La Tour d’Argent, Paris – Wine, War & The Art of Living Well

‘the new art of living is the art of living that has always been, except for a few small inventions and, nothing should be taken more seriously than pleasure itself’*

To be a Frenchman and restauranteur means to fight for your country and its wine’, declared a youthful Claude Terrail (1917 – 2006), when he left his air force unit in Lyon on May 12 in the year 1940.

He was about to make a dramatic dash to help Gaston Masson, the manager of his father André’s world famous restaurant, La Tour d’Argent (The Silver Tower) at Paris. The objective was to save one of the greatest wine cellars in the world.

Royalty, leading industrialists, financiers, presidents, all the high society of the world had flocked to La Tour d’Argent to be greeted by André Terrail ever since he had first taken over one of Paris’s most famous restaurants in 1910.

André had previously survived the Franco-Prussian War and World War 1, in which he was wounded and taken prisoner.

He had since assembled 100,000 + bottles of the most famous wine produced in France, housing them in the cellar underneath the restaurant building, which was also the hotel he and his family lived in.

The famous cellar, especially the wine from 1867, and its numbered servings of duck were at the very essence of La Tour d’Argent’s fame and fortune.

French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier (1884-1970) once called wine ‘France’s most precious jewel’.

It was significant as a symbol of prestige, sophistication and power.

For the French people wine was at the very heart and soul of their culture, and the art of pleasure a very serious business. If the Germans were to confiscate the most unique of its wines from the most famous of its vineyards Andre Terrail’s son Claude knew it would cut deep into the French spirit.

And it would soon come to pass, for the moment the Demarcation Line was drawn in July 1940 all of France’s best vineyards, the grands crus, came under the control of the Germans and Hitler. It was a beautiful clear day in May 1940 when André’s heir Claude was given a six-hour pass from his air force unit to dash to Paris and complete his vital mission, to save the most precious of all the French wine that he could.

Claude Terrail as a Young Man at his restaurant La Tour d'Argent, Paris

Claude Terrail knew that two days before the Germans had crossed the Meuse River from Belgium on their way to Paris. Disaster was about to happen if he did not act quickly.

When he got to Paris  he could not believe that everyone was carrying on as normal, seemingly unaware or denying the fact that they were soon to be occupied. He and Gaston Masson had already decided what to do to save the best wines from the hands of the German High Command.

They would build a false wall into the back of the cellar and hide it all.

The pace was furious, the mood frantic as every one of the staff and their families pitched in to help move the most precious vintages. While the men were laboring to finish building the wall women and children carefully gathered cobwebs and spiders to attach to it so that when it was finished it would look as old and venerable as the wine itself.

As Claude once more left to return to his unit, his team organized the rest of the cellar’s contents so that very soon no one could see that it had happened at all. Everyone involved took a vow of silence on his or her life.

A month later the Germans marched into Paris. A special emissary of Field Marshal Hermann Göring was sent immediately to La Tour d’Argent to confiscate the most famous of its wines, including the legendary bottles from the vintage of 1867.

Remaining calm Gaston Masson informed him that unfortunately it had all been drunk.

Phillipe Duc d'Orleans, renowned for enjoing the art of pleasure

Furious at being gazumped, the Germans searched the cellars for hours turning over the labels of all the rest of the bottles to be sure. Angry at being foiled they seized the remaining 80,000 bottles, as a taste of things yet to come.

Founded first in 1582 when Elizabeth 1 was on the throne of England popular legend goes, the original site for a noble eating establishment was on the Quai de la Tournelle near the juncture of the boulevards St.-Germain and Henri IV in the Fifth Arrondissement.

It was opposite the Cathedral at Notre Dame, between the River Seine and Bernardins monastery. To build it they used stone from the Champagne region of France, which looked silver and glittered in some lights, because of its mica content.

This was more or less where the city ended at the end of the 12th century.

The story is most likely apocryphal, although old maps and drawings from the time show a military fortification with a stone tower at about the same location so the legend of the ‘silver tower’ was born.

There was an inn there in the late sixteenth century where Henry IV reputedly ate heron pâté, learning how to use a newfangled gadget we call a fork.

This ‘strange’ and scandalous utensil, known in ancient times, was introduced to France when Catherine de Medici came to marry Henry II.

In Italy it had been in use by the nobility since the 14th century.

