Here’s What You Didn’t Know About Galette des Rois

We tend to translate Galette des Rois as “King Cake” in English. Yet, the translation is rather deceptive.

Despite sharing a name, King Cake, the colourful cinnamon cake found in New Orleans around Carnival and Mardi Gras, has nothing in common with the pastry that is traditionally eaten in France at Epiphany. Actually, I lie; both versions have a little figurine inserted just before the cake goes in the oven… but that’s as far as the similarities go.

The galette is traditionally made with puff pastry and frangipane (almond paste) and you find this version in every single boulangerie in Paris and northern France at the beginning of January.

What I bet you didn’t know is that there’s actually a second type of Galette des Rois in France.

In the south of France, the flaky frangipane version would be called a Galette Parisienne – with a hint of derision in the pronunciation – because they have their own version.

A crown-shaped brioche, flavoured with orange flower water and dried fruit…. it reminds me (but remember that I’m practically Parisian by now) slightly of a baba au rhum. This version is often referred to as a Gateau des Rois or a Couronne des Rois. Click here to see what it looks like.

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Me trying my hand at a Galette des Rois a few years ago.

Yet what is all this talk of Kings? Gold, frankincense and frangipane..?

Funnily enough, the Galette des Rois (in either version) has very little to do with the (supposed) visit of the magi to baby Jesus.

The tradition of electing a “King” for a day was actually a Roman tradition, during the Saturnalia festivities, the period around Christmas when all bets are off. It was during the Saturnalia that the strict social structure was turned on its head; slaves would be elected as master for the day and the real masters could behave as naughtily as they liked.

You may be familiar with the Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night…? It’s referring to this period of topsy-turvy mistaken identities and people no longer assuming their traditional roles in society.

Can I cite an even more obscure reference? The Roman poet Catullus. If you haven’t heard of him before, let’s just say that he was rather fond of excesses. He even wrote in one of his poems “Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!” (The Saturnalia, the best of days!)

The Romans of the 1st century AD would hold huge feasts over the Saturnalia, during which a cake would be served with a bean or figurine inside. Whichever of the slaves discovered this token would become master for the day. Sound familiar..?

It just so happened that when Christianity became more popular (4th century AD, under Constantine I, the first Christian leader of the Roman Empire) it was decided that Jesus’ birth should piggy-back upon an existing holiday… and the idea of the cake and inverting the general order of things was adopted into the religious calendar too.

Nowadays, often the youngest member of the family will go underneath the table and call out which slice goes to which person. Whoever gets the token – la fève in French – gets to wear the crown for the rest of the day.


If you are in Paris, click here to see which five galettes the Paris by Mouth taste-testing-team (of which I am a proud – but now very overweight – member) voted were their favourites this year.

 


P.S. Trouver la fève au gateau is a traditional French expression meaning to make a good discovery. It seems particularly fitting that the bi-annual sales started today! 🙂

Who Is Saint Honoré?

If you want to get to grips with French pastries, you simply have to start with Saint Honoré.

Honoratus, bishop of Amiens, lived sometime in the 6th century AD. He was made a saint after his death and is venerated in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

It’s not entirely sure when the association between Saint Honoré and patisserie first started.

We know that in 1202, a local baker named Renold Theriens donated some land in Paris to build a chapel in honour of Saint Honoré. Was this just chance or had there already been the start of a legend…? In any case, the chapel soon became one of the richest in Paris and gave its name to streets Rue Saint Honoré and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which run through the heart of Paris’ 1st arrondissement.

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It was definitely in 1400 when the bakers of Paris established their guild in this church – the church of Saint Honoratus – and started to spread his cult. He was subsequently also adopted by the guild of confectioners and pastry chefs as their patron saint.

This became such serious business that, in 1659, Louis XIV ordered that every baker observe the feast day of Saint Honoré (16th May) and to give free pastries out to their local community.

Nowadays, Saint Honoré is probably most commonly mentioned in reference to his eponymous pastry.

It is a classic but very complicated French dessert, traditionally composed of a puff pastry base, a ring of filled choux pastry balls and finally a very generous swirl of whipped cream (either chiboust or chantilly.)

However, because there are so many different components, it’s a very challenging cake to make and you won’t be surprised to hear that there are many different interpretations. Variations include using flaky pastry – pate brisée – instead of puff or diverging from the traditional vanilla cream.

