer de cuisine” and it was during this role that he may have mixed sugar and cream for the dessert table. Fouquet’s fabulous, but ill-fated party was held on August 17, 1661, a time of year when the desire for fresh  foods would have appealed to the guests.

Crème fouetée was whipped with willow or thrush branches and had already been noted in cookbooks,  Fouquet would have been able to procure sugar, still considered a medicine and a spice,  for his guests, but we cannot assure that Vatel created the iconic dessert at this time. Fouquet, despite his attention to every detail of the party, was arrested for embezzlement two weeks later, and Vatel was out of a job. At first he fled to England to distance himself from his previous disgraced employer, however, upon his return in 1663, was hired by Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé to work as his chef at the Château de Chantilly. 

Did Vatel experiment with a sugared cream recipe at Chantilly? Perhaps, but we do not have a documented source to verify the recipe. Contemporary cookbooks reveal that sugared fruits, cheeses, and ices, or cooled milk drinks, were available. The sumptuous dinners at Chantilly remain famous, however, for one of the tragedies of French culinary history. Vatel served as maître d’hotel on the occasion of the party Condé hosted for his cousin Louis XIV held from April 23-25, 1671. Vatel had fifteen days to prepare for a visit for over 600 nobles, supervising food, fireworks, and ballet performances. Vatel, apparently overcome with anxiety, stabbed himself for fear that he could not provide fresh fish for the meal. Despite his tragic end, Vatel’s reputation for innovation would go down in history, appearing in eighteenth century recipe books such as Les Soupers de la Cour, ou l’art de travailler toutes sortes d’aliments pour servir les meilleures tables

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that a real association between the so-called “Chantilly” cream and the site itself could be established. The Grand Condé’s descendent, Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, built a hamlet on the grounds of Chantilly, similar to Marie Antoinette’s Hameau at Versailles, that included a dairy where guests were invited to taste the delicious cheeses and creams. By this time, the trans-Atlantic sugar trade, supported by slavery in the Caribbean, made sugar more accessible on European tables.  Despite the inequalities in the sugar trade, aristocrats indulged in the new taste sensations. Invited in 1784 to a party at the hamlet, the memorialist, the Baronne Oberkampf, recorded for the first time, sugared creams as one of the desserts served in the hamlet, forever associating sugar and cream with  Chantilly. 

Today, the Chateau of Chantilly  we can taste a bona fide crème Chantilly, with cream containing at least 35 percent fat, vanilla and confectioners’ sugar at the hamletimagining princes, queens and the first celebrity chef, Vatel, who first tasted whipped cream desserts in their gardens. 

Join us on an insightful and delectable visit to Chantilly as part of our full day excursion to this splendid chateau. This is also perfectly paired with a day trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte which completes the historical narrative. More on these excursions at this link.

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