Our final dinner farewells at Monticello in 1823: we taste the legendary 1787 Lafitte, and the Sage of Monticello leaves us with memories of culinary ideals that shall endure far beyond our own lifetimes... and no doubt, well into the next century and beyond...
After our course of robustly prepared sturgeon and Beaune, our next was a sort of long, curling, ribbon shaped macaroni in a lavish, creamy, thyme scented brown sauce, coating long slivers of rabbit meat. “Mrs. Fossett,” the President spoke in reference to the ranking officer in Monticello’s kitchen, “has indulged my appetite for this Italian staple by making good use of a machine of my own invention, that flattens the macaroni into sheets of more consistent width. Otherwise the serving of macaroni in Monticello might be as rare as Christmas.
“Now Mr. Colbert returns, and he shall pour one of my favorite red wines from Italy, called Artiminiano, which comes from one of the regions of Tuscany, known as Chianti. The name of the grape used to make this wine translates as ‘blood of Jove.’ I believe that my favorite red wine from Italy, called Montepulciano, epitomizes the great strength and asperity – like the heat of the Italian sun rushing to the head – inferred by the grape’s name.
“In Chianti, my merchant tells me, they are starting to blend other grapes to lighten, or shall we say ‘domesticate,’ the ‘blood of Jove.’ He also tells me that more and more of the wines sold as Chianti are not even grown within the time honored boundaries constituting Chianti. Such is the sad state of affairs when wines become popular; and greed supplants artistry and, worse, honesty. All we can hope for is that wines like this – not so muscular as Bordeaux, not delicate like Burgundy, but very much… Chianti – survives the more pernicious instincts of men in commerce.”
After further discussions pertaining to the difficulty of separating tyranny from humanitarianism in the history of the arts, particularly in respect to the historic power of the Medici family, Mr. Colbert entered the Dining Room with a round, high sided dish with a protruding crust: clearly an English style pot pie, only with more of a French style pastry crust, flaky, light and buttery. We found it plump with the meat of pigeon and pig’s ear, discreet chunks of potato, miniature cubes of carrots, and pillowy soft green and white lima beans.
“Ah, I see that Honoré has ‘improved’ upon the traditional meat pie,” Mr. Jefferson observed – “a far cry from what we were raised on in Edgehill, where my oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, now lives. While Mr. Colbert serves us our pie, let me do the honor of presenting our next wine: a humble red called Cahors, also known as the ‘black wine’ of South-West France.
“I cannot describe Cahors as a refined wine, but it is as savory as meat pie – or cassoulet, as people in Cahors would have it – with a sort of rib sticking strength. Its other virtue is that it is cheap, which I mean in a very positive way. The most satisfying wines are those that deliver flavor with thrift. This is why I have always fought for reduction of taxes on wine imports, for the sake of making the civilizing aspects of wine more accessible to the general populace. No nation is drunken, I say, where wine is cheap; and none sober where the dearness of the wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”
Somehow the discussion of wrongs steered towards another topic of mutual interest: the preservation of trees unwittingly driven towards demise. “When I was President I wished I was a despot that I might save many of these beautiful, noble trees native of our land. The unnecessary felling of just one, perhaps the growth of centuries, seemed to me a crime little short of murder.” Discussing the great variety of species we observed upon entering the Monticello estate, he reflected, “I am too old to plant for my own gratification, but I shall do so now for posterity.
“Speaking of which, now let us now turn to a wine that may indeed be one remembered for posterity: the 1787 Laffitte that we have carried up from the cellar together, and which I see Mr. Colbert has carefully transferred from bottle to decanter while we have been gnawing away at the politics of trees.” Observing the solemnity of the moment, we watched the white gloved butler pour from the decanter into our glasses.
How shall we describe this Bordeaux? There is a popular English poet, John Keats, who tragically died before his twenty-seventh year not long before (in 1821). Whether or not he died satisfied with his lot, perhaps he, too, had once experienced the dizzying power of Laffitte, for he wrote: O, for a draught of vintage... that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth... tasting of Flora and the country green... Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth! The poet also sang of a purple-stained mouth, and if at that point during our dinner in Monticello our lips and chins were indeed impolitely smeared, we are sure God granted forgiveness.
“Mr. Jefferson,” we asked, “would it be possible that a wine of such sturdy perfection could be even better a hundred years from now?” Without hesitation he turned to us and said, “What is the point? It is good tonight, and we may not awaken tomorrow. I fully intend to consume my few remaining bottles of 1787 well before I meet the Creator. Otherwise, should a bottle or two somehow escape a journey up from the Monticello cellar, some fool one hundred and fifty years from now will pay a thousand times more than this wine is worth on the scale of human pleasure, just because it says ‘Laffitte’ or because it bears my initials,” he said as he pointed to Th. J. on the bottle.
“Oh, I can imagine how it might happen, say at the end of the next century. There would be a roomful of people, so-called connoisseurs of wine, waiting to taste a drop each of this 1787. A smug but officious butler will transport the bottle in its cradle into the room, trip and fall, and what little left in the bottle will go seeping through the shards. And it will serve them all right, for even a grand vin for the ages is never meant to be coddled or ‘collected.’ “The only wine ever worth such worship was already consumed at the banquet in Cana, if such a banquet ever took place. I might be roused from my grave, knowing wine of any sort is obscenely dealt and traded for reasons other than why we are here tonight, joined by common affection for the pleasures of wine, food, conversation and friendship.”