They became another marker that represented social status and sophistication and helped to distinguish the nobility from everyone else. It would take until the 18th century for forks to come into more commonplace use, and a lot longer in some societies.

Pressing the Duck in front of a portrait of Frederic Delair

By the 1600’s duels were said to have been fought to secure a table, and during the reign of Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) the court came from Versailles.

The Silver Tower became a favourite haunt during the early eighteenth century for the Regent of France, Philippe d’Orleans, who enjoyed practicing the art of living well.

The first modern restaurant bearing the name La Tour d’Argent opened on the Quai de la Tournelle around 1780.

Nine years later, on July 14, 1789, it was burned down by revolutionaries who had just torched the Bastille on the other side of the Seine.

According to one story, the Tour had its own flag and the angry mob mistook it for the flag of a nobleman.

Whatever, they had not taken kindly to the fact that this might be the place rumoured for centuries to be patronized by Kings, Princes and the nobility, who were now all very much out of favour. Rumour and gossip were rife in late eighteenth century France fuelled by scandal sheets bringing about change.

During the French Third Republic (1870 – 1940) the restaurant was rebuilt. Its new owner Frederic Delair and his chef created a complex dish of duck, which was pressed with a new fangled silver machine especially designed to perform the task.

In the process it removed the duck’s blood in a ritual preparation, which is not for the feint hearted. Caneton Tour d’Argent consists of two-courses, first the breasts are cooked in port, cognac and the essence of pressed duck carcass.

Later, the legs are presented in the heavy but delicious sauce for the pleasure of the diner.

Delair cleverly decided to number the ducks as a promotional push, and people flocked to experience this amazing treat and watched in fascination as he performed the rites himself.

The promotion was so successful serving duck became an integral part of the restaurant’s legendary status and still continues today, having passed the 1,000,000 mark in 2003.

In 1890 Edward VII Prince of Wales ate number 328, in 1921 Thomas Rockefeller No. 51,327, in 1979 Roman Polanski enjoyed 554,711 and more recently Bill Gates No. 1079006

Perhaps the darkest hour for the restaurant in its long history was when the German army forced Claude Terrail to keep it open, so that Field Marshal Hermann Goering and other top ranking officers could enjoy its signature dish.

Claude Terrail urged his Nazi guests to consume cheaper wines and eavesdropped on all their conversations, passing on the information gathered to the French resistance.

After the war, fine vintages were soon back on the menu, especially when that false cellar wall was torn down.

This is when the rest of France learned about just how clever Claude Terrail had been in hiding the most famous of their wines.

Ultimately he became a hero to the French people. He did comment however that while the Germans were killers outside, inside when they were at La Tour d’Argent they were well dressed and paid for everything, respecting both its history and reputation.

‘We didn’t play tricks’ he said, it wasn’t worth dying for’.

Three Tower Symbol of royal favour impressed onto the covers of books owned by Louis XV's mistress Marquise du Pompadour

Claude Terrail took over the restaurant in 1947, moving the restaurant onto the top floor, with a reception and shop established on the ground floor. The rest of the building housed his family and a museum to its history that he established.

La Tour d’Argent continued to attract the great and the good from all over the world. Heads of state including presidents, princes, potentates, patricians (aristos) and plebs (us) all rubbed shoulders there together.

John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, along with other assorted European and Asian monarchs, as well as movie stars from Grace Kelly to John Travolta and footballers from Pele to Ronaldo have left their autographs or photos on the walls.

In 1982 it was my good fortune to dine there as it celebrated the  ‘400th anniversary’ of this most extraordinary of restaurants, accompanied by a dear French friend.

The visit was made memorable by shaking hands with Monsieur Claude Terrail himself when we arrived as well as by receiving the gift of a beautifully produced blue and white porcelain plate.

It came complete with the symbol of royal favour, three towers laid onto its Prussian Blue ground.

Claude Terrail, complete with blue cornflower buttonhole

For six decades Claude Terrail made his rounds of the restaurant at exactly 9:15 pm each night, ministering to his clientele with irrepressible charm, joie de vivre and incredible style.

I remember him so vividly, beautifully dressed, dapper, always impeccable and oh so very charming.

On his lapel he wore the beautiful blue cornflower, which became part of his identity or signature style.

On my last visit early this century with another friend, who had never been before, we enjoyed the food, the wine and the famous service courtesy of a small legacy my mother had left me when she had died a few months before.

