4,700 menus showcasing the evolution of French diplomacy up for auction

Collection of over 4,700 menus showcases the evolution of French diplomacy

Contrasting menus President Kennedy’s state visit, left, and for royals William and Kate, right
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A collection of menus served to world leaders on state visits to France is expected to fetch upwards of €100,000 when it comes up for auction on May 31.

The menus have been accumulated by French chef Christophe Marguin over the past 38 years, but span a vast period of diplomatic dining, from Napoleon III to Emmanuel Macron. 

Presidential menus make up the lion’s share of the collection but also included are around 600 menus from Queen Elizabeth II and a few from the Queen Mother. 

The collection provides an insight into the evolution of French diplomacy over the past three centuries as the country hosted tsars, emperors, presidents and monarchs.

Included is Macron’s menu to welcome King Charles III at Versailles in 2023, Charles de Gaulle’s menu for President John F. Kennedy on his state visit to France, the menu from the day that Sadi Carnot, a French president in the 19th century, was assassinated in Lyon, and the menu served at the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel. 

Pearls of history

“Collecting menus started completely by coincidence,” Mr Marguin told The Connexion. “It quickly became a passion of mine as it combines the history of my job and the history of my country. It is extraordinary luck for me as a chef to be able to combine the two. Crucial discussions about war, about industry, about politics took place around the dinner table, so these menus are little pearls of history.” 

Virginie Vernier, manager of Lyon auction house Maison Millon, which is organising the sale, said the collection was unique due to its size and its historical significance. 

“I had never seen anything like it before. It highlights the history of France and, more importantly, the diplomacy of the French state. These dinners were the chance to highlight all of the French regions and impress guests. It is a showcase of our heritage,” she said. 

The collection is estimated to be worth around €110,000 and has been divided into smaller lots. It took two people working tirelessly for around two months to analyse the whole collection. 

Bidding will start between €15 for the cheapest lots all the way up to €1,500. The estimated value is based on historical significance, rarity and on aesthetic value. For example, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing loved to highlight French culture and often featured a painting on his menus. 

Cultural changes

The main evolution over time is not culinary but cultural, symbolised by the number of courses and time taken to eat. Historically, meals would be made up of 20 or more dishes and take several hours, whereas today there are four or five dishes and it sometimes takes less than an hour. “Before, the meals were the event of the week, but that is no longer the case,” explained Mr Marguin.

In terms of quality, the meals and menus have remained consistent. “These meals are to sell France to its guests, so quality must always be very high and every ingredient is French,” added Mr Marguin. 

They were also served à la française. Each person has an empty plate and they then serve themselves from the bigger dish, rather than being given an already prepared plate. 

Of course, wine is a very important part of the meal and the chance to show off the terroirs of France. “The importance of a guest is clear from the wine. When un grand champagne, un grand vin blanc et un grand vin rouge are served, then the guest is extremely important,” explained Mr Marguin. 

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Queen ruled

One guest did stand out in terms of importance, even among world leaders: the Queen, who apparently loved foie gras. This was due to her longevity, the long history between the UK and France and her title – a queen is considered more important than a president. 

Mr Marguin is particularly interested in the menus of leaders widely considered dictators, such as Nicolae Ceaușescu, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. “These are people that France hosted due to business it had with their countries, so I consider their menus to be pieces of history,” he said.

In the case of Gaddafi, the decision was made to still serve wine at the meal, to promote French know-how, despite the fact that Gaddafi and his entourage could not drink alcohol on religious grounds. 

To create a menu, the president’s chef makes his suggestion, taking into account the president’s preferences and those of his guests (there are secret protocols to find these out), but it is always the president who takes the final decision. 

The menus therefore provide an insight into their tastes. Jacques Chirac was rumoured to love calf’s head, but Mr Marguin can confirm that lamb was his favourite meat. He says the two presidents who made the most of the meals were Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand, who often ate caviar, which is nowhere to be found in recent menus. 

Collecting by chance

A fourth-generation chef and the owner of a restaurant in Lyon, Mr Marguin started collecting the menus by chance in 1986. He was just 19 when a fellow chef offered to sell him his first menus. 

“I sincerely do not remember how much they cost but I do remember that I had to ask my dad to lend me some money as I did not have any at the time!” He then looked for them on eBay and from second-hand booksellers, gradually building up a reputation so that menu-sellers would contact him directly.

He bought his most expensive menu for €1,500, a Napoleon III menu, but he is unsure how much money he has spent in total. He has chosen to sell the collection because he is worried that his two sons, who are not collectors, might throw away his collection when he dies. “I want someone to get these menus and be happy with them.”

He is not entirely sure where the vendors actually got their menus, but he suspects they come from waiters who picked them up after the meal. 

He is not selling the entirety of his collection. He is keeping some copies and 20 menus signed by presidents. 

 For Mrs Vernier, organising this auction has been a joy due to the unique nature of the collection. It takes place in Paris on May 31, although you can place bids online or by telephone. For more details, visit this website.