Moments later, the Dining Room door swung open once again as Chef Julien entered followed by a tiny, black skinned, grey haired woman holding a small china bowl. Behind her walked still another Negro woman; this one slightly taller, with loose, tightly tied, grey speckled hair, walking with her hands clasped, her black, almost gypsy eyes turned to the floor. Bringing up the rear, Mr. Colbert solemnly carried an oversized platter bearing a roasted leg of lamb, placing it beside the china bowl laid on the movable side table.
“Hear, hear,” clapped Mr. Jefferson, waving towards the tinier woman, “it pleases me to introduce Mrs. Edith Hern Fossett, who along with her assistant standing beside her, Miss Fanny, was ably trained by Chef Julien and Etienne Lemaire during our years at the President’s House. If you will, Monsieur Honoré, would you please tell our friends from Georgia what you, Martha and Mary have planned for our main course?”
“Mr. President, it is my pleasure to say that Edith and Mademoiselle Fanny have butchered this beautiful gigot, or little leg of spring lamb, of perfect size following the many courses in tonight’s dinner. After marinating the leg with one of the master’s bottles of hock – first, making sure to taste it, of course, to ascertain its soundness – as well as bay laurel, juniper, peppercorns and mirepoix, the gigot was roasted à la française, preserving a rosy pink color at the center.
“Mrs. Fossett also carries the most unusual side dish; unusual, she tells me, at least for Monticello. As you know, I have been spending more time in the garden than in the kitchen. Thus, I became determined to make use of three varieties of legumes, known as lentils, that Mrs. Fossett and Miss Fanny tell me have been less appreciated than other legumes favored by the family here at Monticello – the haricots verts, scarlet runners, and the little white kidney beans that Mrs. Fossett prepares in her delicious brown sauce oignon. Yet for me, the tiny, flat lentil beans are just as noble, and I picked three in sufficient quantity from the garden: red lentils, which I believe are commonly eaten in Persia, yellow lentils from the British colony of India, and then my sentimental choice, the green puy from République française.
"Since I could not decide upon which color I liked best, I combined all three and cooked them with salt pork, a rendering of stock from the lamb bones, pearl sized white onions, parsley and lemon scented thyme.“But please,” said the Chef as he finished placing the pink colored meat sliced from the bone by Mr. Colbert onto our plates, “do not let us keep you. Bon appetit!"
After conversing a few minutes after the main course plates were cleared, Mr. Colbert entered the room with short, narrow glasses and a bottle of a wine long favored by both the President and by our family in Georgia: Malmsey from the island of Madeira, the essence of caramel, cream, sun dried fruits and honey.
Once the sweet-salty taste of the Malmsey was allowed to scrub our palates, Mr. Colbert returned with another set of glasses, and poured a light golden colored wine called Fillotte – a sweet wine from the Bordeaux region of Barsac, tasting of honeyed cream, candied lemon and dried apricots.
Moments later, the butler brought little white plates from the revolving serving door, placing one before each us. Once before us, we could see what was on top of each plate: a cold, plainly white, gelatin dessert Mr. Jefferson introduced as blancmange, upon which Mr. Colbert spooned purple tinged white clouds of a raspberry cream.
“The simplest of desserts this may be,” explained Mr. Jefferson, “but Fillotte needs little to complete it. Blancmange is a Bavarian delicacy made from sugar, cream, and finely ground almond. At the height of summer we enjoy it with fresh peaches, but this raspberry cream is just as fine. Oh, but here comes Mr. Colbert again with still another sweet condiment: a gooseneck of sauce sabayon – simply, beaten egg yolks, sugar and white wine – to enjoy with our creamy blancmange and Barsac.”
As the light from the long, tapered candles flickered, and the sky visible through the double glassed windows turned from brown-gold to deep blue, we could tell that Mr. Jefferson had finally grown tired, as were we. The difference being that he was more than twice our age! Rising to his feet, with Mrs. Randolph beside him, he began to take his leave, saying:
"We have enjoyed much fine cookery and wines, both of which have long been indispensable to my health. Now my body informs me that it has been sufficiently fortified. "Martha and I invite you to join us for breakfast at precisely ten minutes after eight; and afterwards, I must attend to renovations being done in the Dome Room. During the interim, my granddaughter Anne will show you our flower beds along the West Lawn, now approaching full bloom of summer. Following that, I hope you will enjoy an exploration of our fruit orchards – which include thirty-eight sub-varieties of peach! – accompanied by the good Captain Bacon, and also Great George, if he is not predisposed.
“But before retiring to the Madison Room, we implore you to revisit with Mr. Colbert in our most honorable suite," Mr. Jefferson said, pointing to the Tea Room in the alcove adjoining the Dining Room. "He shall be decanting one of the last bottles of my favorite sweet red wine, called Calcavallo – a rare unbrandied Port – and serving it with a blue-veined cheese from France, a fig paste made from trees growing at the foot of our garden wall, and lavender honey purchased from one of our more enterprising farmers here in Monticello.
“Ah, there goes the eight o’clock chime on the grandfather’s clock, and I also hear a newly arrived book on architectural design calling me to my bedside.” Clasping his hands, we thanked our host, suddenly stooped from the length of the day’s nonstop activities.
“May I leave you two with one last thought?” he asked. “Determine never to be idle, for it is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing. As for me, what I must now do is go quietly into the night. Adieu!”
Dining at Monticello, Edited by Damon Lee Fowler; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., 2005
The Gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Peter J. Hatch; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., 1992
The Virginia House-wife (Facsimile Edition), Mary Randolph; University of South Carolina Press, 1984
Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.; www.monticello.org
Thomas Jefferson on Wine, John Hailman; University Press of Mississippi/Jackson, 2006