I could have just spent the money on ‘things’ but in my life ‘experiences’ were what I preferred, because they made memories of enjoying culinary delights with the people in my life I loved and cared about.

This was a viewpoint my mother and I had both shared.

At La Tour d’Argent the food and wine was always so quietly and professionally dispensed by its renowned waiters, who were masters of charm, discretion and style.

They had been taught beautifully by one of the best.

We had just finished our main ‘duck’ course when suddenly Monsieur Claude Terrail appeared beside us.

Madame, Monsieur he said, “I couldn’t help but notice how happy you both look, you are enjoying your visit to La Tour d’Argent?” he asked. Yes we responded happily.

Milk Dish produced for France's Queen Marie Antoinette to use in the dairy at Versailles, covered in cornflowers

It appeared too as he revealed to us, that we were the first to ever book a table at the restaurant online. He was intrigued wanting to know just how two travelers from Australia would know about his modest establishment.

We chatted for a few moments and I told him of my previous visits.

Then my curiousity, which always gets the better of me,  saw me asking him if he wore the cornflower in respect of Marie-Antoinette and for the importance of liberty and freedom?

‘Mon dieu’ he replied, Madame no one has ever before guessed. How would you know that? (He was very gracious and generous and oh so diplomatic).

As we subsequently discussed the cornflower over the centuries had become a symbol of freedom. In folklore it was worn by young men in love.

Sharing information from my first edition of the diaries written by Marie Antoinette’s maid Madame Campan, published in 1838, we talked about how the Queen had loved the simple blue cornflower, which was native to Europe.

Marie-Antoinette had urged the French porcelain factory Sevres to incorporate it in their painted decoration.

She had patronised the porcelain painter Andre-Marie Leboeuf who, in 1776 aged only 21, had established a hard paste porcelain factory at Paris. There he produced some of the cornflower covered porcelains used by the Queen in the Pavilion of Belvedere and at the Hameu, or working dairy farm built for her in the grounds of Versailles.

As Paris is the city of love, and a city built on commerce, freedom and liberty it seemed to me not only appropriate for Monsieur Terrail to wear the blue cornflower, but also a wonderfully generous thing for him to do.

He seemed very pleased with my explanation and bowed politely, excusing himself, although promising that he would return.

We were intrigued when within a few moments our waiter re-appeared to move us from the centre of the room to a table at the window overlooking Paris, the Seine and the Cathedral of Notre Dame all lit up at night.

This is where they served our delicious dessert of fresh peaches, flambéed at the table and served simply with two icy glasses of La Tour’s most beautiful and best French champagne – courtesy of Monsieur Claude Terrail.

As we were finishing our coffee as promised he suddenly re-appeared.

For the next hour the head of the Terrail family conducted my friend and I on a personal tour of his Museum in-house. It was truly a most memorable occasion and a very special treat.

As we looked at the thousands of pictures all over the walls and talked about all the people who had dined there over the centuries, it struck me just how powerful a symbol the restaurant must be now for the French.

What a big responsibility for its owner – as it truly was, and is at the very heart of France’s social and cultural development.

One of the amazing sights was a table laid just the way it was on June 7, 1867, when Tsar Alexander II of Russia, King Wilhelm I of Prussia and Otto Von Bismarck, the architect of German unity, discussed Europe’s future at La Tour d’Argent.

Chef-de-Cuisine Laurent-Delarbre

La Tour d’Argent has twice featured in major Hollywood movies.

The first was in the truly wonderful and hilarious Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978). Starring the late and great English actor Robert Morley, mystery abounds when it is discovered that, one by one, the great Chefs in Europe are being killed.

The intriguing part of the murders is that each chef is killed in the same manner as their special dish is prepared.

One of the chefs has his head rammed into a duck press, so we all understand it is taking place at La Tour d’Argent. And yes they did film inside the restaurant.

The second was the Disney/Pixar gem Ratatouille, which tells the story of a Paris sewer rat, who takes up residence in the once great restaurant and transforms it.

If La Tour d’Argent’s current chef Laurent Delarbre’s is worried about comparisons with his furry friend he’s keeping his cool.

An award winning Chef de Cuisine based on its latest reviews, Laurent Delarbre and La Tour d’Argent are well on their way to taking it back to the stars.