If you want to find a Saint Honoré pastry while you’re in Paris, some of the best can be found at Patisserie des Rêves, Angelina, Dalloyau… and you should also try Carl Marletti‘s own version – called Lily Valley – with violet and blackcurrant flavourings.

To Market, To Market!

Let’s play spot the difference. What is the difference between these two photos?

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Well, yes, there’s a little old lady in the top photo but that’s not the answer.

Guess again.

And no, it’s got nothing to do with my love of endives that you can spot in the forefront of the bottom photo.

It’s the plastic bags.

As of January 2016, you will not be able to get a plastic bag at the market.


As part of a wider movement already being implemented in supermarkets and chain stores designed to reduce wastage, plastic bags are being entirely phased out.

There seems to be some confusion about when exactly the ban will come into place and what exactly it will entail.

This is what we know:

Not content with banishing the thicker bags at the check-out, in October 2014, the Assemblée Nationale voted to get rid of the thin plastic bags found at fruit and vegetable counters. Billions are used (12 billion per year apparently¹) and then immediately thrown away each year.

The plastic bags are to be replaced by more eco-friendly versions, made of organic matter which are then supposed to be recycled in compost heaps. (However, I think I am the only person of this city of 2 million who does her own composting!² I would love to know how many other people would also be able to do this…)

It’s not even like you’ll be able to buy a bag for 5, 10 or 50 cents. Plastic bags are being completely done away with.

We’re going to start seeing more and more paper bags from now on. However, there is some resistance to these too, given that they also need to be recycled.

Where it starts getting complicated:

In Sept 2015, Ouest France stated that the new law is to take effect on 1st January 2017. I wonder if this is a typo?³

There are worries that paper bags are not as strong as their plastic counterparts. Have you ever tried putting a melon or pineapple in a paper bag?! Even a kilo of apples? We potentially stand to waste a lot more food should the bag rip.

There is also talk that this plastic bag measure will apply at the fish counter too. Let me just say, if there’s one thing that I’ll draw the line at…. I ain’t hauling any salmon straight over my shoulder!

Imagine you’re at your local Franprix or Carrefour. Instead of buying your fruit and vegetables loose, you will probably favour buying your vegetables in a pre-packed bag now because it will be easier than fishing around for a loose potato at the bottom of your handbag. Supermarkets are the biggest source of waste, both in terms of alimentary waste – which they’ve been told to crack down on – and packaging. Why are they not being told to sell more of their fresh produce en vrac / loose?

Anyway, rant over. What this all boils down to is: if you’re a local, don’t forget your caddie or shopping panier when you go to stock up on spuds. If you’re a short-termer or tourist in Paris, it may be a little bit harder but you’ll have to consecrate a tote bag or something similar for transporting your veggies.

The “Parisian market experience” will also irrevocably change. The days of “servez-vous, monsieur, madame, servez-vous!” will soon be behind us.

¹ Ségolène Royale, Minster for Ecology – quoted in Le Figaro, 2014.

² You compost too??! 🙂

³ Link to Ouest France article here.

Paris’ Second – and Long-Forgotten – River

If you have spent any time at all in Paris, you must have crossed at least one of the bridges over the river Seine at some point. Every tourist has strolled across the Pont Neuf taking in the hue of the city’s beautiful stone buildings at sunset. Incidentally, despite being called the “New Bridge” it is today the oldest bridge still standing, because it was the first to be made out of stone.

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However, very few people know of Paris’ second river: La Bièvre.

It dissected the Left Bank of the city, flowing in from Stade Charléty, past La Buttes aux Cailles and through what is now known as the Latin Quarter until it eventually joined la Seine near Gare de l’Austerlitz.

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It was a natural waterway which stretched for 33 kilometres (approximately 21 miles) and provided a livelihood for the communities which sprung up on its banks.

Namely, Les Gobelins tapestry works (for centuries, the official suppliers of fabrics to the French royal family) which would not have survived without a good source of water.

Neither would a whole host of dyers, mills and leather tanneries have chosen this area to set up business had it not have been for the Bièvre.

-> Incidentally there were so many watermills that the river was straightened to accomodate them all. Many street names in this area still bear the mention “moulin”! <- 

The market-sellers on rue Mouffetard received their deliveries by boat.

