“One day it will be understood, Carême, this easy kinship of cook and statesman, such as you and I have always enjoyed. Oh, I don’t mean for reasons of democracy or equality or whatever. Flattering rabbles is not my strength. No, I mean something specific, though I can’t find the words for it. You know, when I’m lying I can find any words for any purpose. But speaking one’s actual mind is the very devil!
“It was good of Monsieur de Rothschild to invite me to dinner and let me spend this time with you. These days, a stationary ambassador, living in London, hearing and eating English constantly…Life is a little different for me.
“To think I am in a Paris kitchen again, with Antoine Carême! I’m sure your new employer wants me to represent his interests at the English court. Let me say, he’s going the right way about it.
“Remember Carême, those years when we spent an hour each day together, in the kitchens of the Chateau de Valençay? I still own the old place. Napoleon, who knew nothing of food, knew that France needed a display for its best produce and cookery. So he gave me the money to buy Valençay. Did you know that? It was his money, or France’s – or France’s looting, to be exact.”
The cook continued to stir intently, and his mind was more on his sauce, than on the conversation.
“Excellency, you had so much money at your disposal in those days, who could know…”
“I see you haven’t changed, Carême. The Prince de Talleyrand addresses you, but your mind is wholly on your pot.”
“No, I understand. That is the enormous, open secret of men who finish and achieve, as you have done. Abandonment. You have your task, and you are of one mind about the task. It is not a secret, this secret, because it is simple and obvious and nobody conceals it. It is a secret because men disbelieve its simplicity. Lesser craftsmen do not believe your degree of abandonment, however tiny the task. You pour your whole being into it…May I go on prattling, Carême?”
“Excellency, if you refrain from asking me questions or expecting comments, you know I love to listen to you. I have always found your conversation entertaining. But see here! The base butter sauce is perfect. It is like a golden ooze. It neither runs nor plops. Now I lay it in a warm bath, while I proceed to my reduction. I shall explain each little step, just as you asked. You see, I have bundled bay, thyme and clove. Here I have prepared a fine, regular dice of palest Gascon garlic, pale mushrooms, finest January truffles of your own region, Périgord, a little seasoning…but I must counsel you, before you scrape from what seems a fine, fat nutmeg, to puncture its surface with a pin, to ensure it has much oil.”
“It would not have occurred to me, Carême, this testing of a nutmeg!”
“Oh, a small thing – perhaps. Now, I froth some butter of Normandy, and add my fine dice, with the herb bundle. I toss it a while, neither frying nor braising…Tell me more of Napoleon, Excellency. I knew him, but only as a man replete, satisfied with his meal.”
“Oh, any meal for that gobbler, that pudge! Yet he was flattered to be entertained or served by celebrities like you. Did he embrace you as his peer, saying that there must be equality between conquerors? No? He did that with some artists and artisans. In certain moods, he was like that. Even with me.
“Yet no man was more able. You and I are capable, Carême, it is safe to say. But Napoleon had speed as well. He had no sense of leisure, neither did he have a sense of haste. He was fast, unburdened by past or future, almost…almost light. When he stood below the pyramids and addressed his soldiers about forty centuries looking down on them, he was the only man there who didn’t care a fig for those centuries. Had it suited, he might have ordered the dismantling of the pyramids. And found a way!
“That Egyptian adventure! It could have been a fiction, of the outlandish type we see written more and more these days. But it happened. Napoleon in Egypt! I was a remote actor in the farce. War with England was the cry of a Directory which needed war to keep its revolutionary face. Imagine a direct and massive naval assault on England! So Napoleon and I, rather than expose the nation to a worse defeat than it has ever known, came up with our idea of strangling England’s influence and trade around the Mediterranean. And Napoleon got to go off and be an eastern conqueror, like all the best conquerors.
“Oh, I knew it to be a farce, but better a farce than a fiasco. I probably found a way to make some money out of it all, though I can hardly remember who bribed me for what, so fearful and confusing were the events. Napoleon managed to be Napoleon at times. He embraced a plague victim, to calm fears about disease; he brushed aside the Mameluke cavalry and, with it, the Mameluke myth…Yet he was more often Bonaparte than Napoleon. Faced with the surrendered garrison in Jaffa, he criticised his aides for negotiating the surrender because he could not feed prisoners. After some obfuscation, he allowed the shooting of some two thousand bound prisoners. The shooting soon became bayonetting – more economy! And it was the rootless Genoese-Corsican called Bonaparte who deserted in the end. Oh, it was called by another name, but desertion is what it was. He crept back to France, leaving a hopeless situation for others. And he managed to return as a conqueror, as Napoleon.