In the last years of Monsieur Claude Terrail’s time at La Tour d’Argent before he died on June 1 2006 aged 88, with so much international pressure to maintain high standards the restaurant’s rating was reduced by Michelin to one star.

It was an adjustment, which also enabled Michelin to let into their rating system hundreds of thousands of splendid restaurants that have sprung up around the world in the last few decades. For those who have dined there however, La Tour d’Argent is and has always been a three star experience.

The current owner is Claude’s son André Terrail, who from all accounts and images is just as dashing, charming and as quietly intense as his father.

When Claude Terrail died in 2006 France mourned. His heir who had been guiding the restaurant since 2003, the year the millionth duck was eaten, closed the house and spent a great deal of time and funds refurbishing it, giving the restaurant a facelift by working closely with all his staff.

The kitchens were upgraded as André Terrail’s grandson fine-tuned and reinvested in his families restaurant, so that he could cater for the needs of an ever-evolving younger clientele.

With the advice of bee-maven Nicolas Géant six beehives now grace the roof at La Tour d’Argent. The honey is used by both its head chef Laurent Delarbre and chef patissier Guillaume Caron, who concocts divine desserts.

You can also take some home from la Tour’s divine culinary boutique, which has a dizzying array of comestibles and delights to tempt all hearts. Let alone the wonderful array of wines.

Before joining the family firm and presiding over La Tour d’Argent, the silver tower, new owner CEO André Terrail was with LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) New York, and top restaurants and hotels in France including Lenôtre, Paris and the Savoy Hotel, London.

Sommelier David Ridgeway in the Cellar

André Terrail has a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Babson’s Business School in MA in the US. He knows all about luxury and what it takes to be a good restauranteur. Most of all from his father Claude, he understands just how much his establishment is a symbol of all that is good in France and in a free world, and how important it is for him to maintain its standards of excellence.

In 2009 with pressures from the GFC the restaurant auctioned off 18,000 bottles of famous wines and spirits, surplus stock from its famous cellar, including a 1788 Cognac. Much of the wine had been bought 20 years ago, when diners were offered a selection of top Bordeaux and Burgundies and little else.

Since then wine tastes have diversified and new regions and producers have been added to the restaurant’s wine list, which extends now to about 15,000 individual references. Fewer diners meant that fewer wines were being drunk and it was necessary to reduce the bottles back to manageable levels.

Award winning Sommelier David Ridgeway today presides over this most historic and famous cellar, which is today still one of the richest and most sophisticated in France.

Wine Cellar La Tour d'Argent

Claude Terrail re-built it after the war from the 20,000 bottles he had managed to save, a story that will long be told in France. He and his staff risked their lives to save the heart and soul of France, which was so heavily invested in its wine industry.

It must have been a victorious moment for the French soldiers, who so triumphantly seized Hitler’s enormous cache of stolen wines after the war was over to take them back home.

Next time you are going to Paris do save up and include a visit to La Tour d’Argent. It is the something special that money can buy.

You go there because you want to experience both the history and glory of French gastronomy and, because you know you are worth it. You will dine out on the memory for years to come because stepping back out into reality after a trip there is a surreal experience. And you can take some of his culinary delightful comestibles home with you.

Yes, for the Terrail family in La Tour d’Argent at Paris, the art of pleasure is indeed a very serious business.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011 – 2014

La Tour d’Argent (The Silver Tower)

15 & 17 Quai de la Tournelle, 75005 Paris, France

Metro: Maubert Mutualité/Pont Marie
T: 01 40 46 71 27 W: http://www.latourdargent.com/

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe

*Le Monde: ..the new art of living is the art of living that has always been, except for a few small inventions and, nothing should be taken more seriously than pleasure itself…French Restaurateur Claude Terrail 1917-2006 (La Tour D’Argent)

Ref: My own memories and conversations with staff during three visits to this wonderful restaurant, including two meetings, one very special with its owner Claude Terrail.

Wine & War by Don and Petie Kladstrup Hodder & Staughton

3 Comments

  • Helen Hall says:

    I love this post Carolyn – it’s one of my favourites – thank you for sharing! Helen x

  • Thank you Helen, much appreciated. Do hope you watch the movie Guess Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Euorope, which I have attached at the end. Such great fun….

  • Neil Wanstall says:

    Beautiful memories of our first time in Paris.
    We stayed on the cheap, but had Christmas lunch here. Vale Claude Terrail, the ideal host, well mannered and extremly charming.

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