Jun 272020

Today is Independence Day in Djibouti, officially the Republic of Djibouti, marking its formal severance of colonial rule by France in 1977. The country is located in the Horn of Africa. It is bordered by Somalia in the south, Ethiopia in the south and west, Eritrea in the north, and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in the east. Across the Gulf of Aden lies Yemen. The country has a total area of 23,200 sq km (8,958 sq mi). The Republic of Djibouti is predominantly inhabited by two ethnic groups, the majority Somali and the Afar.

I have chosen to celebrate Djibouti today because it is one of a handful of countries I have been interested in visiting for some time.  I was due to make a trip to England this June for a school reunion and spent many months at the beginning of the year figuring out an itinerary that would include a stop in Djibouti (Cambodia to India to Dubai to Djibouti to Turkey to England) but COVID-19 cut that plan off.  I’ll make it there some day, but not any time soon.

In antiquity, the territory together with Somalia was part of the Land of Punt. Nearby Zeila, now in Somalia, was the seat of the medieval Adal and Ifat sultanates. In the late 19th century, the colony of French Somaliland was established following treaties signed by the ruling Somali and Afar sultans with the French and its railroad to Dire Dawa (and later Addis Ababa) allowed it to quickly supersede Zeila as the port for southern Ethiopia and the Ogaden. It was subsequently renamed the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas in 1967, and then, via overwhelming referendum in favor, declared independence 10 years later, although there is still a substantial French Foreign Legion presence in the country.

Here’s a small gallery:

The food is a big attraction for me – a blend of Somali, Middle Eastern, French, Indian, and other tastes.  The national dish is Fah Fah, which is a goat soup/stew.  I could give a recipe but it is essentially goat meat simmered for hours with onions, garlic, vegetables, and coriander.

Here is a better option: a Somali dish of rice and goat.  Sorry that the video is in Arabic.  You’ll get the gist (there is a bit of English mixed in):

Jun 182018

Today is Constitution Day in the Republic of Seychelles, celebrating the ratification by referendum in 1993 of its current constitution. Seychelles is a sovereign state in the Indian Ocean made up of 115 islands whose capital is Victoria. Ir lies 1,500 kilometers (932 mi) east of mainland East Africa. Other nearby island countries and territories include Comoros, Mayotte, Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius to the south. With a population of roughly 94,228, it has the smallest population of any sovereign African country.

The Seychelles were uninhabited throughout most of recorded history. Some scholars assume that Austronesian seafarers and later Maldivian and Arab traders were the first to visit the uninhabited Seychelles. This assumption is based in part on the discovery of tombs which are no longer accessible. The earliest recorded sighting by Europeans took place in 1502 by Vasco da Gama, who passed through the Amirantes (an archipelago within the Seychelles) and named them after himself (islands of the Admiral). The earliest recorded landing was in January 1609, by the crew of the Ascension under captain Alexander Sharpeigh during the 4th voyage of the British East India Company.

The Seychelles became a transit point for trade between Africa and Asia, and the islands were occasionally used by pirates until the French began to take control starting in 1756 when a Stone of Possession was laid on Mahé by Captain Nicholas Morphey. The islands were named after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV’s Minister of Finance. The British controlled the islands between 1794 and 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. Jean Baptiste Quéau de Quincy, French administrator of Seychelles during the years of war with the United Kingdom, declined to resist when armed enemy warships arrived. Instead, he successfully negotiated the status of capitulation to Britain which gave the settlers a privileged position of neutrality. Britain eventually assumed full control upon the surrender of Mauritius in 1810, formalized in 1814 at the Treaty of Paris. Seychelles became a crown colony separate from Mauritius in 1903.

Independence was granted in 1976 as a republic within the Commonwealth. In 1977, a coup d’état by France Albert René ousted the first president of the republic, James Mancham. René discouraged over-dependence on tourism and declared that he wanted “to keep the Seychelles for the Seychellois.” The 1979 constitution declared a socialist one-party state, which lasted until 1991. In the 1980s there were a series of coup attempts against President René, some of which were supported by South Africa. In 1981, Mike Hoare led a team of 43 South African mercenaries masquerading as holidaying rugby players in the 1981 Seychelles coup d’état attempt. There was a gun battle at the airport, and most of the mercenaries later escaped in a hijacked Air India plane. The leader of this hijacking was German mercenary D. Clodo, a former member of the Rhodesian SAS. Clodo later stood trial in South Africa (where he was acquitted) as well as in his home country Germany for air-piracy.

In 1986, an attempted coup led by the Seychelles Minister of Defence, Ogilvy Berlouis, caused President René to request assistance from India. In Operation Flowers are Blooming, the Indian naval vessel INS Vindhyagiri arrived in Port Victoria to help avert the coup. The first draft of a new constitution failed to receive the requisite 60% of voters in 1992, but an amended version was approved in 1993.

Seychelles was in the news in the US recently because of a secretly arranged meeting there between members of the Trump Administration and surrogates to form a secret back channel between Russia and the White House. The Seychelles are sufficiently remote to be off the radar of mainstream media. In the 1970s when the Seychelles opened an international airport, the islands became an international jet set destination, and tourism has been a major source of income ever since, essentially dividing the economy into plantations and tourism. The tourism sector paid better, and the plantation economy could only expand so far. Thus the plantation sector of the economy declined in prominence, and tourism became the primary industry of Seychelles.

