A Man of Appetites, Alexandre Dumas

Roscoff

Of the fifty books he wrote, Alexandre Dumas considered his Le Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine written just before he died, to be his masterwork. Under the entry ‘Appetite’, he provides this definition:

There are three sorts of appetites:

1. Appetite that comes from hunger. It makes no fuss over the food that satisfies it. If it is great enough, a piece of raw meat will appease it as easily as a roasted pheasant or woodcock.

2. Appetite aroused, hunger or no hunger, by a succulent dish appearing at the right moment, illustrating the proverb that hunger comes with eating.

3. The third type of appetite is that roused at the end of a meal when, after normal hunger has been satisfied by the main courses, and the guest is truly ready to rise without regret, a delicious dish holds him to the table with a final tempting of his sensuality.

In the summer of 1869, an old and ailing Alexandre Dumas moved to Roscoff, a seaside retreat in Brittany famous for its onions. Despite his extraordinary success as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest literary figures, he was now hard up. In Roscoff he could live cheaply while writing furiously for income. His final undertaking was a colossal culinary history called Le Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine (1873). 

Dumas’ love of food was said to be equalled only by his love of women, and for many years he planned to write a cookbook to crown his life’s work. It had taken him a lifetime to prepare for it. He had read the classics of cuisine, dined at all the best restaurants and knew the great chefs from Paris to the provinces. On his travels to Africa, the Caucus and Europe he had taken delight in the cuisines he encountered: ‘Since I travel to inform myself…whenever I come across a tasty dish I immediately ask for the recipe in order to add it to the cookery book which I intend to publish one day.’

Dumas poured his knowledge and love of food into his novels. In his classic tale of adventure and derring-do The Three Musketeers (1844) Athos, Porthos, and Aramis and their young friend d’Artagnan the Gascon nobleman spend an ordinary night in:

Porthos was in bed, and was playing a game of lansquenet with Mousqueton [his servant], to keep his hand in; while a spit loaded with partridges was turning before the fire, and on each side of a large chimney-piece, over two chafing dishes, were boiling two stew-pans, from which exhaled a double odour of rabbit and fish stews, rejoicing to the smell. In addition to this … the top of a wardrobe and the marble of a commode were covered with empty bottles.

These fictional lads of the seventeenth century enjoy epic bouts of drinking and vast quantities of flesh. At an inn, when Aramis’s order of omelet with spinach arrives, his friends coerce him into telling the waiter: ‘Return from whence you came; take back these horrible vegetables … Order a larded hare, a fat capon, mutton leg dressed with garlic, and four bottles of old Burgundy.’

Grand Days

Following the success of his novels, Dumas had become one of the most famous and highly regarded public figures in Paris. His appearance at a theatre would bring the entire audience to their feet. Tall and striking, he was the grandson of an African slave. The brothers Goncourt described him as ‘a kind of a giant’, with salt and pepper hair, ‘clear and mischievous eyes’, ‘an enormous moon face’, ‘puffing and blowing, and in roistering good spirits.’

He could be relied on for an entertaining flow of anecdotes and was a popular dinner guest. His friend, the English playwright Watts Phillips described him as,

the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.

One of his hostesses was so delighted with his sparkling conversation that she took all the flowers from the vases and scattered them over his head.

Of the types of appetite described in his dictionary, Dumas’ was the definitely the sort to be aroused at the end of the meal at the sight of a delicious dish. He could down six helpings of his favourite bouillabaisse at a sitting. His doctor, who once joined him for a helping, siphoned some of the juice into his pocket flask, explaining he could use it to scorch off warts.

From the proceeds of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo (both published in 1844) Dumas built the house of his dreams in a parcel of wooded land mid-way between Bougival and Saint-Germain. The Chateau de Monte-Cristo is a preposterous mish-mash: a Renaissance chateau backing onto a Gothic pavilion surrounded by a moat, in the middle of an English-style park. Sightseers came flocking on the train from Paris to see it, and the place was admired, even envied, by Balzac who wrote to his lover Eve Hanska that ‘Monte-Cristo is one of the most delicious Follies ever built. It is the most royal chocolate-box in existence.’

