La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

At the Maestro’s Table

A musical evening at Rossini’s

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
6 min.

Drawing on anecdotes and the composer's correspondence, this fictionalised account reveals the course of a typical soirée at Rossini's: from the prestigious guests and sophisticated compositions to the maestro's authentic gastronomic recipes...

Saturday 11 May 1861. A spring sun was caressing the rounded cobblestones of the new grand boulevard lined with young hornbeams, ash trees and hawthorns in bloom. I had decided to walk to Passy where, just a stone’s throw from the Bois de Boulogne, Gioachino Rossini’s residence awaited me and what promised to be an unforgettable evening. I had had the good fortune to meet the great maestro a few months earlier at la Tour d’Argent, where we had dined at adjoining tables. A mere person of private means and not yet shining in any particular area, I had no doubt amused him on that occasion to invite me to his table today: a table renowned for its specialities and the service, combining culinary art and musical tasting, but above all a table coveted by the Parisian elite. As instructed, I had put on my best evening wear and a white tie.

Villa Rossini (Passy)
Villa Rossini (Passy)

The villa – surrounded by gardens dotted with lawns and with beds decorated with statues and shaped like musical instruments as well as a fountain in dressed stone – had been built on land acquired from the City of Paris, it would seem, on account of it being in the form of a grand piano. When I was ushered into the pleasant hall on the ground floor, I immediately perceived the large frescoed salon, decorated with red panels featuring gold beading, where the musical programme cleverly put together by our host was to be performed. Crimson furniture completed the elegance of the room and, in one corner, several Italian paintings adorned the walls, including one depicting Mozart being complimented in the box of the Emperor of Austria on the day of the premiere of his Don Giovanni at the Vienna Opera. I let myself be led into the dining room, which was spacious, rich and comfortable, with a long table tastefully laid out in the style of a princely banquet.

Rossini, wearing a smart négligé and a simar fastened with a pin enhanced with a medallion bearing the effigy of Handel, suddenly entered the room in the company of his wife, Olympe, and a group of guests who had arrived before me. There ensued a flurry of handshakes and introductions that was enough to make your head spin. Prince Joseph-Antoine Poniatowski, the composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Camille Saint-Saëns, the writer Alexandre Dumas, the young illustrator prodigy Gustave Doré and the cellist Gaetano Braga. We were soon joined by others, including a certain Albert Lavignac, a pianist just out of the Conservatoire who seemed to be held in high esteem by the other musicians in attendance; the singers Italo Gardoni and Enrico selle Siede, the singers Adelina Patti and Maria Alboni, upon whose arrival Rossini briefly left to change his wig for a more coquettishly curled model; and lastly, to my pleasant surprise, Baron Haussmann, to whom we owe the new imperial face of our beautiful city.

Superbly calligraphed name cards indicated our places at the table, demonstrating the maestro’s desire to encourage people to meet and talk. The meal began with rosettes of cold meats surrounded by cheese and olives, whose provenance Rossini carefully pointed out. He added: ‘You will find smoked ham from the Ardennes, pistachio mortadella from Bologna, bocconcini from Naples and frantoio olives from Tuscany.’ To accompany these first snacks, we were served a sumptuous Madeira wine with a discreet little red cross on the bottle. I enquired about this mark from my neighbour on the right, Gustave Doré, who said with a smile:

‘Our host marks all his opened bottles in this way.’
‘Why so?’
‘That is how he keeps track of how much was drunk at each of his dinners. He keeps a book dedicated entirely to the management of his cellar.’

The Oyster Song

‘Oysters are like heavenly manna, which, the learned rabbis tell us, has the property of always seeming new to the palate and of always taking on the taste we desire. Lunch without oysters is like a meal without macaroni, a night without a moon.’ Rossini was so fond of oysters that during the composition of La gazza ladra he racked up a thousand-lire debt with his Milanese supplier. A poet in his spare time, the latter invited Rossini to pay his debt by setting some of his verses to music. Their collaboration gave rise to The Oyster Song.

