Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
From 'The French Revolution as it appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement' by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
One of the reasons the blog was a bit quiet recently is because I went to France. It’s hard to explain to outsiders the allure that France has for us Brits; hanging as we do off the foggy northern coast of our sunnier, sexier and altogether more stylish neighbour. We envy much that is French; the food - especially the bread, the education system, the sense of style, the railway system and the slower pace of life. But actually what I like is the space. There are sixty three million people in Britain, packed onto a relatively small archipelago of islands – much of it uninhabitable by reason of geography. The French have a similar population and more than twice the landmass. Simples.
Anyway it’s Bastille Day or 'La Fête National' as the French call it. Today is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 - one of the events that fomented the French Revolution. Just as an aside, the onslaught on the Bastille was less than two weeks after the Marquis de Sade, a long-term prisoner there, had started a previous riot outside the walls by shouting – ‘They are killing prisoners in here!’ He was immediately moved to a lunatic asylum and so missed all the later excitement.
This painting of the event is by Henry Singleton (1766-1839) - they do look very chic peasants.
The first Fête (initially called the Fête de la Federation) was first held on this day in 1790 and it also celebrated what is often forgotten, that there was a short lived constitutional monarchy in France between the Revolution and the Reign of Terror that began in 1793.
Every school child knows of course, that the French Revolution was all about bread. ‘Let them eat cake’ has become shorthand for the ignorance and indifference of the upper classes to the less fortunate - a bit like saying why wouldn’t poor people go to food banks because the food is free? Humph! Political petticoat showing there Liz.
But as we all know Marie-Antoinette was misquoted – what she is supposed to have said is "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" - 'Let them eat brioche’, the enriched dough of which would be way beyond the means of the urban poor, who spent spent fifty percent of their income on bread. But actually it’s all wrong. The quote first appears in Jean Jaques Rousseau’s 'Confessions' of 1765 – way before the event and he may even have made it up, although he attributes it to an unnamed highborn princess.
Years ago I went with my parents to the Laiterie de Rambouillet – Marie Antoinette’s dairy in the grounds of the Chateau de Rambouilllet – now with delicious irony, the summer residence of the President of the Republic. I had to translate what the guide was saying for Mum and Dad, but when she held a wonderful Sèvres bowl to her bosom to illustrate that the vessels had been moulded on the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts – there was no need to explain! My Dad was very embarrassed by the Gallic frankness!
Here's the bowl.
Anyway this is all rambling. What shall I make to celebrate the French Revolution? Peasant food – not posh food I think. Jean Jaques Rousseau was a good cook and he said that happiness was a good bank account, a good cook and a good digestion - there's a lot in that.
This is a little dish from Elizabeth David's Summer Food. It turns two humble ingredients into a feast. The amounts are very flexible; more potatoes and less mushrooms or vice versa are quite acceptable. Just season the whole thing very well. ED suggests cooking this in one of those thick earthenware pans that can be put onto a direct heat. I don't have one so I used an old enamel dish.
Potatoes and Mushrooms
1lb new potatoes
1/2lb well flavoured mushrooms
1 fat clove garlic
a small white onion
salt and black pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut into slices the thickness of a coin. Heat the oil and butter and sauté the chopped onion until soft and golden. Add the garlic and potatoes and cook gently for 10 minutes. Add the thickly sliced mushrooms and cover with water, season and cover the pan. Cook gently until the potatoes are tender. Add the parley and lemon juice and serve very hot. I wish there was a smell facility - the scent of this cooking filled the house with a wonderful earthy, garlicky, buttery smell - and it tasted just as good!
...Then exultation waked the patriot fire
And swept with wilder hand the Alcaean lyre:
Red from the tyrant's wound I shook the lance,
And strode in joy the reeking plains of France!
Fall'n is th' oppressor, friendless, ghastly, low,
And my heart aches tho' mercy struck the blow....
From: 'To A Young Lady, With A Poem On The French Revolution' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
(Written at the height of the Reign of Terror in 1794)