In recent years the government has encouraged foreign investment to upgrade hotels and other services. Despite its growth, the vulnerability of the tourist sector was illustrated by the sharp drop in 1991–1992 due largely to the Gulf War. Since then the government has moved to reduce the dependence on tourism by promoting the development of farming, fishing, small-scale manufacturing and most recently the offshore financial sector, through the establishment of the Financial Services Authority and the enactment of several pieces of legislation.

Breadfruit is a staple on the Seychelles, and folklore, repeated in different places in different parts of the world I have visited (concerning a local product), says that if you eat a dish of breadfruit cooked on the Seychelles, you will return. I rambled on about cooking breadfruit here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mutiny-bounty/  Another delicacy on the islands is curried fruit bat. There’s also shark chutney, which is not a chutney in the Indian sense, but a main dish. I can describe how these dishes are made, but I have never had them (nor visited the Seychelles), so my descriptions will be rather generic. Fruit bats are first boiled until tender, skinned and jointed, and then simmered in a curry sauce. Shark chutney is made by boiling skinned shark, mashing it well, and then simmering it with squeezed bilimbi juice and lime. This in turn is mixed with fried onion, pepper, salt and turmeric, and served with rice and lentils.

Sep 032016


The Treaty of Paris which finalized the peace between Great Britain and the 13 North American colonies that became the United States, was signed in Paris by representatives of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States of America on this date in 1783. Britain acknowledged the right of the United States to be sovereign and independent. The treaty also set the boundaries between the British Empire and the new country, and also included details such as fishing rights and the restoration of property and prisoners of war. The Treaty took over a year to settle because, as always, the devil is in the details. France and Spain also had a large stake in the establishment of boundaries at the time.

Many things come to mind as I contemplate this treaty. First, this is not a date that means much any more in the US. Declaring independence on 4th July is a BIG DEAL – but WINNING independence has largely been forgotten except for a few vagrant (and mostly wrong) memories of Washington, Valley Forge, and “redcoats.” There were 7 years between declaring and winning independence. Even when the battles were over there was a lot to decide, and not a lot of agreement. Second, after signing the treaty both sides set about ignoring the details, particularly with regard to boundaries, one of the key issues in the War of 1812, which people in the US often see as a Second War of Independence, whereas people in Britain see it as an extension of the Napoleonic Wars, if they think about it at all.

Peace negotiations began in April 1782, and continued through the summer. Representing the United States were Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and John Adams. David Hartley and Richard Oswald represented Great Britain. The treaty was signed at the Hotel d’York (presently 56 Rue Jacob) in Paris on September 3, 1783, by Adams, Franklin, Jay, and Hartley. A contemporary artist attempted to record the events but the British representatives refused to sit, so the painting was left incomplete.


The key episodes came in September, 1782, when the French Foreign Minister Vergennes proposed a solution that was strongly opposed by his ally the United States. France was exhausted by the war, and everyone wanted peace except Spain, which insisted on continuing the war until it could capture Gibraltar from the British. Vergennes came up with the deal that Spain would accept instead of Gibraltar. The United States would gain its independence but be confined to the area east of the Appalachian Mountains. Britain would take the area north of the Ohio River. In the area south of that would be set up an independent Indian state under Spanish control. It would be an Indian buffer state.

The Americans realized that they could get a better deal directly from London. John Jay promptly told the British that he was willing to negotiate directly with them, cutting off France and Spain. The British Prime Minister Lord Shelburne agreed. He was in full charge of the British negotiations and he now saw a chance to split the United States away from France and make the new country a valuable economic partner. In the west the United States would gain all of the area east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada. The northern boundary would be almost the same as today.The United States would gain fishing rights off Canadian coasts, and agreed to allow British merchants and Loyalists to try to recover their property. It was a highly favorable treaty for the United States, and deliberately so from the British point of view. Prime Minister Shelburne foresaw highly profitable two-way trade between Britain and the rapidly growing United States.

Great Britain also signed separate agreements with France and Spain, and (provisionally) with the Netherlands. In the treaty with Spain, the territories of East and West Florida were ceded to Spain (without a clear northern boundary, resulting in a territorial dispute resolved by the Treaty of Madrid in 1795). Spain also received the island of Minorca. The Bahama Islands, Grenada, and Montserrat, captured by the French and Spanish, were returned to Britain. The treaty with France was mostly about exchanges of captured territory (France’s only net gains were the island of Tobago, and Senegal in Africa), but also reinforced earlier treaties, guaranteeing fishing rights off Newfoundland. Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured in 1781, were returned by Britain to the Netherlands in exchange for trading privileges in the Dutch East Indies, by a treaty which was not finalized until 1784.


Historians have often commented that the treaty was very generous to the United States in terms of greatly enlarged boundaries. Historians such as Alvord, Harlow, and Ritcheson have emphasized that British generosity was based on a statesmanlike vision of close economic ties between Britain and the United States. The concession of the vast trans-Appalachian region was designed to facilitate the growth of the North American population and create lucrative markets for British merchants, without any military or administrative costs to Britain. The point was the United States would become a major trading partner. The French foreign minister, Vergennes, later put it, “The English buy peace rather than make it”. Vermont was included within the boundaries because the state of New York insisted that Vermont was a part of New York, although Vermont was then under a government that considered Vermont not to be a part of the United States.

Privileges that the North Americans had received from Britain automatically when they had colonial status (including protection from pirates in the Mediterranean Sea) were withdrawn. Individual states ignored federal recommendations, under Article 5, to restore confiscated Loyalist property, and also ignored Article 6 (e.g., by confiscating Loyalist property for “unpaid debts”). Some, notably Virginia, also defied Article 4 and maintained laws against payment of debts to British creditors. The British often ignored the provision of Article 7 about removal of slaves.


