Pleasures of the table
Silver and gold plate holding delicious dishes, French gastronomy was never neglected in the time of the kings. Each king had a different view of the ceremonial repast, but all of them strove to give generous feasts. These feasts, in company or in private, were new occasions to assert the power of the monarch. From this tradition sprang the fame of the "French service" and its gastronomy.
Since the Middle Ages, the great public repast, known as the Grand Service, has been the symbol of power on a daily basis. At the Court of Versailles, Etiquette decreed that the King should invite the Queen, his children and grandchildren. For the Lesser Service, however, he ate alone. Unlike his successor Louis XV, Louis XIV forced himself to observe this ritual every day. At the end of the Ancien Régime, the Grand Service was only held on Sundays and Feast Days.
At ten o'clock in the evening, the public supper was held in the antechamber of the King or Queen, depending on the periods. A table was set up, and the King's armchair was placed. Folding chairs for the guests were placed down the sides of the table. Only the duchesses sat in the first row. Behind them, stood the other courtiers and onlookers.
The numerous dishes were brought to table in successive waves known as "services". After the soup and appetiser service came that of the roast meats and salads, then the desserts, and finally the fruit. With each wave, a new procession of Officers of the Household came to serve the dishes plated in gold, silver or vermeil, like the plates. The best goldsmiths endeavoured to invent new shapes to keep the food hot longer. The glasses, although very plain, were only presented on request. In less than one hour, the meal was over.
Besides these daily ceremonies, Louis XIV took his meals "in private" only at Trianon or Marly. But meals taken in private were only really established with the advent of Louis XV who disliked the tedious ceremonies. The King often invited a few friends after the hunt for supper, which he gave in his Private Apartments or his Cabinets. The ladies, including his Favourites, predominated. French gastronomy takes its origins from these festivities, in the presence of this monarch who loved fine food. After all, Louis XV prepared his own chocolate!
To give the Court new lustre, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette later inaugurated "society meals" with as many as forty guests, considered worthy for their merit or their rank. In the new great dining room of the Private Apartments, the use of gold plate alternated with that of the finest Sevres porcelain dinner service.