These businesses also enjoyed the tax credits that came from being located just outside the mediaeval city limits. (See here about the history of wine in Montmartre.)

When reflecting on the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation in Paris, there’s no denying that the river Bièvre was key.

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Unfortunately, what was the river’s strength also became its downfall. Because of all this industrial activity, it became so horribly polluted that in the late 1870s Baron Haussmann, that radical rebuilder under Napoleon III, decided to put an end to its days. The stinking river was transmitting disease and illness to those downstream. It had become too much of a health risk.

Bit by bit, the river was culverted (the technical term for “built over”) and nowadays the regenerated city of Paris leaves next to no trace of what still flows underneath. The only signs that a pair of sharp-eyes might spot are a couple of medallions dotted in the pavement.

The photo above was taken on rue Censier, a road which was itself only created after the river was sacrificed. For those who are particularly interested, the road was inaugurated in 1913.

The Bièvre still flows but now it does so under our feet, as part of Paris’ sewage system.

There Is No Title.

#ParisAttacks – 13th November 2015

As a nation, we have been glued to the news this weekend. Gleaning the media channels for any piece of information which would help make sense of what is utterly senseless.

129 people dead. 352 injured. One particular Twitter account (“@SOSParis1311” run by a 15 year old girl, no less) posts messages containing a smiling face and a desperate plea from their loved one.

Another unexpected feature of this strange weekend is how we’re having to charge our phones at least twice a day due to the huge number of messages from friends, family and colleagues checking that we’re ok. The international outpouring is hugely supportive and reassuring and I thank you all for it.

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Photo (c): Emma Bentley

The particular shock that I am feeling is the kind when you’ve just had a very near miss. These attacks hit at the heart of our community. I know two people who died in the attacks and many more who hear the echo of gun shots in the still of the night.

There are countless stories from friends who spent hours locked inside bars and restaurants as parts of the city shut down in a preventative security measure. There are countless more stories from people who were supposed to have been in the area at the time of the attacks but, by some small twist of fate, were elsewhere.


If you would like to read more about the demographics of the areas targeted in these attacks, I highly recommend the following article.

Fusion Article


As a result, there were many people who didn’t leave their apartments on Saturday. Still reeling in shock, Paris was a ghost city.

Sunday, however, was a different story. Walking around boulevard Voltaire, place de la République and all along the canal this afternoon was an enormous number of people. Walking in silence, sitting and reflecting, showing solidarity.

As a community, we’re trying to understand why some of us should have been spared while others were so terribly unfortunate? How people barely out of their teens could shoot and kill innocents of their own age in cold blood. It was an outright attack on our culture and our lifestyle… and that doesn’t sit easily.

This blog post has no title because I can’t yet put into words what happened. I need a few days to come to terms with the shock, to grieve for my friends. I’m logging out of Facebook, turning off the television and I don’t want to read any more sensationalist articles about the who, what, where and why.

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But yet, I wanted to write this blog post. I barely have enough time as it is to keep this blog up-to-date with my delicious discoveries but I wanted to put something out there in the blogosphere to support Paris. Something to balance out the fear and terror.

Paris is no more dangerous today than it was yesterday or the day before.

The western world has been living under the threat of terrorism for years. Fortunately this didn’t stop over 83 million tourists coming to France last year, making this beloved country the most visited in the world. Paris is no more dangerous today than it was yesterday or the day before. The main thing that has changed as a result of Friday evening’s attacks is our perception of safety and security.

I feel very strongly that these attacks should not make us live our lives any differently. They should not stop Parisians from living their every-day lives. We can still prendre l’apéro en terrasse. Equally, they should not stop tourists from coming to marvel at the Mona Lisa or chomp on aged Comté.

If anything, once the shock subsides, I reckon the feeling which will resonate longest will be the realisation that the world is not as safe a place as we thought. The terrorist network stretches far further than this small city of two million inhabitants. What we learnt this weekend is that Paris, despite being the revered city of lights, of culture, of romance and of bistronomy, is not exempt from being a target. Our lifestyle will most likely change as a consequence of these attacks – but, I hope, not to one of fear.

“carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” 

“Seize the day, trusting very little in tomorrow.”

There are many quotes that seem appropriate at this particular moment. I’m seeing fluctuat nec mergitur (“shakes but doesn’t sink”) frequently, as it is this city’s Latin motto. However, the best reaction, in my opinion, to these attacks will be to adopt a carpe diem approach: don’t put off for tomorrow what you could do today.