The actual geography of North America turned out not to match the details used in the treaty. The Treaty specified a southern boundary for the United States, but the separate Anglo-Spanish agreement did not specify a northern boundary for Florida, and the Spanish government assumed that the boundary was the same as in the 1763 agreement by which they had first given their territory in Florida to Britain. While that West Florida Controversy continued, Spain used its new control of Florida to block US access to the Mississippi, in defiance of Article 8. The treaty stated that the boundary of the United States extended from the center of the Lake of the Woods (now partly in Minnesota, partly in Manitoba, and partly in Ontario) directly westward until it reached the Mississippi River. But in fact the Mississippi does not extend that far northward. The line going west from the Lake of the Woods never intersects the river.

In the Great Lakes region, Great Britain violated the treaty stipulation that they should relinquish control of forts in United States territory “with all convenient speed.” British troops remained stationed at a number of forts (Detroit, Lernoult, Michilimackinac, Niagara, Ontario, Oswegatchie, Presque Isle) for over a decade. The British also built an additional fort (Miami) during this time. They found justification for these actions in the unstable and extremely tense situation that existed in the area following the war, in the failure of the United States government to fulfill commitments made to compensate loyalists for their losses, and in the British need for time to liquidate various assets in the region. This matter was finally settled by the 1794 Jay Treaty.

The cuisine of the 13 colonies reflected the cuisines of their regions of origin. Colonization occurred in four waves:

Virginia. The first wave of English immigrants began arriving in North America, settling mainly around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland. The Virginian settlers were dominated by English noblemen with their servants (many were Cavaliers fleeing in the aftermath of the English Civil War 1642–51) and poor peasants from southern England. The society the Cavaliers brought with them was highly stratified and this was reflected in food and eating habits. The aristocrats that would be the basis for the First Families of Virginia were very fond of game and red meat. Roast beef was a particular favorite, and even when oysters and goose were available, wealthy colonists could complain about the absence of meat. Virginia was the only place in North America where haute cuisine of any kind was practiced before the 19th century.

New England. New England was first settled beginning in 1620, and it was dominated by East Anglian Calvinists, better known as the Puritans. The religious fundamentalism of the Puritans created a cuisine that was austere, disdainful of feasting and with few embellishments. Though New England had a great abundance of wildlife and seafood, traditional East Anglian fare was preferred, even if it had to be made with New World ingredients. Baked beans and pease porridge were everyday fare, particularly during the winter, and usually eaten with coarse, dark bread.


Delaware Valley. The Quakers emigrated to the New World from the Northern English Midlands during the 17th century, and eventually settled primarily in the Delaware Valley. They were similar to the Puritans in the strictness that they applied to everyday life, and their food was plain and simple.

The most typical cooking method of the Quakers was boiling, a method brought from ancestral northern England. Boiled breakfast and dinner were standard fare, as well as “pop-robbins,” balls of batter made from flour and eggs boiled in milk. Boiled dumplings and puddings were so common in Quaker homes that they were referred to by outsiders as “Quakers’ food”. Travelers noted apple dumplings as an almost daily dish in the Delaware Valley and cook books specialized in puddings and dumplings. Food was mostly preserved through boiling, simmering or standing.


A popular genre of dishes made from this favored method of food preparation was “cheese” (or “butter”), a generic term for dishes prepared by slow boiling or pressing. It could be made from ingredients as varying as apples (i.e., apple butter), plums and walnuts. Cream cheese had its origins in Quaker cooking, but was in colonial times not true cheese made with rennet or curds, but rather cream that was warmed gently and then allowed to stand between cloth until it became semi-solid.

Backcountry. The last major wave of British immigrants to the colonies took place from 1720–1775. About 250,000 people travelled across the Atlantic primarily to seek economic betterment and to escape hardships and famine. Most of these came from the borderlands of northern Britain and were of Scots-Irish or Scottish descent. Many were poor and therefore accustomed to hard times, setting them apart from the other major British immigrant groups. They settled in what would come to be known generally as the “Backcountry,” on the frontier and in the highlands in the north and south.


The back country relied heavily on a diet based on porridge or mush made from soured milk or boiled grains, a diet that was despised in wealthier parts of the colonies as well as in Britain.  Oatmeal porridge was popular but eventually the oatmeal was replaced by corn, and became what is known in the South as grits. Cakes of unleavened dough baked on bake stones or circular griddles were common and went by names such as “clapbread,” “griddle cakes,” and “pancakes.” Rabbit, squirrel, and possum were common hunted meats.

The Revolutionary War disrupted the diet a little, although historians differ concerning the extent. For example, wool was in great need for uniforms, so slaughtering sheep became uncommon, thus pig rearing increased in popularity for meat over lamb and mutton. Imported foods from Britain were banned, and had been highly taxed anyway. Coffee replaced tea as a hot drink, and whisky replaced rum because it could be distilled from corn instead of from sugar which was imported from the British West Indies. Colonists preferred eating barley over brewing beer with it, and, in any case, making alcoholic cider is simpler than brewing beer.

What passes as “American” cuisine these days reflects these colonial realities. I’ll leave you to it, whether it be Boston baked beans, Philadelphia cream cheese, or grits.

May 242016


For some reason, today is designated as National Escargot Day In the United States. It’s one of hundreds of useless and trivial “special” food days accorded national status by the Congress. I assume it all has to do with marketing. Why cooked snails should get a special day is beyond me. But the date gives me the opportunity to talk about food preferences and prejudices, so I’ll  accept the celebration this once.

