Paris, December, 1870: Under siege by the Prussians since September 19, the city has run out of a number of basic cooking ingredients, including most common sources of meat (cat, rat, dog, horse, and for the extremely wealthy, zoo animals, are usually substitutes), as well as milk and cheese.
Flour is also in short supply; the bread distributed by the city’s boulangeries is becoming a repugnant mix of assorted grains, dried peas, and even straw.
So what can you make for Christmas dinner?
Christmas of 1870 is considered one of the saddest in Paris’s history. Besieged residents couldn’t leave the city to visit or reunite with family and friends, and food and heat were in short supply. Still, many citizens must have made the most of it.
We have a few menues that have survived from this time (yes, restaurants stayed open during the Siege — this is Paris, after all), including the most famous, that of the restaurant Voisin, which shows an array of different meat options on the menu, including cat, rats, wolf, and camel. There is, in what many Parisians might have considered a Christmas miracle, even cheese for dessert!
But what about Parisians who couldn’t afford a meal at a luxury restaurant?
Published in 1871 — January, most likely, while the Siege was ongoing, from what we can gather in the short Forward, La Cuisinière assiégée, ou L’art de vivre en temps de siége (The Besieged Cook, or art de vivre in times of siege) gives us an idea. This short pamphlet is full of simple, Siege-appropriate recipes. Many of them involve preparing those notorious meats of the Siege, but there are several vegetarian options, including what seems to have been a novelty at the time: pasta and tomato sauce. There are also a number of options for desserts, as well.
Eating during the Siege of Paris is fascinating because while many healthy staples of Parisians’ diets were scarce or nonexistent, it’s surprising how many other basics, including dry goods like pasta and rice, as well as coffee, wine, and my personal food staple, chocolate, were still available.
Of the correspondance we have from the Siege, many Parisians complained of indigestion, and sure, they certainly weren’t eating healthy, square meals for the most part. But reading La Cuisinière assiégée and other accounts, it sort of feels like they were often eating like poor college students, sans macaroni and cheese or ramen.
While the forward of La Cuisinière assiégée ends with a condemnation of skyrocketing prices on the black market and unfair distribution in the government boulangeries and boucheries, it more often evokes the fact that eating satisfying meals is an important strategy for withstanding the Siege.
Although I don’t describe many elaborate meals in Hearts at Dawn, La Cuisinière assiégée was one of my favorite historical resources and helped me keep in mind what people could and couldn’t eat during the Siege (a recipe for “onion soup without the onion” is a pretty sobering reminder). For a long time, I’ve wanted to try to make a recipe or two from the book. But a few things held me back:
1. Many of the recipes involve meat I wouldn’t eat, including rat, dog, and cat. Horse meat is available in France, though not incredibly popular. I was served horse sausages at a gathering in the north of France once but don’t particularly feel good about eating it again. It’s not that it tasted bad, but it just seems strange to eat horses, even though I like them less than cows and pigs, which I eat regularly. Ah, we meat-eaters are a strange bunch, aren’t we?
2. Some of the recipes seem slightly more complicated than my limited cooking skills can handle.
3. Some of the recipes were “make do” sort of things that are actually kind of gross to me now, although I probably would have eaten them with pleasure during the Siege.
There are a few recipes that I figured I could tackle, though. I made my final decision the way I pretty much decide on any kind of meal — I chose something sweet:
~Crème de Riz~
Some people may have heard of “cream of rice” but, relatively basic cook that I am, I had not. It made me think of one of my husband’s favorite desserts, riz au lait (usually translated as “French rice pudding”). I’m not a fan of this kind of texture, but I figured the recipe seemed simple enough and involved ingredients we already had, so why not give it a go?
Plus, the instructions say you can add chocolate, which was what really sealed the deal for me!
Here’s the crème de riz recipe as it’s written in La Cuisinière assiégée, followed by my English translation:
Pour remplacer le lait, qui est la base de toutes les crèmes, servez-vous d’eau de gruau, qui, très douce et très-rafraîchissante, peut remplacer avantageusement le lait.
Prenez une cuillerée à bouche de gruau d’avoine, lavez-le et faites cuire pendant une heure ; passez, ajoutez du sucre pour en faire un sirop; mettez votre riz, et, quand il sera presque cuit, ajoutez un verre de café liquide si vous voulez de la crème au café, et du chocolat râpé avec de la vanille si vous souhaitez de la crème au chocolat.
To replace milk, which is the base of all creams, use water strained from oats, which, very sweet and refreshing, can be quite a respectable substitute for milk.
Take a tablespoon of rolled oats, wash it and cook it for an hour; strain, add sugar in order to make a syrup; add your rice, and, when it’s almost cooked, add a cup of coffee if you’d like coffee-flavored cream, and grated chocolate with vanilla if you’d like a chocolate cream.
Like most recipes in La Cuisinière assiégée, this one uses simple language, as if someone is telling you about a recipe they like to make. That makes it seem easy…but as I found when I started to prepare, it also made it more complicated than a slick, official recipe where everything is measured and lots of tips and advice are given.
One of the first things I of course had to come to terms with was that I was not cooking in an 1870’s Parisian kitchen with an 1870’s Parisian stove (which I assume would be wood-burning (Parisians didn’t typically use coal for heating at the time on a large scale) -but I haven’t done extensive research on stoves in 1870, so I may be slightly off on this).