After these amuse-bouches, Lavignac reproached Rossini for not having included in his menu the dozens of royal sardines he had sent him from the Bay of Biscay. ‘My dear friend’, replied the composer, ‘please don’t send me such things on Saturdays. On Saturdays I host a lot of guests and when I have such delicacies, I want to eat them alone, at my ease and without chatting.’ This response triggered a wave of laughter and applause which continued until the soup arrived. It was a creamy broth of wild mushrooms in which floated cep croquettes, truffles, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, seasoned with nutmeg, thyme and pepper. The second starter was ‘Cenerentola’ rolls, a stuffing of minced beef and rice rolled in chard leaves browned with parmesan and truffles – a theme was emerging in terms of taste. As the dish was announced, Adelina Patti hummed a few bars of “Non più mesta” as she raised her glass to the composer of both the score and the meal, charming all the guests. We were then served macaroni, the maestro’s favourite dish, moistened with a tomato, white wine and cream sauce, and richly browned with Gruyère cheese.

Rossini’s recipe for macaroni

‘To be sure to make a good macaroni, you first need a good dish. The dishes I use come from Naples and are sold under the name of Vesuvius earthenware. There are four parts to cooking macaroni. Firstly, the cooking of the pasta, which is a most important operation and one which must be handled with the greatest care. First, you pour the pasta into a boiling stock that has been prepared in advance; this stock has been strained and filtered; then the pasta is cooked at a low heat after adding a few centilitres of cream and a pinch of bitter orange. When the macaroni has reached a transparent colour and is well cooked, it is removed immediately and left to drain until it no longer contains any water; it is then set aside until the layering. Then, still in an earthenware dish, this is how you should make your sauce; for a two-pound macaroni (200 g), use: 50 g butter, 50 g finely grated Parmesan cheese, 5 dl stock, 10 g dried mushrooms, 2 chopped truffles, 100 g chopped lean ham, 1 pinch of allspice, 1 bouquet garni, 1 tomato, 2 dl cream, 2 glasses of champagne. Simmer over a low heat for an hour; strain through a fine sieve and set aside in a bain-marie. Now it is time for the layering. This is when you need the Vesuvius earthenware dish. After the dish has been lightly greased with clarified butter and cooled, you pour a layer of sauce over it, then a layer of macaroni, which is covered with a layer of Parmesan cheese, grated Gruyère and butter, then a layer of macaroni, which is covered in the same way, all moistened with sauce, then some breadcrumbs and a little butter are added to the last layer and the dish is set aside to be browned over the fire. The difficulty lies in browning the dish for the moment when it is to be eaten.’

I readily confess that I was already reaching satiation. Rossini’s cuisine betrayed the artist’s generosity, not only in the strength of the flavours and the nobility of the products on the plate, but also in the scarcity of vegetables and the abundance of fats. Torn between the reasonable angel and the greedy demon that govern my relationship with gastronomy, I struggled to finish the main course for which the maestro is renowned, even as I savoured it: a fillet of beef resting on a slice of bread, topped with a piece of pan-fried foie gras and thin slices of black truffle, all topped with juices deglazed with Madeira. I admitted defeat to our host when, for dessert, we were presented with a cherry tart and an apple tart, cleverly named ‘Guillaume Tell’. He insisted on saving a slice of each for me, to enjoy with my breakfast the next morning.

Redder and less supple than at the start of the meal, we left the dining room for the grand salon, where the regulars were already crowding in who had not been invited to the feast, but to the musical programme put together by the host, and who had been enticed by the promise of an ice cream at the interval. Gaetano Braga set up his cello next to the piano where Rossini was seated, and a great silence fell on the room. The two men delighted their listeners with a new composition by the maestro. Under the chair of her mistress, Olympe, the dog Mina, who was said to be a music lover, accompanied the cheers and bravos with her enthusiastic barking. Monsieur Doré was a great success, singing a romance in his magnificent and surprising baritone voice, which he deployed with great taste and expression. Rossini then served up a series of ironic pieces of his own invention, including Quatre hors d’oeuvres (‘Radishes’, ‘Anchovies’, ‘Gherkins’ and ‘Butter’), Quatre mendiants (‘Dried Figs’, ‘Almonds’, ‘Grapes’ and ‘Hazelnuts’) and a Hachis romantique (Romantic Minced Meat) that had the entire audience in a frenzy.

But the real triumph of the evening came when Adelina Patti, Maria Alboni, Italo Gardoni and Enrico delle Siede sang the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Champagne and fine wines flowed throughout. When it came time for the maestro to thank his guests and take his leave, I shook his hand warmly, with stars in my eyes and with grateful ears and stomach, hoping to be invited again before I left for Brussels in July. When I got home, a sudden feeling of regret came over me: it was already Sunday, and I had forgotten to take my two slices of tart with me …