Strictly speaking, the word “escargot” in English applies to cooked snails only. Raw snails are snails. Even calling cooked snails, “escargot,” strikes me as pretentious or affected. I can understand referring to a French dish, such as escargots à la Bourguignonne, using the French word, but I don’t see why cooked snails in general can’t simply be “snails.” That’s the term I’ll use.


Not all species of land snail are edible, and many are too small to make it worthwhile to prepare and cook them. Even among the edible species, the palatability of the flesh varies from species to species. In France, the species Helix pomatia is most often eaten. The “petit-gris” Cornu aspersa is also eaten, as is Helix lucorum. Several additional species, such as Elona quimperiana, are popular in Europe.

Burnt snail shells have been found in several archaeological excavations, indicating that snails have been eaten since prehistoric times. In addition, a number of archaeological sites around the Mediterranean have been excavated yielding physical evidence of the culinary use of several species of snails. The Romans in particular are known to have considered snails a delicacy, as noted in the writings of Pliny. The edible species Otala lactea has been recovered from the Roman-era city Volubilis in present-day Morocco. Romans also practiced snail farming, or heliciculture. The method was described by Fulvius Lippinus (49 BCE) and mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Terrence) in De Re rustica (On Rural Things)III, 12. The snails were fattened for human consumption using corn flour and aromatic herbs. People usually raised snails in pens near the house, and these pens were called “cochlea”.

“Wall fish” were also often eaten in Britain, but were never as popular as on the continent. People sometimes ate snails during Lent, and in a few places, they consumed large quantities of snails at Carnival, as a foretaste of Lent.

U.S. imports of snails were worth more than $4.5 million in 1995 and came from 24 countries. This includes preserved or prepared snails and snails that are live, fresh, chilled, or frozen. Major exporters to the U.S. are France, Indonesia, Greece and China. So people do eat snails in the U.S., but in my experience a great many turn their noses up at them as hideously disgusting as food. Here we run up against food prejudice. Lots of people look at snails much as they do oysters, insects, and even offal (especially tripe), making the gargantuanly ethnocentric assumption that these things are inherently distasteful, and, therefore, anyone who eats them is weird. I’ve heard people say things like, “it was a very brave person who ate the first oyster.” How stupid can you be? Foragers (hunters and gatherers) eat whatever is edible. It’s not that they are stuck for enough to eat, it’s that their overall diet is much broader than that of sedentary peoples.

sfu sfa

I’m not going to say that I find every food available in the world completely delectable. I’ve struggled a little sometimes with brains on toast. That’s because of the texture, not the idea. There’s plenty of slimy foods in Asia that don’t appeal to me even though the ingredients are straightforward. I just have a thing about certain textures. I can eat oysters all day because their texture does not bother me. My very narrow distaste may come from the fact that my mum used to make junket (a rennet custard) when I was a little boy, and I didn’t like it. I did eat it though. When my son was little we had a house rule – you cannot refuse a dish until you have tasted it. Fortunately, in that regard he was quite strange enough. He still won’t eat things made with eggs (including cake), or mushrooms, but finds duck tongue and pig stomach perfectly tasty.


In French culture, snails for cooking are typically purged (voided of unpleasant intestinal matter), killed, removed from their shells, and cooked (usually with garlic butter, chicken soup or wine), and then placed back into the shells with the butter and sauce for serving. Additional ingredients may be added, such as garlic, thyme, parsley and pine nuts. Special snail tongs (for holding the shell) and snail forks (for extracting the meat) are also normally provided, and the snails are served on indented metal trays with places for six or 12 snails. In Maltese cuisine, snails  of the petit gris variety are simmered in red wine or ale with mint, basil and marjoram. The snails are cooked, and served in their shells.


Like most molluscs, escargots are high in protein and low in fat content (if cooked without butter). Snails are estimated to contain around 15% protein, 2.4% fat and about 80% water, although this depends on the method of preservation. I expect that many readers will have trouble finding fresh snails in the market. Even buying them canned can be difficult in some places. I’m a little spoiled in that in Argentina, China, and (now) Italy, I have no problems. Canned work fine, and you don’t absolutely need the shells either (they’re mostly decorative). Here’s two-fer.


Escargots à la Bourguignonne


1 clove garlic
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp finely minced shallot
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp dry white wine
12 to 16 snails
kosher salt (for stabilizing snail shells)
12 to 16 sterilized snail shells


Preheat oven to 450°F.

Mince and mash the garlic to a paste with a small amount of table salt. Beat together the butter, shallot, garlic paste, parsley, and pepper to taste in a small bowl. You can use a hand electric mixer or immersion blender if you are lazy. Just be sure that the ingredients are combined thoroughly. Then beat in the wine to combine.

Divide up half the butter mix between the shells, put one shell in each shell, then top up with the remaining butter mix. Spread ample kosher salt in a shallow baking dish and nest the shells in it with the open sides up.

Bake the snails until the butter is sizzling. This should only take about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with crusty bread – 4 to 6 per person as an appetizer.

Snails and Mushrooms


6 fl oz crème fraîche
8 oz black mushrooms
1 tbsp minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (7-oz) can snails (18 to 24 snails), rinsed and drained
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp finely chopped chives
1 tsp finely chopped tarragon
1 tbsp unsalted butter
salt and pepper


Simmer the crème fraîche with the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste in a heavy medium saucepan, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender – about 10 minutes.

Reduce the heat to low, add the snails, herbs, and butter, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the snails are heated through – 1 to 2 minutes. Serve in small bowls.