So, here are some of my suggestions for carpe diem living:

Go to a music concert, because it’s far better than staying home afraid to go out.

Sit out on the terrasse of a café and enjoy the feeling of the warm sunshine / biting wind (delete as appropriate!) on your face as you sip that espresso / glass of wine (again, depending on the time of day.)

Tell your loved ones that you love them. Don’t turn down an opportunity to see a friend just because you’re too lazy to get out of your pyjamas and turn off Netflix.

Make an effort to support the city’s restaurants. Without wanting to sound callous, moments like these are actually great opportunities to get a table at the impossible addresses: Septime, Frenchie, Au Passage and the like. Many people will have cancelled so this is your moment to get in!

Nothing more to say. I’m logging off for a while, but I leave you with this video from Gail aka Perfectly Paris from Sunday afternoon:

Which Is The Oldest Street in Paris?

The oldest street in Paris is the rue Saint Jacques, in the 5th arrondissement.

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Leading from the Île de la Cité, where Paris was founded, the rue Saint Jacques passes through the Sorbonne University, the Pantheon, Port Royal and finally reaches Denfert-Rochereau.

Over two and a half kilometres (= one and a half miles) long, this route has been trodden since at least the 1st century BC.

In Roman times, it was known as the Via Superior.

In the Middle Ages, it was one of the way-points for pilgrims on the Camino di Santiago (or in French, the Saint Jacques de Compostelle.) They would meet at the Tour Saint Jacques (right next to the rue de Rivoli) and then make their way down the rue Saint Jacques.

Now, still just as steep as ever, it is predominantly populated by students, tourists and Starbucks.

Co-Working Spaces in Paris

So many people have the dream of moving to Paris for a month or two. Of “upping sticks” and relocating to the city of lights, the capital of romance and the centre of cheese. It’s becoming easier and easier as our increasingly nomadic working lifestyles don’t tie us to a 9 to 5 routine in the office.

However, it’s not as easy as all that. The traditional Parisian café, as Instagram-able as it may be, is not a welcoming environment if you are planning on staying for a couple of hours.

As Kristen (of The Kale Project fame) replied:

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As it happens, just two days ago, I was at ESCP Europe, the oldest business school in the world, to participate in the #MEBconf. I picked up some tips! 🙂

First of all, you should check out what is in your area using the very handy “Coworking Carte” tool. It visualises the dedicated co-working spaces all over France.

Here’s a screen shot of what is available in Paris… all 58 of them – and not one is a traditional or even craft-coffee café which has to turn tables!

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If you’re only here for a short time and/or on a limited budget (aren’t we all!) you probably want a more flexible option rather then renting deskspace. So, here are my top picks for cheap co-working spaces in Paris.

Anticafé

There’s a reason Anticafé is at the top of this list – it is like a café but you pay according to the amount of time rather than the amount of coffee consumed. Tarif is: 4 euros per hour or 16 euros per day and this includes free wifi, unlimited coffee, tea, juice and cake. It’s very informal and friendly. Perfect if you’ve just arrived in Paris because, who knows, you might also get chatting to other like-minded people.

Three locations in Paris:

79 rue Quincampoix, 75003

10 rue du Richelieu, 75001

59 rue Nationale, 75013

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Numa

A great place to meet other like-minded start-ups or freelancers.

Don’t be put off by the fact that Numa also rent out desk space and offer residential programs for start-ups, the café on the ground floor of the rue du Caire location is open to the public, it’s free and you can stay as long as you like.

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Alternatively, for 20 euros a day, you can book your own space on the first floor, which gives you access to several meeting spaces, a printer and even a kitchen if you want to bring in and heat up your own food.

39 rue du Caire, 75002

CoWorkShop

Rather similarly to the Anticafé, the “Nomad” package at CoWorkShop allows you to pay by the hour (4 euros an hour or 20 euros for a day) and get unlimited tea, coffee and high-speed wifi.

29 rue des Vinaigriers, 75010

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Draft

Finally, if you’re on a reeeeally tight budget, you should check out Draft in the 18th. A half-day (4 hours) will only cost you 8 euros – and that includes free tea, coffee and wifi. A day only costs 15 euros… and if you buy a 10 day carnet, it is an absolute steal at only 120 euros.

