The Day Paris Ate Its Own Zoo
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
If there’s one thing the French are famous for, it’s good food. French cuisine is the gold standard for chefs in training and out of France was born the very system by which the top restaurants in the world are judged, the famous Michelin star.
Restaurants, as we know them today, took their first tentative steps in France before spreading out into the rest of the world. Now, there is not a city on earth where you won’t find a restaurant serving French cuisine.
And maybe their passion for food is a by-product of location, finding themselves in a region with an abundance of high-quality ingredients. It’s easy to cook good food when the produce around you is fresh, easy to access and most importantly of all, delicious.
But, for the citizens of the French capital at least, this wasn’t always the case. For almost 5 months, starting in September of 1870, the inhabitants of Paris were more than pushed to their limits and because of this, were forced to get creative with the food they had at hand.
September of that year fell in the middle of the Franco-Prussian war and the German army had set up camp around the outskirts of Paris. Their commanders knew that an all-out attack would be costly as the city was well fortified and so they bedded in and came up with a different plan. Slowly, day by day the German forces tightened the noose around the necks of the Parisians, cutting off supply lines and crucial food shipments into the city, knowing that with each passing day, the inhabitants of Paris were running out of food. The Germans hoped that as their captives hunger grew and with no end in sight to the siege, it would prompt the French city to surrender.
It was at this same time that an American doctor by the name of Robert Lowry Sibbet had been travelling around the continent visiting the famous old European cities. And, in an unfortunate twist of fate, he found himself in Paris just as the siege was beginning.
Soon after he had first arrived in Paris, he was awed by the beauty of the city, its history and architecture, as especially by the people themselves. But it wasn’t long before the atmosphere in the city began to turn sour.
Emporer Napoleon Bonaparte III, a descendant of the most well known of his name Napoleon Bonaparte the First, had been captured on the front lines of battle in early September and while the rest of the country was declaring itself a republic, the city of Paris was preparing itself for siege.
Dr. Sibbet noted in his diaries: Quote: “the ministry of agriculture is very active in gathering in from the adjoining departments all of the produce and fuel that can be found, as well as fat cattle, cows, calves, sheep and hogs.” End quote. It seems to me that the Parisians were doing all they could to stay well stocked, hoping to ride out the hard days ahead.
Before long all of the parks in central Paris were full to the brim with livestock. Just a few days later on September 18th, Dr Sibbet records the following: Quote: “The last railroad has been taken, the last telegraph line cut, and now the postroads all around the city are occupied by the Germans. It would seem now that I am a prisoner in this great city.” End Quote.
The trouble with sieges is that you never know how long they are going to take, and for the first few weeks, all was well and life went on fairly as normal inside the boundaries of the capital despite the enemy at the gates.
But, as the days ticked by and mid-October approached, the first cracks began to appear. The number of sheep and cattle being slaughtered each day was reaching chronic proportions and in a measure to stem the tide the city allowed the selling of horse meat in its markets.
If at this point the idea of even eating horse meat is disgusting to you, well you’re in for a wild ride.
Even the Parisians, who in global sterotypes are fond consumers of snails and frog legs, needed some encouragement to take on horse meat as a new staple in their diets.
Dr. Sibbet described how, in an attempt to turn the tide of public opinion, the city hosted a horse themed dinner with gastronomic delights such as horse broth soup (with toast, obviously) boiled horse with cabbage, horse haunch a la mode, braised horse flank, roast fillet of horse, and bringing the mains to a close, some tasty horse cold cuts. What about dessert you ask? Well, i’m sure you’ll wish you hadn’t. Dessert was some warm Horse Blood Pudding. And, as unappetising as that may sound, this dinner was to be a culinary high point in the days and weeks to come.
November rolled around and there was no end in sight to the siege of Paris. By mid-November city officials realised that without instituting rationing they would soon be in serious trouble. A few days later and Parisians were being restricted to just 100 grams of meat per day, with meat meaning either beef, horse or salted fish.
On November 12, 1870, Dr Sibbet describes how Parisians sought to increase their meat intake in a rather distressing manner. Quote: “On a main road, a stall was erected and hanging from the right side of the stall were several large dogs neatly trimmed, and next to them several large cats. On the left of the stall, there were a dozen or more rats stretched upon a tray. A young woman and her daughter approached the stall, wishing to enquire the price of the rats and, having enough money, purchased one.” End Quote.
This is a good time to pause and remember that historical sensibilities around domestic animals were not the same as they are today. As overwhelmingly offputting as it is to hear about the treatment of what we would consider pets, it’s also good to remember that these were exceptional circumstances.