May 032016


Today is the birthday (1446) of Margaret of York  – also by marriage known as Margaret of Burgundy – the duchess of Burgundy as the third wife of Charles the Bold, and protector of the duchy after his death. She was a daughter of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and the sister of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. She was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in England, and she died at Mechelen in Flanders, an important center for the duchy of Burgundy in the 15th century. What follows is my usual dribble about historical events and machinations centered on Margaret. But I can sum it up in a simple generalization, and you can skip to my recipe for white asparagus if you are not interested in the details. Nations such as England, France, Belgium, and Holland were not created by God soon after he separated sea and dry land on the third day of creation; they are artifacts of history emerging from an incredibly complex series of events occurring over hundreds of years. In the 15th century circumstances were remarkably fluid, with kingdoms and duchies vying for territory, money, and power. Sometimes women were simply pawns in the game, being used simply as marriage partners to cement ties between power blocs.  Margaret refused to be a pawn; she wanted to be an active agent for change and to be actively involved in contemporary  power relationships.

Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, the mother of Charles the Bold, was, through her blood-ties and her perception of Burgundian interests, pro-English. As a granddaughter of John of Gaunt, she was consequently sympathetic to the House of Lancaster. She believed that Burgundian trade, from which the duchy drew its vast wealth, depended upon friendly relations with England. For this reason she was prepared to favor any English faction which was willing to favor Burgundy. By 1454, she favored the House of York, headed by Margaret’s father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Although the King of England, Henry VI, was the head of the House of Lancaster, his wife, Margaret of Anjou, was a niece of Burgundy’s bitter enemy, Charles VII of France, and was herself an enemy of the Burgundians. The Duke of York, by contrast, shared Burgundy’s enmity towards the French, and preferred the Burgundians. Thus, when the Duke of York came to power in 1453–54, during Henry VI’s first period of insanity, negotiations were made between himself and Isabella for a marriage between Charles the Bold, then Count of Charolais, and one of York’s unmarried daughters, of whom the 8-year old Margaret was the youngest. The negotiations petered out, however, due to power struggles in England, and the preference of Charles’s father, Philip the Good, for a French alliance. Philip had Charles betrothed to Isabella of Bourbon, the daughter of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon, and Agnes of Burgundy, in late March 1454, and the pair were married on 31 October 1454.


Margaret, being a useful bargaining tool to her family, was still unmarried at age 19, when Isabella of Bourbon died in September 1465. She had borne Charles a daughter, Mary, which made it an imperative for him to remarry and father a son. The situation had changed since 1454. Charles was now highly respected by his father, who had in his old age entrusted the rule of Burgundy to his son. Charles was pro-English, and wished to make an English marriage and alliance against the French. For her own part, Margaret’s family was far more powerful and secure than it had been in 1454: her father had been killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, but her brother was now Edward IV, opposed ineffectively only by Margaret of Anjou and her son, Edward of Westminster. This made Margaret a far more valuable bride than she had been as the mere daughter of a duke. Because of this, Charles sent his close advisor, Guillaume de Clugny, to London weeks after the death of his wife, to propose to Edward IV a marriage between Charles and Margaret. Edward responded warmly, and in the Spring of 1466 sent his brother-in-law, Lord Scales, to Burgundy, where Scales made a formal offer of Margaret’s hand in marriage to Charles, and put forward Edward’s own proposal of a reciprocal marriage between Charles’s daughter Mary and Edward’s brother, George, 1st Duke of Clarence.

The marriage did not take place immediately, however. Continued talks were required, particularly since Charles was unwilling to marry his only child and potential heiress to Clarence, and these talks were undertaken by Anthony, Grand Bastard of Burgundy, Charles’ half-brother. But added problems were introduced by the French: Louis XI did not want an alliance between Burgundy and England, his two greatest enemies. Louis accordingly tried to break the two apart, by offering the hand of his elder daughter, Anne, to Charles, that of his younger daughter, Joan, to Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and that of his brother-in-law, Philip of Bresse, to Margaret. Edward showed interest in the latter two propositions, offending Charles the Bold, and delaying Anglo-Burgundian relations.

Instead, in 1466, Margaret was betrothed to Peter, Constable of Portugal, whom the rebellious Catalans had invited to become their king. Peter was himself a nephew of Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, and the betrothal thus signified an attempt to placate Burgundy. It was not to be, however. Worn out by illness, disappointments, and overwork, Peter died on 29 June 1466, leaving Margaret available once more.


By 1467, the situation had changed again. Philip the Good had died, and Charles the Bold had become Duke of Burgundy. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had turned against Edward IV, and was plotting against him with French support. Edward in such circumstances needed the support of Charles, and provided no further obstacles to the marriage negotiations, formally agreeing to it in October 1467. Negotiations between the duke’s mother, Isabella, and the king of England’s in-laws, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers, then proceeded between December 1467 and June 1468. During this time, Louis XI did all he could to prevent the marriage, demanding that the Pope refuse to give a dispensation for the marriage (the pair were cousins in the fourth degree which was incestuous under contemporary church law), promising trade favors to the English, undermining Edward’s credit with the international bankers to prevent him being able to pay for Margaret’s dowry, encouraging a Lancastrian invasion of Wales, and slandering Margaret, claiming that she was not a virgin and had borne a bastard son. He was ignored, however, a dispensation was secured after Burgundian bribes secured papal acquiescence, and a complex agreement was drawn up between England and Burgundy, covering mutual defense, trade, currency exchange, fishing rights and freedom of travel, all based on the marriage between the duke and Margaret. By the terms of the marriage contract, Margaret retained her rights to the English throne, and her dowry was promised to Burgundy even if she died within the first year (often, the dowry would return to the bride’s family under such circumstances). For his own part, Charles dowered Margaret with the cities of Mechelen, Oudenaarde, and Dendermonde.