It’s a bright, light space, with plenty of tables and even a little terrasse. Also on-site, there is a wood and textiles workshop, should you happen to need a laser or 3D printer…

Plus, did I mention that you’re right next door to Bob’s Bake Shop or Les Petites Gouttes – depending on if you’ve had the kind of day which merits a bagel or a cocktail!

12 esplanade Nathalie Sarraute, 75018

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Are you a co-worker in Paris? Where are your favourite places to go?

Please leave your suggestions in the Comments box below.

Useful Resources for Living in Paris

c9e42240Have you always wondered which websites and online resources the French (and in particular, the Parisians) actually use?

Whether you’ve recently moved here or you just feel a little out of touch, here are some tips:

For cheap train tickets, use Ouigo – http://www.ouigo.com/

To find out how bad the traffic is – http://www.sytadin.fr/

For second-hand furniture – http://www.leboncoin.fr/

To make new friends – http://www.meetup.com/

What’s on right now? – http://quefaire.paris.fr/

To find an apartment without going through an agency – http://www.pap.fr/

A guide for getting your head round the bureaucracy – http://next.paris.fr/

Buy your Velib tickets online – http://en.velib.paris.fr/

To find the fastest and/or easiest routes around the city – Citymapper

Also, please remember that should you need to call the emergency services for any medical reasons, in France you call the pompiers (the firefighters) by dialling 18.

For the police, it’s 17.


What have you found useful? Please leave your suggestions and a link in the comments below.

Was La Belle Epoque Really So Great?

TL;DR version: Everything’s relative. If you’ve just come out of a century of foreign war and internal revolutions and you’re just about to plunge into the horrors of the First World War, of course a brief respite would be very welcome. But, no, it was certainly not as belle as those rosy glasses of yours would lead you to believe.

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Today’s doodle celebrates the 150 year anniversary of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s birth. His paintings and posters of the glitz and glamour of the Moulin Rouge are iconic. You only have to take a wander up the rue Steinkerque (that steep, narrow road, full of tourist shops, which leads from Anvers métro to the foot of the Sacré-Cœur) to realise this. A great artist he was, but like many others of his generation, he was disabled from birth as a result of aristocratic in-breeding, he was an alcoholic for most of his adult years and utimately was to die of syphillis at just 36 years old. The Belle Epoque? Really?


It still astounds me how we believe blindly in a romanticised version of French history without knowing the facts. Ask a budding French fan when the Revolution was and they’ll reply “1789” without even the barest acknoledgement of the other uprisings that happened all the way through the 19th century. We have idolised French gastronomy to such a crazy extent without realising that, less than 150 years ago, amongst the beseiged Parisians, the rich were eating cats, dogs and rats. The poor had nothing.

Recent generations of francophiles entertain fantasies of the Belle Epoque, whatever that may mean. Let’s consult Wikipedia for a definiton:

Bernhardt,_Sarah_di_Giovanni_BoldiniThe Belle Époque was a period in French and Belgian history that is conventionally dated as starting in 1871 and ending when World War I began in 1914. Occurring during the era of the French Third Republic, it was a period characterized by optimism, peace at home and in Europe, new technology and scientific discoveries. The peace and prosperity in Paris allowed the arts to flourish, and many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition.

Ok, so let’s just whizz through a timeline from 1789 and the run up to 1870.

Everyone knows about the storming of the Bastille (1789), the decapitation of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (1793) and the eventual rise of Napoleon (1799) after almost ten years of bitter in-fighting and hot and heavy guillotine action.

Napoleon. High point: 1805 Austerlitz. Low point: 1812 Russia.

For the next fifty years, there’s a game of political tennis between the Royal House of Louis and the Napoleonic Upstarts. Look left, right, left, right… 1814. 1815. (It certainly doesn’t do the French spirit any favours when the English put in their tuppence at the Battle of Waterloo. Double fault.)

In 1830, there’s a revolution. In 1831 too. And 1832 as well. (Anyone read Les Miserables? Yes? That’s the one.) There’s another revolt in 1834, just for good measure.

In 1848, the workers from 1831 and 1834 have got their act together and with some extra support, there’s a bloody revolution. Again. King Louis abdicates and flees. Exit stage left. Enter Napoleon III.

