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The history of vinegar in France, Orléans in particular, has played a large role in the history of vinegar. The artisan vinegar makers of Orléans waxed large in the ancién regime but later began to fade as both free market liberalization and industrialization took their toll. However, amongst these would emerge several companies that not only survived the changing times but thrived in them. Chief amongst these concerns was the family run company Dessaux Fils.
Dessaux Fils dates from the first days of France after the Revolution’s edicts removed the privileges of the old corporations. Once accomplished, vinaigriers (vinegar makers) were no longer limited to approved masters and their apprentices. In this environment, many vinaigreries (vinegar breweries) disappeared but new ones took their place. One such firm, Greffier-Hazon was founded in 1789. The firm was prosperous and located in the center of town near the sugar refineries.
Sometime in the early 19th century a young Charles-Prosper-Alexandre Dessaux went to work for the vinegar maker. Dessaux worked for Greffier-Hazon for some years, but left start his own firm in 1824 when he was thirty four years old. While independence was surely a motive, the full motives are unclear and though this date corresponded with the invention of the new quick process, it is unlikely he had heard of it that early.
This would obviously have seemed a threat to his old employer, however, instead of competing, the two firms joined together. Charles-Prosper’s son Charles-Laurent Dessaux wed the daughter of the owner of Greffier-Hazon, Marie-Therese Aimee Greffier-Vandais. Both children were in their teens at the time. The combined company, Vinaigrerie Dessaux-Greffier, did well and became a major force in the city. Unfortunately, the next generation was not as inspired as Charles-Prosper likely hoped.
After his retirement, Charles-Prosper’s two sons, Charles and Jules took over the business. They renamed it Vinaigrerie Dessaux Fils (Brothers Dessaux). The two got along quite poorly, especially regarding political issues. Jules was a staunch republican while Charles-Laurent was a bonapartist and enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon III. The friction between the two led Jules to leave and start a rival firm in 1851. After his departure, Charles-Laurent nearly ruined the business caring to spend money more than to make it.
After sixteen years of mismanagement, with the firm at the brink, Charles-Laurent brought his first son Paul into the business. Unfortunately Paul passed prematurely and the business passed to his younger brother Ludovic. A common aphorism is that talent skips a generation and this was true in the case of Ludovic. Taking the reigns at only twenty-four years of age, his passion and understanding of the business as well as his astute observation of the trends in the market would not only save Dessaux Fils, as the business became known, but would help it become the dominant vinegar firm in France and one of the largest and most respected in the world.Ludovic made several shrewd decisions. First, he embraced the new technology of the quick process, refusing to be wed to the old Orléans process that many other vinaigriers swore by. This allowed him to scale and produce large volumes. Second, he did not stay with only wine vinegar but also began to produce spirit (white distilled) vinegar for sale in the consumer market or for Dessaux Fils and other firms to make gherkins (pickles). He also followed new management methods. Similar to Heinz, he set up a paternalistic company environment with benefits and employee security for workers in exchange for a strict code of conduct and work ethic.
He expanded the vinegar works into a large factory at its historic location of 17 Rue Tour-Neuve. Dessaux Fils became the largest firm in Orléans and soon the largest in all of France. Ludovic almost never left the business, having his primary residence next to the factory. The primary factory in Orléans would employ almost two hundred people.
Also making mustards and other condiments, Dessaux Fils was a condiments giant. By 1900, the firm produced 12 million liters (3.2 million gallons) of vinegar per year. At its peak around 1950, Dessaux Fils would have twenty factories in France and six in Africa scattered throughout Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria (at the time French colonies) and Egypt. The Tunisian brand of “Dessaux Fils” vinegar still exists, owned as a separate entity by local management.
The Dessaux family’s vinegar became emblematic of the Orléans vinegar culture. They also became part of the city’s own struggles. André Dessaux, head of Dessaux Fils at the time of World War II, became an active member and later leader of the French resistance after the Nazi invasion and the establishment of the Vichy regime. He was head of the departmental organization of the French Resistance in the Loiret region. He was arrested twice, once in 1941 when he was soon released and again in October 1943, this time by the Gestapo who deported him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. After nearly two years of hell, he was liberated by American soldiers in April 1945 and returned to Orléans in May 1945. Due to his accomplishments he was elected the first mayor of the liberated Orléans but due to failing health he declined his post in favor of Pierre Chevallier who had been acting mayor since the city’s liberation in 1944. He died a month later on June 2, 1945. A stelae with a bust of his face and an inscription as well as a street and school are testaments to his name in Orléans.
Henri Dessaux took over the business and helped increase the international profile of the vinegar. Known for the quality of its wine vinegar, Dessaux Fils became the preferred brand of vinegar for chefs and foodies around the world. Some went as far as refusing to use any other wine vinegar other than Dessaux Fils. However, the company had seen its best days.
It declined from the 1960s on closing multiple plants and eventually being bought by several conglomerates before ending up with Boussois-Souchon-Neuvesel which eventually merged with Danone. By this time other, larger plants had taken over the market and in the summer of 1984, the decision was made to end Dessaux Fils, including closing its historic plant in Orléans. Jolly, R. (2005). La vinaigrerie dessaux. Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique de l’Orléanais, 18(146), 36-47.