The marriage contract was completed in February 1468, and signed by Edward IV in March. The Papal dispensation arrived in late May, and preparations to send Margaret to Burgundy began. There was little enthusiasm for it outside Burgundy; the French naturally detested this union between their two enemies, whilst the English merchants, who still suffered from restrictions on the sale of their cloth in England, showed their disapproval by attacking Dutch and Flemish merchants amongst them.

Margaret left Margate for Sluys on 23rd June 1468. Lord Scales and Richard Boyville were among those who escorted her to meet her future bridegroom. Despite Louis XI having ordered his ships to seize her on her journey, her convoy crossed without incident, reaching Sluys on the evening of the 25th. The following day, she met with her bridegroom’s mother, Isabella, and daughter, Mary. The meeting was a great success, and the three of them remained close friends for the rest of their lives. On 27 June, she met Charles for the first time, and the pair were privately married between 5am and 6am on 3 July, in the house of a wealthy merchant of Damme. Charles then left for Bruges, allowing the new duchess the honor of entering separately a few hours later.

The celebrations that followed were extravagant even by the standards of the Burgundians, who were already noted for their opulence and generous festivities. The bride made her Joyous Entry in a golden litter drawn by white horses, wearing a coronet. During this procession, she charmed the burghers of Bruges when she chose to wave to them rather than shut herself away from the wind and rain. In the city itself, wine spurted freely from sculpted archers and artificial pelicans in artificial trees; the canals were decorated with torches, and the bridges decked with flowers; the arms of the happy couple were displayed everywhere, accompanied by the mottoes of the pair: Charles’ Je l’ay emprins (“I have undertaken it”) and Margaret’s Bien en aviengne (“May good come of it”). The celebrations also included the “Tournament of the Golden Tree” that was arranged around an elaborately detailed allegory, designed to honor the bride.


When the duke and duchess appeared there, both wore magnificent crowns: Margaret’s crown (made in about 1461) was adorned with pearls, and with enameled white roses for the House of York set between red, green and white enameled letters of her name, with gold Cs and Ms, entwined with lovers’ knots (it can still be seen in the treasury at Aachen Cathedral). The removal of the crown to Aachen was significant, since it allowed its survival from the ravages of the later English Civil War which involved the destruction of all the main English Crown Jewels. It thus remains the only medieval royal British crown still surviving.

Charles wore an equally splendid crown, accompanied by a golden gown encrusted with diamonds, pearls and great jewels. The parades, the streets lined with tapestry hung from houses, the feasting, the masques and allegorical entertainments, the jewels, impressed all observers as “the marriage of the century”. It is reenacted at Bruges for tourists every five years with the next event in 2017, the last one having taken place in August 2012.


Although the marriage produced no children, Margaret proved a valuable asset to Burgundy. Immediately after her wedding, she journeyed with her stepdaughter Mary through Flanders, Brabant and Hainaut, visiting the great towns: Ursel, Ghent, Dendermonde, Asse, Brussels, Oudenaarde and Kortrijk were all impressed by her political shrewdness and capability. Less valuable, perhaps, were the family connections she brought. In 1469, her brother, Edward IV, attempted to present Charles the Bold with the Order of the Garter, an honor which would have made Charles guilty of treason against Louis XI had he accepted it. The dowager duchess, Isabella, warned her son to refuse the offer, which he did, in order not to give Louis XI an excuse for further machinations against Burgundy. In the same year, Edward IV and his brother the Duke of Gloucester were forced to flee England, when their brother the Duke of Clarence, and his father-in-law the Earl of Warwick, rebelled and drove the king into exile. Charles was forced to intercede on the part of his brother-in-law, ordering the London merchants to swear loyalty to Edward under threat of losing their trading rights in Burgundy, a threat that proved successful. But the next year, Margaret was left despairing when Clarence and Warwick supported a French-backed Lancastrian invasion of England: although she, together with her mother Cecily, Dowager Duchess of York, attempted to reconcile Clarence and Edward IV, the rebellion continued, and on 2nd October 1470 the Lancastrians were returned to power and Edward had to Margaret and Charles in Burgundy.


Her brother’s overthrow lessened Margaret’s dynastic worth; this, together with regard for her brother, made her plead for her husband to support Edward and make measures to restore him. Nonetheless, Charles paid little attention to her and decided to support Edward only when it was in his best interests to oppose the Lancastrian rule of England, backed as it was by a France which had in early December 1470 been encouraged by the English situation to declare war on Burgundy. Even so, by 4th January 1471, Charles had agreed to support the King-in-exile in regaining the English throne, and this renewal of friendship between the two men was followed by Edward visiting Margaret at Hesdin until 13th January, the first time the pair had seen one another since Margaret’s departure from England.

By April, Edward was back in England: Margaret followed events carefully, requesting meticulous details of events in England, and was pleased to note the reconciliation between Clarence and Edward. She also provided her mother-in-law, Isabel, with information on the progress of Edward’s campaign to regain the throne. It was she, for example, who replied to Isabel’s questions over alleged disrespectful treatment of the Earl of Warwick, by explaining that Edward had “heard that nobody in the city believed that Warwick and his brother were dead, so he [Edward] had their bodies brought to St Paul’s where they were laid out and uncovered from the chest upwards in the sight of everybody.” Edward IV was successfully restored; Edward of Westminster, the son and heir of Henry VI, had died in battle, and Henry VI, who had been briefly restored, died in his cell in the Tower of London two weeks later. The two deaths brought to an end the direct line of the House of Lancaster.