During the 1850s, France and England (plus the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia) are allied against Russia in the Crimean War. There are heavy losses on all sides before it ends in a disappointing stalemate.

The 1860s are not too bad. Haussmann is rebuilding Paris with the stylish architecture and boulevards that will soon become emblematic. While the scale of the project is surely unnerving to the city’s inhabitants, it provides jobs. In 1869, one fifth of Paris’ working population is in construction.

1870 is disasterous. Outmanned and outgunned, the army has surrended to the invading Prussians after heavy fighting in the east of France. Napoleon III is captured and sent to exile. With no one left to defend it, this beautiful new city of Paris is under siege; a siege which will last for five months. The city is completely cut off. There’s no food. Parisian restaurants are serving horse, cat, dog, rat, even the kangaroo and two elephants from the Paris Zoo.

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1871. In the absence of any real leadership, the group now known as the Paris Commune come to power. There are still foreign soldiers based in Paris; and they’ve just marched victoriously under the Arc de Triomphe to rub salt further into the wound. In the peace deal (Jan/Feb) the Prussians gain control of Alsace and Lorraine, two large industrial areas in the east of France. National pride has hit rock bottom. That’s until it reaches another level during “La Semaine Sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) in May. Tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in what can best be called a civil war for Paris.

It’s with all this as a backdrop that the Belle Epoque is supposed to take place.

It couldn’t really have got any worse. One hundred years of international fighting and civil war, mindblowingly heavy losses, stalemates and occupation. The Battle of Austerlitz being the one notable exception.

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Two of the most glorious and defining moments of the Belle Epoque are the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the opening of the Moulin Rouge – both in 1889, coinciding with the Exposition Universelle. (Just as an aside, the other two World Fairs in 1878 and 1900 were both absolute disasters!)

It is however true that this was a good period for car manufacturing and aviation. (The aviation industry advances actually came about because the Parisians had had to get inventive with hot-air balloons for any kind of communication during the siege.)

It’s also a time when lady courtesans “les cocottes” were forthcoming. Plenty of entertainment for the nouveau-riches. There was theatre, literature and art. (Art Nouveau took off, Impressionism didn’t.) There was of course lots of absinthe, but there was also abject poverty. From ~1870 until 1896, France was in economic depression.

Even momuments that history would rather let us believe were built for greatness have another story to tell. Take the Sacré-Cœur, for example. Originally it was conceived as a penance to God for the defeat to the Prussians and to expiate the crimes of the Paris Commune after what Bishop Fournier described (on the day the Third Republic was sworn in) was “a century of moral decline.”

Construction on the church started in 1875 and it was finally consecrated in 1919. Yet, given how the majority of the 19th century had been a religious seesaw between the secular republicans and Catholic loyalists, and that now finally the Communards had been quashed, this was actually a huge white fuck-off ‘we’re better than you’ symbol sitting on the top of a hill.

Not convinced? Go and visit the Sacré-Cœur for yourself and you’ll see a plaque saying:

“En présence des malheurs qui désolent la France et des malheurs plus grands peut-être qui la menacent encore.”

“In the presence of the misfortunes that afflict France and the perhaps even greater woes that still threaten us.”

Doom and gloom, much!

This Belle Epoque nonsense was simply created out of nostalgia and those rosy glasses sure are heavily tinted. Would a person at the time recognise and refer to it as glorious themselves? I suppose it depends on which way you choose to look.

There does seem to have been a wave of national pride that resurges in the 1890s and which continues until 1914. A pride in their newly rebuilt and rapidly expanding capital city. A time of prosperity after such hardship.

If you were an industrialist enjoying this new boom, you were probably entranced by the new styles of frivolous entertainment that you could now afford. If you were poor, you probably didn’t notice much change. If you were rich, you either weren’t rich anymore or you were in exile.

If you were a thinker, you were probably pre-occupied with the Dreyfus Affair. After Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason, the ensuing fall-out was a scandal that lasted 10 years and seems to have dominated public debate. For his open letter “J’accuse” (1898) Emile Zola was hauled up in the courts and eventually exiled. The whole Affair revealed a widespread anti-semitism and huge corruption at government level. Contemporary reports also speak of a bitterness which turns into full-on xenophobism against Germany after the loss of Alsace and Lorraine.