So of course, the idea was to make this recipe in a modern context. That actually turned out to be sort of fitting, since La Cuisinière assiégée’s forward claims that beaucoup resteront dans la consommation (many (of these dishes)) will continue to be eaten after the Siege).
Generally speaking, aside from recipes that were already common albeit with different ingredients, the Siege didn’t influence French cuisine in a positive way — in fact, it’s looked at as quite a dark time in French cooking. As fans of this blog may remember, the bread made during this time was so notoriously terrible that pieces of it were actually sold as souvenirs.
So maybe the pamphlet’s anonymous author would be pleased that here I am, about 152 years later, trying to make the recipe for crème de riz on my modern electric induction stove, in my modern, heated apartment with running water.
Another issue was the historical accuracy of the ingredients. I knew rice was around in France during and before the Siege of Paris, but I didn’t know if it was white rice. And I really hoped it was, because I hate brown rice! It was hard to find precise information but a few sources led me to gather that white rice would have been available in Paris in 1870 and 1871. Whew!
And then there were the grains. I had rolled oats — in oatmeal form — but I realized as I opened the tin we store them in that I had blended them down to a fine powder, to have them ready if anyone needed an oatmeal bath! That shows that we are not an oatmeal-eating family (and that we all have very sensitive skin).
But I don’t know that the prepared rolled oats you’d put in oatmeal today would be exactly like what the recipe calls for anyway. Since the instructions say to cook them for one hour, I assume it means that they were loose grains that were very hard, not soft and easy to boil. To verify this, I looked up how to make oat milk, the rough equivalent of what the recipe seems to call for, today. As I’d suspected, both oatmeal and oat milk are relatively quick to make (just bring water to a boil for oatmeal, or blend the oats in a blender for oat milk). Cooking what I had for one hour would be a waste of electricity at the very least, or a sure way to get burnt rolled oats.
Lastly, I had to assume the vanilla the recipe evokes either means a stick of vanilla or maybe chocolate that’s already been made with vanilla. I had neither, but since the recipe also calls for sugar (another unhealthy (but delicious!) dry good that was in good supply during the Siege), I decided it was probably okay to substitute a packet of iconic French baking ingredient sucre vanillé (vanilla-flavored sugar) that contained real vanilla extract.
But the biggest hurdle, by far, is that, as you actually start to make the recipe you realize that there are almost no measurements. I tried to determine how much water to put in with that cuillerée à bouche (an old term for “tablespoon” in French — merci, Wiktionnaire!) of rolled oats by using the instructions on the oatmeal tin. It seemed like the proportions wouldn’t allow for enough water to cook rice in, so I added a bit more…and by the time I’d started to cook the rice, I was worried that it would all evaporate!
Fortunately, it didn’t. But there is also no way to know how much rice to add, how much chocolate, sugar, etc.
So maybe I can’t entirely blame my subpar cooking skills on how the recipe turned out…maybe.
Crème de riz is apparently supposed to look something like this:
Here’s how mine ended up looking:
Well, then again, many French foods aren’t about appearance so much as taste. That’s why so many delicious French cakes are served plain (icing is almost impossible to find here).
So, I let my crème de riz cool off for a while….
When I returned to the kitchen a little while later, I was happy that the liquid-y mixture in the bowl had become more solid and slightly puffy. (In my defense, modern recipes for crème de riz usually call for additional ingredients that must help the texture). So, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad….
I took a spoonful….
It was bad.
It was really bad.
It may be an issue of the proportion of one ingredient versus another, but basically it tastes like watery rice with chocolate mixed into it. There is no creamy texture, no soupçon of vanilla. No sugary sweetness!
If this is indeed how the recipe was supposed to turn out, my verdict is that while I, a modern-day, (too?) well-fed person, find it nauseating, I can imagine that if I were dealing with the constant hunger people had during the Siege and was craving chocolate (which is often the case), I would probably be able to eat a small bowl of this. But I would most likely also have stomach issues later…which actually checks out with what I wrote about the constant complaints of indigestion at the time.
So maybe I did it right?
But since I can’t be sure, making this has also made me wish that I could travel back to January, 1871 and ask the author of La Cuisinière assiégée to cook this for me as was intended, and give the recipe a fair judgment.
Failed or not, one thing I love about cooking and baking is that they’re an adventure in their own right — especially for a not-great cook like me. Following a recipe like this made me feel connected to Parisians who lived during the Siege in a new way (even though it may not be an entirely accurate one).
I won’t be finishing my crème de riz, or making it ever again, but the memory of cooking it, and the lessons learned, will stay with me for a long time!
A Beauty and the Beast retelling set during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, Hearts at Dawn has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice book. It’s currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
If you’re a fan of print books, my friend Rip Coleman, founder of Bohannon Hall Press, surprised me by reformatting the print edition of Hearts at Dawn. I can’t thank him enough.
I love the improved font, layout, & chapter headings, and hope you will, too!
Whatever the format, if you do pick up Hearts at Dawn, I’d be forever grateful if you left an honest review on Amazon and any other sites or social media platforms where you post. Reviews help books gain more visibility and credibility. Even a review of a short few lines can be incredibly helpful.
Happy Holidays and until next time!