The Great Entertainer

In July 1848 Dumas invited six hundred guests to the house warming They were treated to a lavish meal prepared by a famous chef, at huge tables set out on the lawn. Perfumes glowed in incense burners and Dumas wore a coat shining with crosses and stars. Beaming from ear to ear, he embraced the pretty women and told fantastical stories all night.

Monte-Cristo was an open house; impoverished writers and artists were made welcome and came in droves. According to his friends, Dumas was unable to turn away even a stray dog. The house cost him thousands of francs per year in upkeep. And then there were his women: a succession of actresses, singers, writers, or courtesans, one quickly succeeding another as reigning mistress of Mont-Cristo. They cost him no end of trouble and expense.

Every Thursday evening fifteen of his friends were invited to his house for a grand supper in the great tradition of the 18th century. Often Dumas would be in the kitchen preparing part of the meal. In a letter to writer Jules Janin published in the Dictionary, he wrote,

Finally, I made a salad that satisfied my guests so well that when Ronconi, one of my most regular guests, could not come he sent for his share of the salad, which was taken to him under a great umbrella when it rained so that no foreign matter might spoil it …

[This salad was] of great imagination, composite order, with five principal ingredients: Slices of beet, half-moons of celery, minced truffles, rampion with its leaves, and boiled potatoes …

Within three years of building it, Dumas was forced to sell the chateau at a loss to an American dentist, following the failure of a business venture. He simply rolled up his sleeves, and signed more publishing contracts.

Roscoff

By the time he arrived in Roscoff in 1869, the man who was always in a hurry had slowed right down. His latest play had been panned by the critics. In debt as usual, he was forced to sell his furniture and let go of most of his servants.

The feckless hedonist had experienced his last consolation in the form of the shapely, high spirited American actress Adah Menken. He was unable to resist this woman known as the ‘Naked Lady’ after seeing her ride a horse at the Théâtre Gaite, dressed provocatively in a pale pink leotard. Adah had a weakness for poems and poets (she would later have an affair with Algernon Charles Swinburne). Soon, photographs of Adah snuggling up to Dumas, were circulating around the city. They caused a scandal as Dumas was more than twice her age. The whole of Paris was laughing, which quickly dampened the couple’s ardour.

Dumas fell into an uncharacteristic listlessness. Worrying tremors had developed in his hands and a doctor recommended the reviving effects of the seashore of Roscoff. He brought the research for his pet cookery project, the one he called ‘the pillow for my old age’, with him. Shortly after his arrival he wrote to his daughter:

Nothing [is] funnier than our establishment. We are in a small village on the shore but we do not see the sea from which are fished what seem to be beautiful fish.

So that we don’t die of hunger we are lodged at a baker’s. but as he cooks only three times a week, his bread, even when it comes out of the oven, is hard enough to loosen our teeth. Since we are here, we have eaten meat once and it was bad.

Dumas had brought along Marie, his cook, one of the few servants he still employed, to put the finishing touches to his recipes. But she left in a disgust at the inferior quality of the produce: artichokes that were tough, rancid butter, stringy beans.

Feeling sorry for this once celebrated writer, now alone and neglected, the citizens of Roscoff began supplying him with food. The barber brought him lobster and a sole. The mistress at the post office sent bass and a red snapper. Another sent mackerels and pigeons. Soon he was joking to a friend that he found himself ‘on the point of opening a shop of eatable produce’ not long after thinking he was going to ‘croak with hunger.’ The locals also organised dinners for him at their homes. Their touching hospitality, combined with the sea air, restored his health and his spirits for a while.

The Dictionary

Dumas completed Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine in just six months. Of its 1179 pages, eleven are devoted to mustard alone. It covers cooking techniques and tools, scraps of culinary history, society gossip, meditations on entertaining, and interesting facts. Rabbits are tastier when their warrens face east – who knew? But why eat rabbit when there is elephant available, or ostrich, kangaroo, sea anemone, even dog, which he writes, was eaten by the Greeks, and served at Roman banquets. But he stops short at the eagle:

The size, nobility, and pride of the king of birds do not give it a tender and delicate flesh. Everyone knows it is tough, fibrous, and evil-tasting…Let us leave it to soar and defy the sun, but not eat it.

