So if Antonin Carême lived in Paris, why did he design a dessert to appeal to Russians? There are two parts to that answer. First, Russian food and manners were all the rage in Paris around 1810. Napoleon and Czar Alexander I of Russia were allies then, and Czar Alexander had dispatched a very dapper and glamorous ambassador to look after Russia’s interests in Paris. His name was Alexander Kurakin, and it was he who not only introduced Russian dishes to Parisian society, but also the single-plate course-after-course dining style known as service à la russe. We employ it in our restaurants, even homes, to this day.
The second part of the answer has to do with the dissolution of that alliance I mentioned. Napoleon being Napoleon, it didn’t take him long to alienate Alexander. Indeed relations turned downright icy when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and sacked and burned Moscow for good measure. Napoleon’s Grande Armée got the worst of it in the end, however. During the disastrous winter withdrawal from Russia most of Napoleon’s 450,000-man army either froze to death or were killed by raiding Cossacks. But that didn’t make Alexander feel any better. He threw away Napoleon’s BFF pin, then deleted Napoleon’s name from his list of Facebook friends.
Even worse he joined forces with the Austrians and Prussians, Napoleon’s bitter enemies. Together in late 1813 they defeated Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Leipzig and in March of the following year they, er…marched into Paris. It was the first time the city had been taken in some 400 years. Arriving in Paris, Czar Alexander was in no hurry to leave. He considered taking over the Palace of Versailles as a temporary residence but heard it was booby trapped, so he moved into Talleyrand‘s Paris house instead. There he stayed for many months enjoying Talleyrand’s hospitality, the centerpiece of which was the food prepared by Talleyrand’s personal chef, Antoine Carême. It was probably here and under these circumstances that Carême created strawberries Romanoff, named for the Russian imperial dynasty of which Alexander was member.
When June of 1814 arrived the last of the strawberries had presumably been eaten. Which meant it was time to leave. Czar Alexander went to London, where he failed to find any more strawberries, and eventually on to Vienna, but strawberries had been out of season there for months by then. Frustrated, he completed the divvying up of Europe at the Congress of Vienna and went home to St. Petersburg. There he sent repeated offers to Carême imploring him to come to Russia and work for him. In time Carême accepted Alexander’s proposition, but in the end stayed only a few months in St. Petersburg before quitting and moving back home to France.
As for Alexander, he lived the rest of his life without ever again tasting Carême’s cooking. Which wasn’t easy for a man of his refinement and sensitivity. Ever a moody sort he spent the last half dozen years of his life trudging gloomily around his empire, bereft of macerated fruit. He died in 1825 while on a state visit to the southern port city Taganrog, or at any rate that’s the official story. For indeed more than a few people believe that he didn’t die — he was only 48 and in robust health at the time — but rather engineered his own disappearance. Whose identity might he have assumed? Where might he have gone? What did he eat once he got there? Were there any strawberries involved? These vital questions may never be adequately answered.