In 1755, at the age of 23 years, the future last King and Grand Duke of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Stanisław II August, arrived at the Russian imperial court in Saint Petersburg. There, Stanisław Poniatowski met the 26-year-old Catherine Alexeievna, the future Russian empress Catherine the Great who reigned for 34 years from 1762 to1796. The two became lovers. In 1757 Catherine gave birth to her second child, Anna Petrovna, who was his daughter. Whatever his feelings for Catherine were, Stanisław saw an opportunity to use this relationship for his own benefit. Indeed, with her support, in 1764 he became a king of Poland.
One of Catherine the Great’s favorite things to eat was “Sturgeon-and-Champagne Soup” – extremely expensive and elegant dish which required a whole fillet of sturgeon per person. The soup’s extravagant sophistication can be seen as a symbol for her entire reign. Money was not an object and appearance was everything. Every noble family who could afford one had a French chef. Food costs at imperial balls were of no concern, family fortunes would be squandered on a single feast, and tables literally buckled from the weight of their splendor.
Stanisław Poniatowski saw and took part in many royal banquets. Of course, he perfectly understood that he could not even think about having similar exquisite dining. Anyway, he wanted the best he could afford. And at that point, the story of an outstanding chef Paul Tremo started.
In 1762, Paul Tremo got a job as a court chef to Stanisław Poniatowski. Two years later, in 1764, when Poniatowski was crowned king of Poland, he was promoted to the master chef at the royal court in Warsaw. It was Paul Tremo who enjoyed the status of the king’s favourite cook, accompanying him in all his travels. This status can be inferred from his salary compared with those of his colleagues; in 1795, he received a payment of 902.15 florins, while two other royal master chefs earned 560 and 144 florins, respectively.
Tremo lived in apartments at the Royal Castle of Warsaw. Additionally, in 1789, as a token of royal favour, Tremo was given a manor house in the Warsaw suburb of Grzybów (now the part of Warsaw). Paul Tremo remained single and childless. At home, he employed a female cook who prepared simple meals for him, as he never consumed the dishes he concocted at work. Following Stanislaus Augustus’s abdication brought about by the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Tremo accompanied the former king to his exile in Grodno and then in Saint Petersburg. After Poniatowski’s death in 1798, Tremo declined a job offer from Emperor Paul I of Russia on the pretext of travelling to a spa for health reasons and returned to Warsaw. He died in 1810 in his Grzybów manor.
From his early age, Poniatowski suffered from gastric ailments, and Tremo gained king’s trust as the cook able to satisfy both his palate and his dietary requirements. The king usually started his day with a cup of hot chocolate or bouillon. His favourite dish was roast or stewed mutton (meat from a sheep over two years old) that was washed with spring water.
Tremo often consulted royal menus with the court physician and occasionally prepared separate dishes specifically for the king to accommodate his sensitive stomach. Tomatoes, for example, were considered detrimental to the monarch’s health and were never used in Tremo’s recipes. In the royal kitchen, Tremo oversaw all stages of meal preparation, from procuring ingredients to composing menus, directing the work of cooks and kitchen boys, to personally seasoning the dishes before serving. To broaden his culinary knowledge, he studied classic cookbooks, such as the ancient Roman Apicius, and also set out on international learning trips, which familiarized him with contemporary German, French and English cooking practices.
Tremo introduced novel French flavours and cooking techniques to Polish cuisine, making it lighter and more moderate in the use of fat, sugar, vinegar, salt and expensive exotic spices. His repertoire combined old Polish dishes with French specialties. The former included clear borscht served over uszka (ear-shaped stuffed dumplings), Polish tripe soup, roast capon, and pike Polish style. At royal banquets, such as the Thursday Dinners to which Stanislaus Augustus invited Warsaw’s leading intellectuals, he served the king’s favourite mutton, cold cuts, as well as game bird dishes, such as larded hazel grouse, wood grouse with red cabbage or black grouse with braised beetroots.
In Warsaw, Tremo enjoyed the reputation of being one of the finest chefs in Europe. However, some of his contemporaries complained that his meats were too hard, his sauces too heavy, and his idea of west European culinary trends not always up-to-date. British traveller Elizabeth Craven could not conceal her amusement when, at a banquet given by the Polish king, she was served meat and fish doused generously with melted butter, supposedly in the English style.
Tremo wrote at least two books in Polish, which he failed to publish during his lifetime. His Botanika kuchenna (Kitchen botany), about the culinary uses of various vegetables, fruits and herbs, has not survived. The other was a cookbook with about 86 recipes, which was widely circulated in manuscript copies, at least two of which have been preserved were published in 1991. He also influenced the development of modern Polish cuisine by helping raise the next generation of Polish chefs, many of whom worked with him as apprentices.