A Mr Henry Markheim summed up these new flavours as such: Quote “Dog is not a bad substitute for mutton and cat, as all the world knows, is often eaten in place of rabbit.” End Quote.
Surprisingly rat meat was the most expensive at this time with a plump rat costing 50 cents while you were able to purchase an entire pound of cat or dog meat for just 20.
It was around this same time that the famous cafes and restaurants of Paris were closing in their droves due to the severe shortage of fresh meat and produce. Many of them were turned into government canteens to feed the poor who had no other means of getting food.
By this point it seemed as if things couldn’t get any worse. But, with the luxury of historical records, I can tell you that the bad news for the citizens of Paris was that the siege was only just reaching the halfway mark.
The siege rolled on into December and the food shortage was getting bleaker by the day. Christmas was fast approaching and while the poorer inhabitants of the city were content to get by on a thin horse bone broth, the wealthier citizens still felt the urge to celebrate Christmas as they always had, even if it meant getting slightly creative. And as such, as Christmas Eve drew itself to a close the lights were still burning brightly in one of the few restaurants still open in the city, where an entirely different kind of Christmas feast was being prepared.
Morning broke on Christmas Day 1870 and the kitchen staff were working furiously to prepare a Christmas lunch feast at the famous old Voison restaurant. While the kitchen was in a spin, the front of house was having special menus printed for the lunch that afternoon with big bold lettering across the top that read: "99th DAY OF THE SIEGE".
As you would expect from any self-respecting French restaurant the menu for that day included an extraordinary number of courses, paired with the finest wines they still had available in their cellars at the time. However, even the most experienced of Sommeliers would have had trouble working out just which wines to pair with the meals on offer that day.
The clocks around Paris struck 12 noon that Christmas Day and the guests began to make their way to the old restaurant, happy for a chance to take their minds off the trouble they found themselves in and comfort themselves in a timeless and happy tradition.
They streamed through the doors of the restaurant, glad to be out of the cold and took their seats, very expectant but also mildly apprehensive as the menu’s were placed down in front of them.
Wine was poured and the clinking of glasses rang out around the dining room. It was time for the first dish of the day.
The waiters wheeled out carts full of shiny silver cloches and upon arrival at the tables lifted them. In a moment reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, the lifting of each cloche revealed a donkeys head stuffed with radishes, butter and sardines. You know, that old classic combo.
Next up was the soup course and this offered patrons an interesting dilemma. You see they had a choice, on one hand, they could choose the very normal sounding red bean soup with croutons. But if that wasn’t to their liking and they were feeling somewhat adventurous, there was, of course, another option at hand. A simple broth of elephant.
It’s worth taking a step back briefly to see what was happening in the city by this point. Unfortunately for the animals kept in Paris, the zookeepers and animal park attendants barely had enough food to feed themselves, let alone the animals in their care. And when it came right down to it, it seemed a waste to give the food to animals already destined for the slaughter. Around this time lived a famous pair of elephant siblings housed in Paris named Castor and Pollux, widely loved across the city for having children ride around the park on their backs. However, late into December, these two majestic creatures like the rest of the elephants of Paris gave their last rides around the park and in a few short days, elephant meat began to appear in the food markets around the city.
Back we go to Voison and the Christmas menu and we see that even here, the mortal enemy of restaurants everywhere was now appearing on its menu, rats.
These creatures, feared by almost every restauranteur in history, now formed a big part of the third course of the day, placed as they were alongside dishes full of roasted cat.
This might have been all that some patrons could take, but the tasting tour of the French equivalent of Noahs Ark was only just getting started. Next up was a delightful Kangaroo stew followed swiftly by a terrine of antelope and truffles.
Not content to end things there, the chef decided to finish the mains course with a flourish. In a bid seemingly to stick to their earlier theme of serving the hunter and the hunted on the same plate the guests were treated to a dish I doubt any of them had ever tasted before, and I imagine might never do so again. When the last carts were wheeled out they would come to reveal plates of wolf dressed delightfully in a deer sauce.
As the afternoon wore on and the wealthy guests of Voison drank and ate to their hearts content the rest of the city of Paris hunkered down, waiting for a return to normalcy when eventually the siege would end. And in just a months time it would, when on the 28th of January 1871 the city was finally captured after 23 straight days of shelling by the German forces in a bid to break the spirit of the French resistance. The Germans had won and the siege was over. Life slowly returned to normal, or as close to normal as could be, and the memories of stuffed donkeys heads, rats and elephants faded into the distance. History, however, will never forget the famous Christmas menu of 1870.
Oh, and there was one more quirk that stood out on this menu that I have not yet mentioned. Next to each dish guests could read the name of the zoo animal that had been used in the preparation of that meal.
Until next time. Bon Appetit.