As most of the world is aware, France has a very healthy relationship with food, with its complex network of traditions and cultural practices tied up with special meals and desserts. Each month has a corresponding holiday around food: in January, it’s la galette des rois for Epiphany, in February you have both la Chandeleur and le Saint-Valentin, and this continues all the way into December, with the bûche de Noël among numerous other holiday traditions such as vin chaud, des marrons, and the famous foie gras and canard or lapin for the New Year’s Eve Réveillon.
Yesterday while the United States was busy deciding whether or not the official groundhog had seen his shadow, France was busy celebrating la Chandeleur, a complex holiday that is tied to both the Catholic holiday of Candelmas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus to the Temple as well as the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth (a custom women still practice in Islam), as well as the Roman holiday of light, festa candelorum, which is the origin of the French name, from the French word for long tapered candles, des chandelles. It also has its roots in Northern and Western European holidays celebrating the lengethening of the days. Today the holiday is mostly remembered as a time to get together with friends and make crêpes, one of France’s most popular food exports. It’s a seasonal, religious, and cultural/food-related holiday all in one. Summer, light, and crêpes!
Surprisingly enough, there is more in common between the very secular American Groundhog’s Day and la Chandeleur in France than simply sharing the same date:
“In France, Candlemas is celebrated with crêpes, which must be eaten only after eight p.m. If the cook can flip a crêpe while holding a coin in the other hand, the family is assured of prosperity throughout the coming year. The French though have a completely reversed view of the weather prospects. They say: “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere; Chandeleur couverte quarante jours de perte,” a rhyme that means, more or less: “If February 2nd is clear, no more winter to fear; if the Chandeleur is overcast, forty days winter to last.” But then again they also say: “Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur” which is “A sunny Candlemas will bring winter and misfortune”. Other traditions include “Si point ne veut de blé charbonneux mange des crêpes à la Chandeleur” which is “if you do not at all wish the wheat to blacken eat crêpes at Candlemas”, and “Celui qui la rapporte chez lui allumée. Pour sûr ne mourra pas dans l’année” which is “whoever arrives home (from church) with it (the candle) lit for sure will not die that year”.” Wikipedia
Luckily for us, the weather in Amiens was absolutely dismal. It was dark, the sky a slate gray that makes me think more a muddy puddle than a Van Gogh-esque Starry Night, and it was spewing at various intervals cold snow-rain that melted upon touching the ground. I’m sure hoping that our winter will be a short one, for I’m longing for the mild temperatures of spring and summer in Northern France, and the rare sun sightings in the past few months leave one longing for the gentle kiss of sunshine against your forehead. I’m looking forward to relaxing in le Parc Saint-Pierre and having picnics and soccer matches and pétanque tournaments to pass the time.
I have been fortunate enough to share many French traditions with friends here in France, many of which I hadn’t celebrated the first time I lived in Amiens two years ago. The benefit of knowing the locals is the possibility to share in their traditions. This year, I had two delicious Kings’ cakes for Epiphany, another religiously-based holiday that is also celebrated in New Orleans in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Unlike the very sweet and colorful New Orleans style Kings’ Cake, the French galette des rois is made of almond-paste frangipane and pastry, with a little fève (originally, a broad bean) figurine buried beneath layers of cake and which many collect. Tradition has it that the youngest person has to crawl under the table and “decide” who gets what piece of cake as it is sliced in equal portions for family members or friends. As I was the youngest among my group of friends, I stuck my head under the table. Whoever has the slice of cake concealing the fève, which in New Orleans is a little figure of a naked baby (originally representing the baby Jesus), is crowned “king” or “queen” for the day, wears a paper crown, and, most importantly, escapes dishes duty for the rest of the day. I also got to sample a homemade galette des rois with the four French girls I teach, although unfortunately the fève was hidden in one of the remaining slices.
“The cake traditionnally celebrating Epiphany in France and Quebec is sold in most bakeries during the month of January. Two versions exist: in northern France and Quebec the cake called galette des rois (which can be either circular or rectangular) consists of flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane. In southern France – Occitania, Roussillon, Provence,Catalan where it´s called tortell – the cake called gâteau des rois or royaume, is a torus-shaped brioche with candied fruits and sugar, similar in its shape and colours to a crown. This later version is also common to Spain and very similar to New-Orleans king cake.
Tradition holds that the cake is “to draw the kings” to the Epiphany. A figurine, la fève, which can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character, is hidden in the cake and the person who finds the trinket in their slice becomes king for the day and will have to offer the next cake. Originally, la fève was literally a broad bean (fève), but it was replaced in 1870 by a variety of figurines out of porcelain or—more recently—plastic. These figurines have become popular collectibles and can often be bought separately. Individual bakeries may offer a specialized line of fèves depicting diverse themes from great works of art to classic movie stars and popular cartoon characters. The cakes are usually sold in special bags, some of which can be used to heat the cake in a microwave without ruining the crispness of the cake. A paper crown is included with the cake to crown the “king” who finds the fève in their piece of cake. To ensure a random distribution of the cake shares, it is traditional for the youngest person to place themselves under the table and name the recipient of the share which is indicated by the person in charge of the service.
Formerly, one divided the cake in as many shares as guests, plus one. The latter, called “the share of God,” “share of the Virgin Mary,” or “share of the poor” was intended for the first poor person to arrive at the home.” Wikipedia
I recently also had the opportunity to attend the birthday party of one of my closest French friends here in Amiens. The small and intimate gathering was delightful, from the many delicious cold samplings of “finger food”, from delicate quail eggs to bread slices slathered with various spreads, a “savory” caky bread, and little chocolate muffins at the end of the meal. We played a game that was perhaps as literary and nerdy as our group, which is called À la manière de (In the manner of), which takes a line from the work of a famous French author and stops mid-sentence, allowing those playing along to “propose” a sentence “in the manner of” the famous author. The goal is to sound convincingly enough like the author that when the person whose turn it is reads all the different sentences anonymously, including the “real” sentence the author wrote, everyone will be convinced that your invented sentence is the literary text.
For those of you who read French, here is a sampling of the “sentence endings” I wrote down, with a few “real” sentences that I read aloud at my turn. Let’s see if you can guess the French author who inspired them :)
- “…ma femme se rende compte que je veux coucher avec un homme.
- … je vous tue.
- … une affaire compliquée et pénible,
- … tu me saoules.
- … on a dû tomber du ciel,
- … j’ai tout ce que j’ai désiré.”
My own Chandeleur party was incredible, as I get to spend it at a close friend’s house with all the other members of my locavore group. We spent at least four hours playing a board game called “Zombicide”, which is a hilarious cooperative game in which you try to “shoot the zombies” and race against the zombie invasion while following one of ten different scenarios.
Oh, and the crêpes. In the 24 hours that we spent together, I probably ate more crêpes than I have in an entire year. Curry-flavored crêpes with leeks and onions and goat cheese and tome de cidre cheese and sweet crêpes flavored with orange blossoms and stuffed with Nutella and Jonagold apples or spread with homemade jam.