May 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.

May 162017
 

On this date in 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint. Her feast day is May 30th and you can read all about her exploits and trial here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/joan-of-arc/ .  Now I just want to focus on the fact that it took nearly 500 years for the Catholic church to declare her a saint. I’ll begin by saying that I find the whole process of declaring a person a saint extremely silly. I’m not bothered so much by the question of whether she is a saint or not, but rather by the fact that it took the church so long. I remember reading about her for history lessons in primary school. My textbook ended with the terse sentence after reporting her death: “. . . 500 years later she was made a saint.” Somebody in the class asked why it took so long, and my teacher said simply that the process took a long time. Nonsense. Pope John Paul II will probably be canonized in my lifetime; many people have been declared saints, throughout history, shortly after their deaths. Why did it take so long?

Joan was put on trial by an Inquisitorial court that was heavily influenced by the English, leading to her execution in the marketplace of Rouen in 1431. When the French retook Rouen in 1449, a series of investigations were launched. Her now-widowed mother Isabelle Romée and Joan’s brothers Jéan and Pierre, who were with Joan at the Siege of Orleans, petitioned Pope Nicholas V to reopen her case. The formal appeal was conducted in 1455 by Jean Bréhal, Inquisitor-General of France, under the aegis of Pope Callixtus III. Isabelle addressed the opening session of the appellate trial at Notre Dame with an impassioned plea to clear her daughter’s name. Joan was exonerated on July 7, 1456, with Bréhal’s summary of case evidence describing her as a martyr who had been executed by a court which itself had violated Church law.  In 1457, Callixtus excommunicated the now-deceased Bishop Pierre Cauchon for his persecution and condemnation of Joan.

The city of Orléans had commemorated her death each year beginning in 1432, and from 1435 onward performed a religious play centered on the lifting of the siege. The play represented her as a divinely-sent savior guided by angels. In 1452, during one of the postwar investigations into her execution, Cardinal d’Estouteville declared that this play would merit qualification as a pilgrimage site by which attendees could gain an indulgence. Not long after the appeal, Pope Pius II wrote an approving piece about her in his memoirs.

Joan was used a symbol of the Catholic League, a group organized to fight against Protestant groups during the Wars of Religion in France. An anonymous author wrote a biography of Joan’s life, stating that it was compiled “By order of the King, Louis XII of that name” in around 1500.

Joan’s cult of personality was opposed by the leaders of the French Revolution because she was a devout Catholic who had served the monarchy. They banned the yearly celebration of the lifting of the siege of Orleans, and Joan’s relics, including her sword and banner, were destroyed. A statue of Joan erected by the people of Orléans in 1571 (to replace one destroyed by Protestants in 1568) was melted down and made into a cannon. Recognizing he could use Joan for his nationalist purposes, Napoleon allowed Orléans to resume its yearly celebration of the lifting of the siege, commissioned Augustin Dupré to strike a commemorative coin, and had Jean-Antoine Chaptal inform the mayor of Orléans that he approved of a resolution by the municipal council.

Although Nicolas Lenglet Du Fresnoy and Clément Charles François de Laverdy are credited with the first full-length biographies of Joan, several English authors ironically sparked a movement which lead to her canonization. Harvard University English literature professor Herschel Baker noted in his introduction to Henry VI for The Riverside Shakespeare how appalled William Warburton was by the depiction of Joan in Henry VI, Part 1, and that Edmond Malone sought in “Dissertation on the Three Parts of Henry VI” (1787) to prove Shakespeare had no hand in its authorship (1974; p. 587). Charles Lamb chided Samuel Taylor Coleridge for reducing Joan to “a pot girl” in the first drafts of The Destiny of Nations, initially part of Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc. She was the subject of essays by Lord Mahon for The Quarterly Review, and by Thomas De Quincey for Tait’s.

As Joan found her way further into popular culture, the French Navy dedicated four vessels to her: a 52-gun frigate (1820); a 42-gun frigate (1852), an ironclad corvette warship (1867), and an armored cruiser (1899). Philippe-Alexandre Le Brun de Charmettes’s biography (1817), and Jules Quicherat’s account of her trial and rehabilitation (1841-1849) seemed to have inspired canonization efforts in France. In 1869, Bishop Félix Dupanloup and 11 other bishops petitioned Pope Pius IX to have her canonized, but the Franco-Prussian War postponed further action. In 1874, depositions began to be collected, received by Cardinal Luigi Bilio in 1876 (same year as Henri-Alexandre Wallon’s biography). Dupanloup’s successor, Bishop Pierre-Hector Coullié, directed an inquest to authenticate her acts and testimony from her trial and rehabilitation. On January 27, 1894, the Curia (Cardinals Benedetto Aloisi-Masella, Angelo Bianchi, Benoît-Marie Langénieux, Luigi Macchi, Camillo Mazzella, Paul Melchers, Mario Mocenni, Lucido Parocchi, Fulco Luigi Ruffo-Scilla, and Isidoro Verga) voted unanimously that Pope Leo XIII sign the Commissio Introductionis Causæ Servæ Dei Joannæ d’Arc, which he did that afternoon.

