Louis XIV: The King Who Shaped Dining Etiquette
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

IN literature and cinema, the phrase ‘eat like a king’ is possibly one of the most overused culinary expressions. While the saying typically conveys a sense of gluttonous indulgence, it also prompts us to consider whether it may, in fact, be a subtle nod to historical dining customs and etiquettes from times past.

Be that as it may, the birth anniversary of legendary French monarch King Louis XIV last month draws attention to his staggering contributions towards dining etiquettes as we know them. With the longest tenure of sovereign rule in history, the French monarch, referred to as the Sun King, played a pivotal role in initiating the culinary revolution of the 17th century almost singlehandedly. His fondness for gourmet food, his passion for gardening and fresh produce laid the foundation for the culinary transformation that would elevate French cuisine to the pinnacle of international gastronomy. 

That food and dining rituals were a non-negotiable aspect of Louis XIV’s illustrious reign is evidenced in two things. The first, that historians have extensively chronicled the excesses of Louis XIV and his court. It is said that the king would consume in between 20 to 30 meals everyday, which would comprise different soups, salads, whole pheasants and partridges and slices of ham, “all followed by fruit and hard-boiled eggs,” according the king’s sister-in-law, Princess Palatine. To contextualise (and for the gasp), his voracious appetite has even been a subject of a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not feature. 

The second is, shortly after the young king assumed the throne in 1643, "Le cuisinier françois”, (1651) (The French Cook), possibly one of the most influential cookbooks for French cuisine, was published. The book was divided by course, offering comprehensive menus for various seasons and festive occasions. Among other things, the book also pioneered modern-day garnishing by laying out instructions on “delicately readying” a plate of food with flowers. 

King Louis’ dining table

Coming back to the grandeur of King Louis’ dining table, it is said a staggering 324 person staff was involved in preparing meals for the Sun King. They were part of the Service de Bouche, which managed every aspect of the royal dining.  

The initial course of a royal meal, known as "hors d'oeuvre," comprised appetisers that included pheasant, pâté, shellfish, crustaceans, and various soups. These dishes remained on the table throughout the meal. Each dish was meticulously presented first to the King and then to all present, with a detailed description of its contents. Serving these dishes was no small feat, often requiring up to forty men just to transport them to the king's table.

Once the dishes had been presented to all, they were carefully arranged on the table, following a specific pattern, such as a diamond or square shape. The larger dishes occupied the centre, surrounded by smaller ones. King Louis XIV would signal when he finished a course, so that the next course to be brought in.

After the hors d'oeuvre, a wide array of dishes followed, including roasts and pies made with chicken, duck, capon, pigeons, turkey, boar, pullet, venison, hare, fish, woodcocks, beef, lamb, calf, oysters, sea-fruit, and even turtles, each accompanied by rice or vegetables. The vegetables, like peas and beans, were sourced from the Kitchen Garden of Versailles. The ingredients for the Sun King's meals were always seasonal and locally-sourced, except for the fish, which was transported from the coast to Paris and then to Versailles, arriving as early as 5 o'clock in the morning.

All this feasting naturally led to thirst, and the king enjoyed washing his meals down with either wine or champagne, which subsequently invited the chagrin of his physicians. Concerned about his health as he aged, his doctors prescribed watered-down Burgundy instead of champagne. Additionally, Louis consumed sage beverages, following the advice of his physicians as he grew older.

Dining customs

Louis XIV's court abounded with unwritten rules. Elbows on the table, blowing on hot soup, overindulgence leading to a hiccup, or discussing the merits of the fare—all were deemed grave breaches of decorum. A cacophonous voice or any undue noise while partaking in a meal was met with disdain.

Forks, as we understand them today, were rejected by Louis XIV. Even his own offspring were discouraged from using them. These forks, reminiscent of carving implements, possessed just two prongs, blurring the line between utensil and potential weapon. Knives, on the other hand, were permitted but came with a caveat—they must sport round and blunt ends. Cardinal Richelieu introduced this culinary decree in 1637 to discourage guests from deploying their knives as toothpicks. In 1669, Louis XIV decreed that all dinner knives, even those carried on the streets, must adopt rounded and dulled blades. 

Dining, thus, entailed wielding a spoon, a rounded knife, and one's own fingers. The prevailing etiquette demanded that fingers be discreetly cleansed with a serviette, never on the pristine tablecloth. Meat and bread, in particular, were not to be torn but meticulously cut with the knife.

There was a conspicuous absence of goblets or glasses. Each guest had their own drinking vessel, either provided by the host or brought along. These vessels discreetly rested on side tables. Thirsty diners refrained from making their needs overt; instead, they subtly signalled their servants. Loud demands were considered inappropriate, and placing one's glass on the table was a forbidden act. Even the Sun King, when parched, would softly express his desire, by proclaiming, "Vin pour le Roi." A glass would promptly be filled and offered. 

Codes of decorum

By the late 1720s, the French court instituted elaborate codes and rules on the aristocracy, including specific guidelines for napkin usage. A 1729 French document emphasised that using a napkin for facial wiping or teeth cleaning was impolite, and nose wiping was deemed “downright vulgar”.

In addition, the etiquette of 1729 dictated that the individual of highest rank at an event should be the first to open their napkin, with others following suit after this signal. In gatherings of equals, everyone would simultaneously unfurl their napkins without formalities.

Naturally, the courtiers emulated the king's lavish dining practices, leading to extravagant feasts not only within the confines of Versailles but also in and around the capital. 

This emulation of the aristocracy by lesser nobles and, in turn, by the bourgeoisie was a common pattern in French culture. It seemed to contrast with the broader societal trend where the bourgeoisie challenged aristocratic ideals. However, when applied to the history of French cuisine, this assertion takes on a different perspective. The aristocracy at Versailles served as the primary influencers, and lesser nobles in the capital followed suit, eventually trickling down to the bourgeoisie in Paris who could afford to replicate these culinary extravagances.