Jul 142013

Bastille Day  bastille2

Today is formally known as La Fête de la Fédération in France (or more informally Le Quatorze Juillet), and Bastille Day in English speaking countries.  It commemorates the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 which is generally considered the critical event that launched the French Revolution. The medieval fortress and prison in Paris known as the Bastille represented royal authority in the center of Paris. While the prison contained only seven inmates at the time of its storming, its fall was the flashpoint of the Revolution because it changed the terms of the conflict between the people and the king from political bargaining to open warfare. The events leading up to the storming of the Bastille are complicated but can be distilled down to a few key points.

First and foremost is the fact that during the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, partially caused by the huge cost of intervening in the American Revolution, and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation.  Everyone felt the pinch of taxation from the nobility down to the poorest of the poor, yet Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette, continued to live in unbridled luxury which was publicly vaunted.  To resolve the financial crisis the Estates-General was convened by Louis in May 1789.  The Estates-General was an outmoded system of giving the people a voice that was actually powerless because it was advisory to the king, who could ignore its advice. It had not met since 1614. It consisted of representatives of three estates: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate).  It met for a little over a month with no agreement reached between the estates.  The nobility wanted to resist taxation, but otherwise were conservative and loyal to the monarchy. The commoners wanted to write a constitution which would create a system of governance by the people .  With no agreement in sight, on 17 June 1789 the Third Estate reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose first purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July. Its debates were reported in the press and initiated widespread political debate among the people.  But debate was not enough at this point. Paris was on the brink of insurrection, turning words into action.

On the morning of 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The public demonstrators, led by Amaria Cahila, of the Third Estate, had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides to gather arms (29,000 to 32,000 muskets, but without powder or shot), and were mainly seeking to acquire the large quantities of arms and ammunition stored at the Bastille. On the 14th there were over 13,600 kilograms (30,000 lb) of gunpowder stored there.

At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty of prisoners, housing only seven old men annoyed by all the disturbance: four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier). The cost of maintaining a medieval fortress and garrison for so limited a purpose had led to a decision to close it, shortly before the disturbances began. It was, however, a symbol of royal tyranny. The regular garrison consisted of 82 invalides (veteran soldiers no longer suitable for service in the field). It had however been reinforced on 7 July by 32 grenadiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment from the troops on the Champ de Mars. The walls mounted eighteen eight-pound guns and twelve smaller pieces. The governor was Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor and actually born within the Bastille.

The list of vainqueurs de la Bastille (conquerors of the Bastille) has 954 names, and the total of the crowd was probably fewer than one thousand. The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 13:30 the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard, and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut, crushing one unfortunate vainqueur.  About this time gunfire began, though some stories state that the Governor had a cannon fire into the crowd killing several women, children, and men turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd seemed to have felt it had been drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organise a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.

The firing continued, and at 15:00 the attackers were reinforced by mutinous gardes françaises and other deserters from among the regular troops, along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the nearby Champs de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of a mutual massacre suddenly apparent Governor de Launay ordered a cease fire at 17:00. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realized that his troops could not hold out much longer; he opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 17:30. The revolution had begun.

I debated giving a recipe for brioche on the grounds that the famous phrase “let them eat cake” (falsely applied to Marie Anoinette), is a poor translation of the French original “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“let them eat brioche”). But brioche is just fancy pants bread – enriched with butter and eggs.  Not very celebratory.  Instead here is a recipe for îles flottantes (floating islands), also known as œufs à la neige (“eggs in snow”). There are actually minor differences between the two, but the terms can also be used interchangeably. Both are essentially light puffs of meringue floating in a thin egg custard and topped with caramel sauce. Some cooks, such as Julia Child, bake the meringues, and I have had the dish served me several times in France that way. But the classic method is to poach them.  BE WARNED – this is not a recipe for the inexperienced.


Îles flottantes


Crème anglaise

1⅓ pints/750ml milk
1 vanilla pod, seeds only, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
8 egg yolks
7 oz/190 gm caster sugar

Poaching liquor

18 fl oz/500 ml milk
1 tbsp caster sugar


8 egg whites
7oz/190 gm caster sugar


2½ oz/75 gm caster sugar


Crème anglaise

Heat the milk and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat. Do not allow to boil.

Simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside

Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a mixing bowl.

This is a critical step where things can go very wrong. Pour the hot milk mixture onto the eggs and sugar, a little at a time whisking constantly. If you stop whisking, or add too much hot milk at once, the eggs will scramble. Try to keep up a thin steady stream (whisking even before you begin pouring). When all the milk is added the mixture should be smooth and creamy.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and place the pan over a low heat and stir continuously  until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. You are aiming for a thin custard.

Leave to cool.  This process can be done several hours before assembling the dessert. You can also do it the night before.  If you do, refrigerate overnight.  But remove next day to bring the crème anglaise back to a runny consistency.

Poaching liquid

Combine the milk and 18fl oz/500ml of water with the sugar in a wide shallow saucepan or poaching pan. Stir to dissolve the sugar.

Heat the liquid on a medium until it comes to a low simmer. Turn off the heat but keep the liquid warm on the stove. It will take some time to make the meringue but you need this liquid ready for them as soon as they are made.


Put the egg whites in a clean, dry mixing bowl.

Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the whites until stiff peaks form when the whisk is removed. Do not overbeat. As soon as stiff peaks appear – stop.

Add one tablespoon of the sugar to the egg whites, and continue to whisk until the mixture comes back to stiff peaks. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time until it has all been used, and the meringue is thick and glossy.

Reheat the poaching liquid to a very gentle simmer. NEVER let it boil.

Using a two serving spoons dipped in cold water (each time), shape the meringue into pillows (about 4”x 2”/10 cm x 5 cm) and gently poach them in the poaching liquid. It is best to do this step in batches. 4 to 6 should be the maximum. Turn each meringue after 3 minutes and let cook another 2 minutes on the other side. Use a slotted spoon to remove them and gently place them on a wire rack to drain. Repeat as needed.


Pour the sugar into a wide pan with 2 tablespoons of water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium  heat stirring with a wooden spoon. The mixture will begin to bubble and you need to keep a watchful eye on it.  Eventually you will see a brown patch appear.  Keep stirring until the sugar is a little lighter than dark caramel and remove from the heat immediately.


You have two choices depending on how large you want this dessert to be. If you want one meringue per person use small dessert plates. If you want two per person use larger plates. But do not make the plates so large that the meringues get lost. The plates need to have a little depth to hold the crème anglaise.

Divide the crème anglaise among the number of plates you are using. Place one (or two) meringues in the center of each. They are delicate so do this very gently.

If necessary reheat the caramel so that when you dip a fork in it, it runs off in streams.  Using the fork, very quickly run thin streams of caramel over all the meringues.

Sleep well that night.

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