By this time, Isabella’s health was beginning to fail; in June 1471, she drew up her will, in which she bequeathed her favorite residence of La-Motte-au-Bois to Margaret. Yet, at the same time, Isabella and Charles struck against Margaret’s family: with Henry VI and his son dead, Isabella was one of the most senior members of the House of Lancaster, and had a good claim to the English throne. She legally transferred this claim to Charles in July, which would allow Charles later that year to officially claim the English throne, in spite of the fact that his brother-in-law, Edward IV was king. Eventually he dropped the claim.

By 1477, Margaret’s position as duchess of Burgundy was no longer as brilliant as it had been. After Isabella’s death in 1471, Charles had become increasingly tyrannical and grandiose, dreaming of assembling a kingdom of Lotharingia from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. To accomplish this, he warred continuously with his neighbors, who responded by allying against him. Meanwhile, Louis XI had proved masterful at destabilizing the duchy: Edward IV had been detached from his alliance, Charles’ reputation and banking credit had been undermined by Louis, and Burgundian trade was choked by French embargoes. By 1476, the duke was regarded as a tyrant by his people, who were suffering from the French refusal to export their wine and bread to Burgundy, and who dreaded his terrible reprisals against rebels being unleashed on them. In 1476, he arranged for his daughter and heiress, Mary, to be betrothed to Maximilian of Habsburg. On 5th January 1477, he died in battle outside Nancy, in Lorraine.

It was in the wake of her husband’s death that Margaret proved invaluable to Burgundy. She had always been regarded as a skilful and intelligent politician; now, she went beyond even that. She gave guidance and help to her stepdaughter, Mary, now Duchess of Burgundy, using her own experiences in the court of Edward IV, where she had largely avoided being used as a pawn and contributed to the arrangement of her own marriage. She guided Mary in choosing a suitable marriage partner in the face of marriage offers that flooded the two duchesses in Ghent (especially from the recently widowed duke of Clarence, from the 7-year old Dauphin of France, Charles, and from a brother of Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville). She stood firm, and advised Mary to marry Maximilian of Habsburg, the 18-year-old son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, to whom Charles the Bold had betrothed Mary, and who was ambitious and active enough, in Margaret’s opinion, to defend Mary’s legacy. She strongly advised Mary to accept Maximilian’s suit, and marry him immediately. He arrived in Burgundy on 5th August 1477, and by 17th August had arrived at Ten Waele Castle, in Ghent. He met Mary there – they were both “pale as death”, but found each other to their mutual liking – and Margaret took part in the traditional courtly games of love, telling Maximilian before the assembled nobility that his bride “had about her a carnation it behoved him to discover.” The carnation duly proved to be in the duchess’s bodice, from which Maximilian carefully removed it. The pair were married the next day, on 18th August.


Burgundy was far from safe: the duchy of Burgundy itself had already been conquered by the French, who were continuing to attack from all sides, taking advantage of the state’s instability. Margaret now moved to secure military support from her brother, Edward IV. He sent enough support to allow Mary and Maximilian to resist the French advances any further, although the Duchy itself remained lost. Louis XI, recognizing the danger Margaret posed to him, attempted to buy her off with a French pension and a promise of personally protecting her. She contemptuously refused, and instead sailed in summer 1480 to London, where she was again attended by Richard Boyville and negotiated a resumption of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and renewed trade. When, on 22 July 1478, Mary gave birth to a son and heir, Philip, Louis XI had rumors spread that the child was in fact a girl. Margaret, who was standing godmother to the child, matter-of-factly disproved the rumor: as the christening party left the church of St Donat, she conclusively proved that the child was an undoubted male, by undressing him and presenting him to the assembled crowd. In 1480, the next child of Mary and Maximilian was a girl: the duke and duchess named her Margaret, after the dowager duchess.

Margaret was however dealt a devastating blow in 1482: her stepdaughter, Mary, fell from her horse whilst hunting, and broke her back. The injuries were fatal, and Mary died on 27 March. From a personal standpoint, this was a harsh blow to Margaret because politically, Mary’s death weakened the Burgundian state further. The Burgundians were now sick of war, and unwilling to accept the rule of Maximilian as regent for his son, the 4-year old duke Philip, or even as guardian of the children. They forced his hand: on 23 December 1482, the Three Estates of the Lowlands signed the Treaty of Arras with Louis XI, granting him the Burgundian Lowlands, Picardy, and the county of Boulogne. Margaret was unable to secure assistance from Edward IV, who had made a truce with France. Consequently, she and Maximilian were forced to accept the fait accompli. Maximilian brokered a personal peace with Louis by arranging for his daughter, Margaret, to be betrothed to the young Dauphin of France. She was sent to be raised at the French court, taking with her the Free County of Burgundy and the County of Artois as a dowry.


This was not the end of the problems for Margaret and Maximilian: the Netherlanders still disliked his rule of the territory. In 1488, he was taken prisoner in Bruges by the citizens, and was freed only upon making far-reaching concessions. The next year, he was summoned back to Austria by his father, the Emperor. Burgundy was left to be governed by Margaret together with the Burgundian Estates, both of whom also undertook the guardianship of the young Duke Philip, although Maximilian continued to take a distant interest in the country, and a greater interest in his children.

