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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - @mattscra­vat @Mattscra­vat MATT PRE­STON To per­fect your own salad dress­ings, check out the recipes at de­li­

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.


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