“And so, faced with a useless Directory or a useful Napoleon, I bluffed and threatened and negotiated for his elevation to First Consul, though it was his own speed and daring which brought it about. For a while, I was intoxicated like others, just less so. You know me, Carême. I always try to show the least zeal.”
“Excellency, I need to interrupt. You see how all the ingredients are tender in the butter, without browning. Now I add the palest champagne. It must be champagne – but not for lavishness. The champagne has a flinty quality one needs against the butter and the truffles. Now, I begin the reduction. The timing is all, now.”
“The timing! The timing…The thing that makes one a traitor or realist, a defender or terrorist.
“After Austerlitz, the least loyal and least zealous of men – I’m talking of myself, of Talleyrand – was inclined almost to exaggerate, almost to believe. But I was not deceived. History records Austerlitz as a victory, yet it made us confident to make atrocious blunders. History records Trafalgar as a defeat, yet it made us humble in our ambitions to attack England. Do you see how my mind works, how it must work?
“They say I have been a traitor to every institution and regime I have served. It is true, in the sense that Austerlitz was victory and Trafalgar defeat. But it is not true in the sense that is truly sense. I have worked for France, not for church, revolution, monarchy or Napoleon Bonaparte. And, of course, I have worked for money, for lucre, as a man should. Who is less dangerous than a man who makes money? I see you smile, Carême!”
“Excellency, I was cast on to the streets of Paris as a ten year old boy. I made pastry to make money. If the pastry was good, that is a happy incidental.”
“And my preservation of France was a happy incidental to making money at my trade of diplomat. But perhaps I loved France more than money at times, as you may have loved a pouding more than money.”
“When one has enough money, a little love…Why not?”
“Carême, when Napoleon entered Spain, he exited my heart. I spoke before of atrocious blunders. Someone needs to hang a sign at every entry point to that Peninsular. ‘Here war is never begun, never ended, never lost, never won’. Thank the glory won at Austerlitz for that ignominy, that blot.
“After Spain, my only client was France, regardless of who was bribing me. Oh, don’t mistake me, I admired and even loved Napoleon. But I knew what all that brilliance was for: it was for the increase of death and the increased efficiency of inflicting death. I often think that the problem with Napoleon Bonaparte was that he was without a drop of French blood. Emotionally, he knew only an Italian family, and didn’t like them much, nor they him. Perhaps that’s part of an explanation.
“Six million deaths later, the nation was a common bankrupt. And if it were not for me – who knows? – France would be a collection of small constitutional states headed by imported inbreds, princes hard to distinguish from their horses. Am I being vain? That’s beside the point. Any man who buys a château and installs Antoine Carême as his cook is bound to be vain. But is he wrong?
“But now, it is about your sauce, your impossible butter sauce with truffles. I see the reduction is reaching a certain point.”
“Excellency, it needs to be swirled about more and more quickly, it must reach the consistency of a light syrup, but no more than that. I called it ‘Italian style’ because the Italians often want as much as one-third of chewable solid in a sauce, soup or puree. We French love to puree entirely…Now, I discard the herbs, thus…I bring the reduction to the butter sauce…I add it thus…I pour and stir and then beat in my own way, thus…Your Excellency must promise not to reveal this part…I mean, you must make a promise as Bishop of Autun, not as Monsieur le Prince de Talleyrand…With respect, Excellency, your promises as diplomat are more gaseous than my lightest puff pastry. They are butterfly farts!”
Talleyrand’s gusts of laughter echoed through the kitchens.
“As former Bishop of Autun, I swear! In fact, I am a bit religious these days. Or I am too old for my vices. Further, I’ve observed that men who are too clever for religion are seldom too clever for dogmas even flimsier than those of religion. But continue, Carême, with my promise secured!”
“Almost done. I manipulate a little longer…Can you smell your home in Périgord? Can you picture the stunted oaks struggling in the hard, white scrabble? The pigs grunting about the scorched root area? If there were no God, Excellency, there would be no truffles…Who but God construes such a thing? And now it’s done…
Carême extended the pot, Talleyrand bent over it and inhaled.
“Ah. Thank you, Carême. Thank you.”
He straightened and held out his hand.
“And now I must go, old friend.”
“Go? But Your Excellency is to stay to dinner…So much has been prepared…”
“Carême! You think, like so many, that I am slumbering away my final years at the Court of Saint James? I have business. And part of that business I have just now concluded – with you!”
“With me? Excellency, am I also to be the victim of your riddling? We have done no business here. You have not even tasted the sauce!”
