Chef Walter Staib Films Aboard Hermione for an Upcoming Culinary Episode July 3, 2014
CHEF STAIB, ALONG WITH PHOTOGRAPHER, JIM DAVEY (LEFT), WERE SHOOTING FOOTAGE FOR AN UPCOMING EPISODE OF "THE TASTE OF HISTORY," SERIES THAT WILL AIR ON PBS-TV AND OTHER STATIONS. PHOTO COURTESY: JIM DAVEY
MILES AND MILES OF ROPE: AT THE TIME OF ITS CONSTRUCTION IN 1685, THE CORDERIE ROYALE WAS THE SINGLE LONGEST BUILDING IN THE WORLD, LONGER THAN EVEN THE END-TO-END WIDTH SUN KING'S VERSAILLES PALACE.
THEN AS NOW, ROCHEFORT IS A BUSTLING HUB FOR SEAFOOD, AND MERCHANDISE OF ALL KINDS. IN THIS 18TH CENTURY PAINTING BY JOSEPH VERNET, WORKERS, BUYERS AND SELLERS ARE BUSTLING AT ONE OF ROCHEFORT'S DOCKS. CLAUDE-JOSPEH VERNET (1714-1789)
Editor’s Note: In early June 2014, Chef Walter Staib, City Tavern, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, traveled to see the Hermione tall ships frigate in Rochefort, France. There, Chef Staib filmed a segment for “The Taste of History” series. This history-and-culinary-themed episode will be broadcast on PBS (and other networks) and celebrates the heralded return of the Hermione to Yorktown, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, among other US ports in 2015.
For this episode, Chef Staib was filmed on board and in and around Rochefort, the vessel’s homeport in Charente-Maritime region in southwestern France, famous for its seafood, by Jim Davey of Multi Media Productions, Inc., Richboro, Pennsylvania.
Supported with a generous donation by a strong supporter of Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, Chef Staib’s Hermione episode, featuring recipes from the American Revolutionary era enjoyed by both Lafayette and General Washington, will air later this year.
Here below is Chef Staib’s travel account to Rochefort.
Sailing Back in Time – A flight, a Few Time Zones & Two Centuries
I am a culinary ambassador to the 18th century. One of the many men who inspire me the most is the Marquis de Lafayette. We’ll get into this life a bit more later, but for now, I’ll just say I was excited when I first learned about the project to recreate his 1780 frigate ship, L’Hermione.
It was a challenge to find time and the resources to go to the source and film where it was being built in Rochefort, France for my show “A Taste of History.” The show combines cooking and history and teaches viewers little-known facts about the founding of America and the world in the 18th century. Thanks to the Miles Young, president of the Friends of Hermione – Lafayette in America and some exceptionally helpful people in Philadelphia, we made it happen. I didn’t go into this completely unprepared. I met with the curator of Independence Seaport Museum Craig Bruns, who brought a trove of ship sketches and primary resources. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which was founded by none other than Benjamin Franklin, chipped in with menus and documentation about Lafayette in America, as did archivists from Mount Vernon in Virginia.
I flew to France and took a train to the little town Rochefort, about 20 km in-land, armed with a production crew and a sense of curiosity. Standing there, right there where the ship towered over me, in the very same dry dock that the original ship sat, that was an amazing moment for me personally and for the show! I met with historian and author Emmanuel de Fontainieu, who explained how much rope and manpower it took to raise an anchor at a capstan.
On board, I talked with experts who enlightened me on all kinds of things. Who knew it took 1200 m2 of sails to make the ship fast? Anne Renaud, sail maker, told me about the process of making 17 sails from linen woven in England to keep them light in weight. Captain Yann Cariou described his forthcoming 2015 voyage in detail, comparing it to his experiences in the French Navy and on commercial tall ships. A captain is a conductor of a great orchestra. Every little piece must be in harmony or it won’t work, but the consequence of a sour note is a casualty at sea.
There are so many things I learned on this trip to film the ship for my show, “A Taste of History.” Many things that make total sense, but that never occurred to me, came into reality. King Louis XIV fortified the military harbor that was established in 1665. He built his marina in Southwestern France for ship building not on the sea, but in-land along a winding tributary of the Charente River. That put the port in a much safer area where attacking ships could not easily reach the commissaries, docks, and merchants that made shipbuilding possible.
Another new tidbit — this ship takes 30 km – 18 miles! – of rope to operate all its sails. That’s a lot of rope. Just to make that much rope for each ship being built each year, the French king had the “Corderie Royale” or royal rope factory built. When it opened, it was the largest building in Europe to accommodate all that hand woven rope. It’s unbelievable, but they could build one of these massive ships in just six months.
The restored Corderie Royale, the bistros, bakeries, and blacksmith shops, all of it is still here and this place feels like you’re walking through a town in the 18th century. It’s easy to forget it’s the 21st century and that I boarded a plane, train and taxi to get here. It was amazing to stand where Lafayette stood to board his new ship, but more importantly, where thousands of tradesmen came and went doing their daily work. That’s another thing I learned – each component, or ingredient in a recipe for a ship, must be strong for the ship to voyage the ocean. The hand-sewn sails work with the braided cordage ropes that work with the French oak planks that are held together with hand forged nails.
L’Hermione was the ship that changed the American Revolution and the history of our nation. In 1780, Lafayette contracted it and sailed with a crew of about 316 and his retinue of 14 to the American Colonies to announce France’s participation in the revolutionary war. He was bitter to the English because his father died in the French Indian war. He was a dear friend to George Washington, like a son to the general, and he pleaded with the king of France to be on the right side of history, at the side of the new nation formed on democracy.
L’Hermione is not just a time capsule, but also a study in the craftsmanship of the 18th century and the life of an everyday sailor. It wasn’t easy. As a chef, I think it wasn’t much of a delicious life, either. Shops in town catered to the ships. Butchers salted meat, fishmongers salted fish, and shops dried tomatoes and fruit to sell to the captains preparing for a long voyage crossing the ocean. That was for the officers. Sailors got hard tack, or dried, hard biscuits, that bakeries made by the pound for outgoing vessels.
The kitchen in the recreated L’Hermione is not the same as the original. It’s equipped for the modern crew of professional sailors and volunteers that will take a six-week voyage from Rochefort to America in spring 2015. I’ll be here on the dock in Philadelphia to welcome her back to the city. And just as the Continental Congress did in 1780, I’ll walk just blocks from the river to my restaurant City Tavern to celebrate with a feast in true 18th century style.
For more information on Chef Staib, visit www.staib.com. Learn more about his show at www.atasteofhistory.org or look for it on your local PBS station and television listings. To experience an 18th century meal and make reservations at City Tavern Restaurant, visit: www.citytavern.com
American Revolution history buffs, admirers of Washington, Jefferson and Lafayette, nautical enthusiasts and followers interested in L’Hermione’s 2015 voyage from Rochefort, France to the Eastern seaboard are invited to follow this blog for all the latest news and plans in 2014 and 2015.
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