There are many recipes from his travels, including the first one ever recorded for pizza, which he picked up in Naples. They range in difficulty from the fairly simple apricot cream cheese, to an elaborate affair involving the tongues of sixty rabbits.

‘Dinner’ is described as:

A major daily activity, which can be accomplished in worthy fashion only by intelligent people. It is not enough to eat. To dine, there must be diversified, calm conversation. It should sparkle with rubies of the wine between courses, be deliciously suave with the sweetness of dessert, and acquire true profundity with the coffee.

His entry for ‘Hermit Crab’ has wit and charm:

There is nothing more comical than this little crustacean. Nature has furnished him with armour as far as the waist—cuirass, gauntlets, and visor of iron, this half of him has everything. But from the waist to the other end there is nothing, not even a shirt… The Creator, who had begun to dress the creature as a lobster, was disturbed or distracted in the middle of the operation and finished him off as a slug.

The End

Printing of the dictionary was delayed by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and Dumas died of apoplexy in 1870 before he could see his masterpiece published. He would have been disappointed by its reception. Although treated with kindness by the public, it was largely ignored by the critics. Dumas’ star had waned.

While he lay dying, his son emptied the old man’s pockets and wept to find only a handful of coins. But Dumas was delighted. ‘That’s precisely the sum with which I [first] landed in Paris,’ he said. ‘Imagine: a half century of high living, and it hasn’t cost me a cent!’

Music

Paotred Rosko (The Guys from Roscoff) sung by Paul le Geurn

This patriotic song about Roscoff sung by a proud Roskovite seemed a good choice. Paul le Geurn is singing in Breton words written by Viscount Eugène d’Herbais de Thun (1864-1936). The song is also known as ‘Knight of Love’ and ‘Hymn of the Roskovites’:

In Lower Brittany, no one equals the guys from Roscoff,

They are known for their strength,

From one end of the world to the other:

Keep you from falling under their paws.

Hit quickly, Roscoff, hit hard, always strike!

The lyrics describe the lives of the average guy from Roscoff. They are hard workers, harvesting seaweed from dawn until high tide, or travelling to the ends of the earth crying out ‘Potatoes, onions, artichokes! Choose what you want!’ Then the time comes to place a ring on the finger of one with scented hair and ribbons.  ‘Hit quckly, Roscoff, hit hard, always strike!’

Connection

Of the three roaring literary lions of Paris in the mid-19th Century, Honoré de Balzac was said to be the greatest novelist, Victor Hugo the greatest poet, and Alexandre Dumas ate the most. All three were wildly promiscuous spendthrifts, who wrote prolifically.

They came of age in the high living Paris of the cancan. The spirit of the times is best summed up by a cartoon showing a husband drawing a pistol on his wife’s lover, while she screams: ‘Have mercy on the father of your children!’

From the mid 1830’s fiction became profitable when stories began to be published in the daily press in instalments. Writing fiction was especially lucrative for those with the rare knack (like Dickens and Hardy in England) of keeping readers on tenterhooks, agog for the next instalment. Dumas took maximum advantage of this vogue and churned out phenomenal numbers of words to satisfy a greedy audience. In 1845, as he was about to begin the three volume romance Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, he wagered a large sum that he would complete the first volume in 72 hours (this included sleeping and eating time). Six hours ahead of the deadline, he emerged triumphant, waving a completed manuscript.

Balzac was no sloth in this department either but although his stories received the highest literary accolades, they took longer to warm up. The masses found his realism, especially his Parisian slum settings, boring. They were hooked on Dumas’ escapist romances and tales of high adventure set in earlier, more exciting times with plots involving duels, buried treasure and blackmail.

Critics (including Balzac) accused Dumas of being a lightweight. This was water off a duck’s back to Dumas. He had a rule: what entertained him was good, what bored him was bad. He also visualised the novel as a good meal: first the appetiser, followed by a main course peppered with high drama.

Although Balzac was jealous of Dumas’ popularity, even he found him too good natured to hate. He confessed that Dumas had no pettiness of soul and was only ever capable of generous actions. When Dumas died, his old friend Victor Hugo wrote to his son that his father ‘was no less tall in his heart than he was in spirit; he was a great and kind soul.’

