The discovery of a long- lost story about an 18th- century French salad- maker in London sends Matt Preston on a quest to find the truth behind this trendsetter
traces the origins of salad.
STANDING in London’s Grosvenor Square today it’s perhaps hard to imagine that this was once one of the most sought-after addresses for the English aristocracy. Now it’s notable as the location of the US embassy and faceless apartment buildings have replaced the grand mansions that ringed the gardens in Georgian times. Yet it was here, to one of those grand mansions, that a penniless French nobleman turned up one evening in about 1792 to dress a salad for the lord of the manor and his society guests.
Salads were all the rage in smart society and young Monsieur d’albignac, who had fled to London during the French Revolution, had impressed the son and heir of the household when challenged to dress his salad ‘in the French manner’ at the local tavern. The young toff recommended d’albignac to his father and rewarded the plucky Frenchman with a £5 note, around £1,400 in today’s money.
Little did d’albignac know that he was set to become fêted across London society as the must-have for any grand soirée for many seasons.
His riches-to-rags-toriches story was told in a breathless manner by the news-sheets of the day and recounted by my great-great-great-great-great uncle AV (Andrew Valentine) Kirwan in his little-read tome Host and Guest (1864) and by France’s acclaimed food writer Jean-anthelme Brillat-savarin in his The Physiology of Taste (1825). He said rather archly that the success of d’albignac (or d’aubignac – Brillat-savarin wasn’t sure) came in “a country where all novelties are sought-after”.
As his French-vinaigrette fame spread so did d’albignac’s showmanship. He would appear at the door in a smart carriage, with a crisply liveried servant carrying his mysterious mahogany case. This contained his cruet set, which included bottles of variously perfumed vinegars, oils (some flavoured with fruit), soy sauce, truffles, anchovies, ketchup and stocks to perk up his dressings. He also had hardboiled eggs (probably for making a rudimentary mayonnaise – raw-yolk emulsified mayo hadn’t really taken off yet). The carriage, needless to say, allowed him to dress several salads each night for a fee that ranged, according to my food-writer ancestor, at between 10 shillings and sixpence or a guinea.
D’albignac became known as the ‘fashionable salad-maker’ of London and amassed a small fortune over the years and won the ardent admiration of society hostesses, who claimed they would die if they did not devour his salads regularly. Dressing the salad at the table not only added theatre, but also ensured that the acid and salt didn’t start breaking down delicate ingredients such as leaves and cucumber as it stood around waiting to be eaten.
The canny Frenchman would later further capitalise on his fame by selling versions of these mahogany-cased cruet sets (marketed as a ‘fashionable salad-maker kit’), as well as the ingredients and spices to fill them, from the gourmet salad shop he’d opened in London’s West End. No wonder he was able to buy himself a grand country seat when he eventually returned to France.
Like fellow refugee Madame de Guery, who ran a chic London ice-cream parlour, and other broke French aristos who perhaps cooked or played harp for smart parties, he benefited from the supportive sentiments of the English élite towards their French peers who had fallen foul of the revolution.
That first chance request seems such an odd one, but the French were famous for their dressings by then. Salad cruets became popular in the late 17th century, perhaps made thanks to Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France while Louis XIV was a child, who always dined with bottles of oil and vinegar on the table so he could dress his own salads.
The fashion was leapt upon by other Mediterranean countries and you still find cruet stands with oil and vinegar in traditional restaurants.
Giant ornate salt holders, meanwhile, were a fixture on the best tables in Europe and had been a mark of power since the Middle Ages. To be given a seat at the table ‘above the salt’ meant you were posh. Ground sugar was served at the table in silver ‘casters’ (hence caster sugar). Silver cruet stands of salt, pepper, oil and vinegar were a much later thing.
While d’albignac was certainly a pioneer, the English aristocracy had adopted the cruet in the early 18th century, when they fell for the craze for setting the table in French style. The first English cruet set, with bottles for oil and vinegar and a shaker for mustard powder, I can find record of was made by Anthony Nelme for the Duke of Warwick in 1715. A visit to the magnificent cruet collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum uncovered nothing earlier.
While the cruet set may have disappeared from most homes these days, d’albignac would no doubt be delighted to know that Los Angeles artist Christopher Reynolds has taken his story and turned it into a performance piece. This is perhaps the most fitting monument for a man who turned dressing a salad into an art form.
“HOSTESSES CLAIMED THEY WOULD DIE IF THEY DIDN’T DEVOUR HIS SALADS REGULARLY.”