“Carême, lately I have been told twice that a thing is impossible. The first time, I was discussing your sauce with a Scots chemist, a prominent man of science. When I told him the nature of Carême’s butter sauce à l’italienne, he told me that it could not adhere or cohere or inhere – or whatever that Latin word meant. I needed to see, to smell, right here in your kitchen…
“Because something else is said to be impossible. Something else will not hold or cohere or whatever. Yet soon I must achieve it. But that will remain a secret for now.”
“Excellency! If you are to dash off in this manner, I must know why.”
Talleyrand considered for a long moment, or pretended to consider. Did even Talleyrand know when he was acting?
“Perhaps…it will do some good to share what lies on my bosom. And with whom might I more readily share it, than with you?
“Very well, Carême. I have a new mistress, though I am wedded to France. For you must believe I have been wedded to France. Others have wanted Empire in Europe. Metternich wants to preserve his, because it is there. Dear Metternich is a slippery old lizard, who loves his crumbly old rock of an empire. So, too, the Turk. Napoleon wanted to forge his empire, anywhere. The Czar will take chunks here and there – like a bear which slumbers and gorges by turns – till he meets the Americans coming the other way.
“What I have wanted, what persists, and must go on persisting, is the only thing I seem to have loved enough: an integral France. And to preserve that, I must make an impossible sauce, where none of the ingredients belong together, a mix doomed by nature – but made possible by art.
“Hear me, Carême. England wants none of the old bother of owning parts of this continent when she can own all the seas. This is her century now. Yet her need coincides with our need – finally. She needs a France left whole. We shall go on scorning one another, following our custom, our amusements. But our policies must not follow our emotions. See how Prussia grows, see how old arrangements further to the east disintegrate.
“Yes, France and England will be allies, perhaps forever now. A laughable notion? I know you have worked in London. You may know this Lord Palmerston? No? He is quite an amusing blend. He has the usual English hypocrisies, he is very ‘anti-slavery’, and all that. He is also a ruffian who will brook no challenge to England’s prestige and interest. Lastly, he is no fool. He sees how France now has a bourgeois monarch and a constitution, while very diverse commercial elements dominate his own polity. He knows our prestige-seeking will be the least dangerous of forces in future, limited, as it must be, by the constant rise and spread of the bourgeoisie. Let even democracy come! Let hell come!
“So France can be integral!
“But first I must make a sauce. And I needed to watch you make yours, before I made mine. I needed to believe.
“Carême, I go now to make concessions I wish to make, yet I must make the English and French think that it is done greatly against my will. Palmerston will see through me, but in his sly, merry way he will let the little game play out. We want the same thing.
“In order to accept an integral France, England must, with our collusion, force great concessions from Holland. That little place called Belgium must be allowed to exist, so that England has little buffers against her great buffer – France! To all of this I will consent, while pretending to resist like some shy maiden who is sheer hot, running lechery beneath her white gown. I was made for such stuff, Carême. And I have a little final seasoning, just for France.
“Our inglorious bourgeois king, Louis-Philippe, has a daughter, a very shy little thing, but, in all sincerity, she is a good type. How if I were to marry her to the new King of the Belgians, once this Belgium place starts to solidify in people’s minds as a true nation? Just a little buffer for France, within England’s little buffer against France, her enormous buffer against all that lies to the east. The marriage will alarm, but it will stand. A small, annoying thing for the English. Palmerston will have a good laugh! And we French have our childish need for such petty triumphs.
“This most unlikely affair looks good. Already I am receiving bribes from various parties. Not that I need the bribes – but it is a matter of principle.
“Carême, I said I have a new mistress, though I am wedded to France, and have always been wedded to France, far more than my sermonising critics.
“My ungainly mistress is called Western Peace. She is an impossible emulsion, like your great sauce. And if my wife, France, loves her not, she will love my wife.
“I must dash, Carême. Rothschild will not be offended, when he learns what affairs I can make for him in London – in exchange for whatever courteous little emolument his gratitude may inspire him to give.
“I’m off to make my own impossible sauce: a peace, an alliance, good for some centuries, between France and England. An acidic alliance, without belief, trust, sympathy or natural bonds. It can be done. It will be done. It will congeal, this impossible Peace of Carême.”
Talleyrand bowed his head slightly, and turned to go.
“Excellency. We are old. I am sick. So, just in case..”
The prince turned back around. Carême had opened his arms. Talleyrand nodded and advanced into the offered embrace. As he stood back, both men were slightly tearful.
“Adieu, Monsieur le Prince.”
“Carême, this is monstrous. You have reduced me to…