However, the path to sainthood did not go smoothly. On August 20, 1902, the Papal consistory rejected adding Joan to the Calendar of saints, stating: she launched the assault on Paris on the birthday of Mary, mother of Jesus; her capture (“proof” her claim that she was sent by God was false); her attempts to escape from prison; her abjure after being threatened with death; and doubts of her purity. On November 17, 1903, the Sacred Congregation of Rites met to discuss Joan’s cause at the behest of Pope Pius X. A decree proclaiming Joan’s heroic virtue was issued on January 6, 1904 by Cardinal Serafino Cretoni, and Pius proclaimed her venerable on January 8. The Decree of the Three Miracles was issued on December 13, 1908, and The Decree of Beatification was read five days later, which was issued formally by the Congregation of Rites on January 24, 1909. The Beatification ceremony was held on April 18, 1909.

In the subsequent fighting during World War I, French troops carried her image into battle with them. During one battle, they interpreted a German searchlight image projected on to low-lying clouds as an appearance by Joan, which bolstered their morale greatly. Her canonization Mass was held on May 16, 1920. Over 60,000 people attended the ceremony, including 140 descendants of Joan’s family.

Joan of Arc was born in the village of Domrémy, then in the French part of the duchy of Bar, or Barrois mouvant, located west of the Meuse. The part of the duchy lying east of the Meuse was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The duchy of Bar later became part of the province of Lorraine. The village of Domrémy was renamed Domrémy-la-Pucelle in honor of Joan. Unfortunately that general region is now famous for chocolate which would not be appropriate to celebrate a French woman who was not aware that the Americas (origin of chocolate) existed. Instead here’s a 15th century French recipe for a pie in the shape of a castle – to remind us how Joan of Arc assisted in storming castles. I’ve always fancied doing something like this but the closest I came was making a castle out of gingerbread. Meat pies in the shape of castles were quite popular from the Middle Ages up to the late 19th century. They were often filled with what we would think of as mincemeat, that is, meat heavily laced with sugar, fruit, and brandy. They were well known gifts of the nobility.

This recipe is from Du fait de cuisine by Maistre Chiquart translated by Elizabeth Cook

For a lofty entremet, that is a castle, there should be made for its base a fair large litter to be carried by four men, and in the said litter must be four towers to be put in each quarter of the said litter, and each tower should be fortified and machicolated; and each tower has crossbowmen and archers to defend the said fortress, and also in each tower is a candle or wax torch to illuminate; and they bear branches of all trees bearing all manner of flowers and fruit, and on the said branches all manner of birds. And in the lower court will be at the foot of each tower: in one of the towers, a boar’s head armed and endored spitting fire; elsewhere a great pike, and this pike is cooked in three ways: the part of the pike toward the tail is fried, the middle part is boiled, and the head part is roasted on the grill; and the said pike is sitting at the foot of the other tower looking out from the beast spitting fire. One should take note of the sauces of the said pike with which it should be eaten, that is: the fried with oranges, the boiled with a good green sauce which should be made sour with a little vinegar, and the roast of the said pike should be eaten with green verjuice made of sorrel. At the foot of the other tower an endored piglet looking out and spitting fire; and at the foot of the other tower a swan which has been skinned and reclothed, also spitting fire. And in the middle of the four towers in the lower court a fountain of Love, from which fountain there should flow by a spout rosewater and clear wine; and above the said fountain are cages with doves and all flying birds. And on the heights of the said castle are standards, banners, and pennons; and beside the said fountain is a peacock which has been skinned and reclothed. And for this, I Chiquart have said before, I would like to teach to the said master who is to make it the art of the said peacock, and this to do courtesy and honor to his lord and master, that is to take a large fat goose, and spit it well and put it to roast well and cleanly and gaily [quickly?], and to recloth it in the plumage of the peacock and put it in the place where the peacock should be set, next to the fountain of love, with the wings extended; and make the tail spread, and to hold the neck raised high, as if it were alive, put a stick of wood inside the said neck which will make it hold straight. And for this the said cook must not flay the said peacock, but take the pinions to put on the goose and take the skin of the rump of the peacock where the feathers are held all together; and when it goes onto the goose, to make good skewers to make the said goose spread its tail as properly as the peacock if it were alive.

And on the battlements of the lower court should be chickens skinned and reclothed and endored, and endored hedgehogs, and endored apples made of meat, Spanish pots made of meat all endored; molded figures, that is: hares, brachets, deer, boars, the hunters with their horns, partridge, crayfish, dolphin, peas all molded and beans made all of molded meat. The curtains of the said castle which go all around the castle, should be so large hanging to the ground that one cannot see the bearers of the said castle. And the said curtains from the ground to two feet up should be painted with waves of water and large sea flowers; and among the said waves should be painted all sorts of fish, and above the said waters and waves should be galleys and ships full of people armed in all ways so that it seems they come to attack the said fortress and castle of Love, which appears to be on a great rock in the sea, of which people some are archers, crossbowmen, others are furnished with lances, others with ladders to lean against the said fortress, these climbing and those descending and pushing the others off, these divided and other things, these hard pressed and those in retreat, these being killed by arrows and those by stones.

And within the curtains should be three or four young children playing very well, one a rebec, another a lute, psaltery, or harp, and others who have good voices to sing appropriate, sweet, and pleasant songs so that one is aware that these are sirens in the sea by their clear singing.

And the peacock which is mentioned above, which by the advice of me, Chyquart, is the result of artifice, take it and clean it very well and then dry it well and properly, and spit it and put it to roast; and when it is nearly roasted stud it with good whole cloves well and properly; and if the surface is spoiled put it to roast again. And then let your lord know about your trick with the peacock and he can then arrange for what he wants done.