Actually, if we look further afield, we see that France has fallen far behind its neighbours in terms of social and cultural development. Vienna was experiencing a similar, and arguably more luxuriant, intellectal high-life. In England, the Industrial Revolution and the resulting growth had started with the Reform Act in 1832 – at least 40 years before than France.

"Rolla" by Henri Gervex, 1878.
“Rolla” by Henri Gervex, 1878.

In terms of women’s rights, the Suffragettes movement started in the UK in 1903. In France at this time, les cocottes were still juggling their many lovers and dancing the can-can. Women were given the vote in 1918 in the UK, but not until 1944 in France. That’s only 70 years ago. You could have a grandmother who would remember this.

Of course, when you consider that in 1914 Europe would be plunged into WW1, you can understand how the contemporaries would come to regard this period of freedom and relative stability with considerable fondness. The “Good Old Days.” However why we, several generations on, continue to propagate this further when it was just a short-lived passage between god-awful and hell-on-earth still beats me.

Comments by pigeon or balloon in the “Reply” form below. 😉


For anyone who’s interested in learning more about this period, there’s an excellent (but even longer) piece from Hugh Schofield on the BBC.

Stop Bashing French Food!

My God! What is going on? Dieu, it seems the anglo-saxon press is getting over-excited after finding a new weapon with which to bash the French.

The UK were quicker to pick up on it, but the US have swiftly caught on. After all, bashing the French is such a deeply entrenched past-time that merely mentioning les français has the power to rouse even the most nonchalent of Stoics. The only thing is that nowadays, we’ve moved from the battlefields onto the culture pages of online journals.

No longer is it enough to talk about the economy, claiming that within the next five years the UK will have overtaken France as second largest economy in Europe. (As an aside, I actually find it more surprising that this is not already the case.)

However, this time, you can practically see the editors rubbing their hands together in glee. “Let’s get the French where it most hurts!” Their cuisine.

The new “fait-maison” law has provided the impetus for a new wave of articles. First on the BBC and twice in the Guardian (here and here) and then in the New York Times and a whole host of other US platforms.

Simply speaking, it’s true. A chef who can ping a boeuf bourgignon in a microwave faster than he can chop an onion is not someone I want to be cooking for me. Especially if I’m paying good money for that meal. It constitutes a massive problem – especially at the lower end of the restaurant industry – which, as we rosbifs have been quick to point out, this law woefully fails to address.

Yet what bugs me is how we then manage to extrapolate this problem to talk about French cuisine in its entirety.

Barbecued lamb, artichoke, sardine, glasswort, tiny gherkins. Café Sillon in Lyon. I would eat my hat if any of that turns out to have been pre-prepared and heated in a microwave.

France is still a heavily agricultural country. (Certainly compared to the UK which barely produces as much as a single potato anymore.) The richness of its produce, alongside the fact that the French really do eat anything, means that the breadth of possibility here is astounding.

Laurent is a winemaker in the Loire. He’s also an accomplished home cook. He grows his own vegetables and picks wild flowers and mushrooms in the fields and forests. I’m using some of his dishes as examples of fresh local crops, used simply and seasonally.

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Haddock salad

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Haddock Salad. Idiotically simple, but breathtakingly beautiful.

Next: a salad of wilted spinach, toasted walnuts, pickled & roasted onions, fresh goat cheese. Less pretty, but I want to eat it. Stat.

Admittedly, unless they’re going to go all Robin Crusoe on us aka Alain Passard, the Parisian chef does not have all this on his doorstep. Rungis and Metro are hardly adequate substitutes. There are still good restaurants in Paris who go that extra bit further to serve good-quality, fresh produce but we, the clients, should be ready to spend anywhere upwards of 30 euros on a three course evening meal in these establishments. How is it possible that restaurants offering a 12 euro prix fixe menu are still in business? If we couldn’t even buy our meal in a supermarket for that price, how is a restaurant supposed to pay its rent, staff and bills too? (With its lightning quick turnover of tables, Chartier is the exception which proves the rule.)

Despite what we read in the media, the problem is not due to the French people’s inability to cook. It’s largely down to the laziness of certain restaurateurs, faced with increasing overheads and cheap, easy alternatives. A black and white saucepan with a hat on is not going to make an ounce of difference. Ultimately, until we realise the real value of our meals and start voting with our feet, I doubt anything is going to change.