Balzac would find it galling that of the three of these great writers, it is Dumas’ work that is most familiar to modern readers. His storytelling holds great visual appeal and is inseparable from his vast, magnanimous intelligence. No matter what he wrote about, Dumas was always himself, and an echo of this loveable man can be found in every plot and detail.

Notes

I have spent some time in this ‘little city of character’ by the sea, since its port is conveniently connected to Plymouth (on the Cornish border) by ferry.

At the heart of the town with its exquisite pale granite buildings and tumble of flowers are grand houses that belonged to merchants or shipowners in the 16th and 17th centuries, some with round or square towers. A plaque on the wall of a modest stone house commemorates Dumas’ visit and adjacent to this building there still stands a baker. On the point facing the sea stands the little white Chapelle Saint Barbe. It was built in the 17th century to afford sailors protection from the elements. Those Roskovites taking to the seas to sell their potatoes, artichokes and onions abroad would be sure to pray in the chapel for safe passage.

The pink onions of Roscoff are celebrated for their sweetness and the way they melt in the mouth. In his entry for onions in the Le Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine Dumas extolled their virtue:

in no locality of France, this bulb, so vaunted of Antiquity, which the poets sang, and to which the Egyptians returned the divine honours, is found assembled in such quantity.  

They owe their fame to the ‘Johnnies’, onion sellers who travelled to England from the early 19th century to sell the farmers’ produce. Often wearing Breton stripes, they took their bikes laden with strings of onions on the boats that sailed them across the channel. I have an old Cornish friend who remembers one Johnnie cycling to Cornwall every year. Dave would always buy a string or two to hang in his pub. A museum in the town of Roscoff, La Maison des Johnnies, tells their story.

On one of my visits, preparations were underway for the annual Fete de l’Oignon and strings of beautifully plump pink specimens were hung on the walls of houses like Christmas decorations.

As Roscoff’s day progresses, the population of the town swells with travellers waiting for the big white ferry to Plymouth but by mid afternoon they are swept away on the tide, restoring the town to itself once again.

Weblinks

A brief biography, The Man Behind The Three Musketeers.

In Valerie Stiver’s ‘Eat Your Words’ column which is regularly featured in the Paris Review, she cooks up three recipes from Dumas’ Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine.

An article about Dumas’ great cooking dictionary on Maria Popova’s website Brainpickings.

Three film versions of The Three Musketeers have been made so far. Here is the trailer for the 1973 version directed by Richard Lester, with Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Michael York.

An article in the Independent, ‘The Role of Race in the Life of Alexandre Dumas‘. 

For the bicentennial of his birth in 2002, French president Jacques Chirac honoured Alexandre Dumas’ memory by having his coffin reinterred at the Pantheon in Paris, alongside Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. His casket was carried through the Paris streets by four Republican guards dressed as the four musketeers and accompanied by crowds of Dumas characters holding torches aloft. Here is footage of the ceremony.

The Tourist office for Roscoff.

Brittany Tourism.

Sources:

Hemmings, Frederick. Alexandre Dumas, the King of Romance, Scribner, 1979

Maurois, Andre. The Titans. Harper & Brothers, 1957

Prodigious Belcher’, a book review, Time Magazine, (Archives) 1956

Schopp, Claude. Alexandre Dumas, Genius of Life, Franklin Watts, 1988

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  1. paula Ashworth on

    Oh, Jo!!!!!!!!!!!! What a perfect p.s. to what has been a wonderful weekend here!!!! As I began at last to read this bulletin the word that shot into my mind within seconds was “joy”…. I knew shamefully little about Dumas but I did know about Roscoff. It is a favourite destination for Bob and I and we have never eaten better anywhere, so the food is much improved since Dumas’s servants deserted him in disgust!!! On one of our visits I recall one of those “moments”…… Walking out of the port past the Thalassie (?) on a stunningly lovely day I went to down to a sort of beach and, scanning right and left, stripped to my undies and went for a swim, laughing out loud with pleasure at the loveliness of the day and the sea!!! Roscoff is special in my heart…

    And…. what a delight to view the link to the burial in the Pantheon.

    Thank you!!!! More library searches tomorrow!!

    Reply
  2. Jo Wing on

    Ah so you know and love it too, Paula. Honestly, I used to pinch myself that this stunning place used to be a hop skip and a jump from where I lived.

    Reply