Downfall of the Pièce Montée

Below we talked about how the pièce montée art form found new life in post-revolutionary Paris, particularly when practiced by Antonin Carême. That Carême took the “mounted piece” to new heights of sophistication and artistry is beyond dispute. However it’s also beyond dispute that even as Carême continued to produce one pièce montée masterpiece after another, the heyday of grand centerpiece was coming to an end. For changing politics were also bringing about a broader change in the way people ate.

In the glory days of the French aristocracy (and European aristocracy generally), formal dining occurred around grand tables. Food was brought in four or five huge services, from which diners served themselves. A single service could comprise a dozen or more items. First service consisted of soups, hors d’oeuvres and lighter meat dishes. Second service was generally more meat, particularly any grand preparations (known as pièces de résistance). Third service focused on vegetables. Fourth service was made up of closers like fruits, cheeses, small sweet items (including pastries), nuts and other light treats.

It was a style of eating known as service à la française. Services were piled into huge, elaborately decorated mounds in the middle of the table and diners served themselves from whatever plates happened to be within reach. In the case of very large dishes, say a whole roasted pig, a diner would make a request from a server who would whisk the food back into the kitchen where it would be portioned and returned to the table. The whole thing was a grand but inefficient pageant, mostly designed to show abundance.

For obvious reasons service à la française went out of vogue with the French Revolution. The new elites who sprung up afterward were anxious to show that they’d made a break from the decadence of the past. Enter here one Alexander Kurakin, a Russian diplomat known as the “Diamond Prince” (he was a sharp dresser) who introduced a new form of dining to Parisian social circles, a style which became known as service à la Russe.

In this there were no grand tables or displays. Dishes of different types were served to diners one after the other, in “courses”. Instead of serving themselves, servants brought dishes to the diners, already portioned and arranged on plates by staff in the kitchen. Though the system was touted as a simpler, more “of the people” style of dining, it was actually anything but. Service à la russe required far more table and kitchen staff than the old style, and usually entailed the consumption of much more food (diners, after all, had no say in how much food they were served).

The new style took off all over Europe, even and especially in aristocratic circles, as the European nobility — taking note of what had happened in France — sought to town down the opulence. Popular uprisings, after all, can spread.

The result was the steady decline in the popularity of the pièce montée for all but the most splendid occasions (like weddings). Yes they survived in grand hotels where members of the rising middle class wanted a (literal) taste of the good life that was formerly available only to the aristocracy. But as a household lifestyle item, the pièce montée was, how do you say, toast.

There were however upsides to the rise of service à la Russe, for it made possible courses solely devoted to pastry. When the new style of dining hit England in the early 1800?s, the Brits, in their infinite wisdom, created a course entirely devoted to cake. “Dessert” was born.

2 thoughts on “Downfall of the Pièce Montée”

  1. Interesting story, I have heard the term “French service” but never really knew what the term entailed. I don’t think I have ever heard of “Russian service”, to me it was always “formal service”. Thanks for the history lesson!

    1. There was an old gag that I remember from somewhere, maybe a Marx brothers routine, about going to lunch where they were serving “alaroos”.

      “Ever heard of that?”

      “No, I’ve never eaten it.”

      – J

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