By this time, Margaret had already suffered more personal tragedies. Her brother, the Duke of Clarence, had been executed by Edward IV in 1478. Edward himself had died of illness in 1483 and finally, her younger brother Richard, who took the throne as Richard III was, in 1485, killed at the Battle of Bosworth by the leader of the House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a cousin and nephew of Henry VI, who went on to become Henry VII, and to marry the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. With the death of Richard, the House of York ceased to rule in England. Margaret consequently was a staunch supporter of anyone willing to challenge Tudor, and backed both Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, even going so far as to acknowledge Warbeck as her nephew, the younger son of Edward IV, the Duke of York. Warbeck was probably an imposter, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and subsequently executed by Henry VII. Henry undoubtedly found Margaret problematic, but there was little he could do, since she was protected by her stepson-in-law Maximilian. She died on 23rd November 1503, at the age of 57, shortly after the return of her step-grandson, Philip the Handsome, to Burgundy.

So much for royal politics in Europe in the 15th century. It’s all very complicated, but amounts, simply, to the fact that in England and on the continent, no one could ever agree as to what territory belonged to whom, and the nobility, all related to one another by blood, marriage, or both, seemed endlessly willing to fight it out. Margaret of York stands out in all of this as a strong and powerful woman always willing to look out for her own wellbeing.

Margaret died in Mechelen which is now in Flanders in Belgium, then part of the duchy of Burgundy.  For centuries it was the center of market gardening, and then as now produced white asparagus, for which it was famous. Here is a well-known recipe for Flemish white asparagus.


Asperges op Vlaamse wijze


24 white asparagus stalks
4 eggs (2 hard-boiled and 2 poached or soft-boiled)
fresh, finely chopped parsley
150g clarified butter
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper


Peel the asparagus stalks from the base of the tips to the end of the stalks using a vegetable peeler. Bundle them together with butcher’s twine and stand them upright in lightly boiling water with the spears out of the water. Let them cook for about 10 minutes (the tips are tender and will cook in the steam).

Meanwhile, gently heat the clarified butter in a small saucepan. Mash the hard-boiled eggs (do not purée) with a potato masher, as you would for egg salad. Place the mashed eggs in the clarified butter with a handful of fresh parsley leaves finely chopped. Do not use the parsley stalks. Season to taste with salt and finely ground black pepper.

Place the asparagus on a heated serving plate. Spoon the butter, parsley, egg mix over the asparagus and break the soft-cooked eggs over the lot so that the runny yolk mixes with the parsley sauce.  Finish off with a scattering of freshly ground nutmeg.

Serves 4 to 6

Jan 282016


The Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men) or Bal des Sauvages was a masquerade ball held on this date in 1393 in Paris at which Charles VI of France performed in a dance with five members of the French nobility. Four of the dancers were killed in a fire caused when a torch brought in by Charles’s brother, Louis, Duke of Orléans, caught the highly flammable costumes on fire. Charles and another of the dancers, the noble knight Ogier de Nantouillet survived. The event undermined confidence in Charles’s capacity to rule. Parisians considered it proof of courtly decadence and threatened to rebel against the more powerful members of the nobility.

Charles’s wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, held the ball to honor the remarriage of a lady-in-waiting. Scholars believe it may have been a traditional charivari, with the dancers disguised as wild men, mythical beings often associated with demonology, that were commonly represented in medieval Europe and documented in revels of Tudor England. The event was chronicled by contemporary writers such as the Monk of St Denis and Jean Froissart, and illustrated in a number of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts by painters such as the Master of Anthony of Burgundy. The incident later provided inspiration for the main scene in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hop-Frog” (http://poestories.com/read/hop-frog )

In 1380, after the death of his father, Charles V of France, the 12-year-old Charles VI was crowned king, beginning his minority with his four uncles acting as regents. Two years later, one of them, Philip of Burgundy, described by historian Robert Knecht as “one of the most powerful princes in Europe,” became sole regent to the young king after Louis of Anjou pillaged the royal treasury and departed to campaign in Italy. Charles’s other two uncles, John of Berry and Louis of Bourbon, showed little interest in governing. In 1387, the 20-year-old Charles assumed sole control of the monarchy and immediately dismissed his uncles and reinstated the Marmousets, his father’s traditional counselors. Unlike his uncles, the Marmousets wanted peace with England, less taxation, and a strong, responsible central government—policies that resulted in a negotiated three-year truce with England, and the Duke of Berry being stripped of his post as governor of Languedoc because of his excessive taxation.


In 1392 Charles suffered the first in a lifelong series of attacks of mental illness, manifested by an “insatiable fury” at the attempted assassination of the Constable of France and leader of the Marmousets, Olivier de Clisson—carried out by Pierre de Craon but orchestrated by John V, Duke of Brittany. Convinced that the attempt on Clisson’s life was also an act of violence against himself and the monarchy, Charles quickly planned a retaliatory invasion of Brittany with the approval of the Marmousets, and within months departed Paris with a force of knights.

On a hot August day outside Le Mans, accompanying his forces on the way to Brittany, without warning Charles drew his weapons and charged his own household knights including his brother Louis I, Duke of Orléans—with whom he had a close relationship—crying “Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!” He killed four men before his chamberlain grabbed him by the waist and subdued him, after which he fell into a coma that lasted for four days. Few believed he would recover. his uncles, the dukes of Burgundy and Berry, took advantage of the king’s illness and quickly seized power, re-established themselves as regents, and dissolved the Marmouset council.


The comatose king was returned to Le Mans, where Guillaume de Harsigny—a venerated and well-educated 92-year-old physician—was summoned to treat him. After Charles regained consciousness, and his fever subsided, he was returned to Paris by Harsigny, moving slowly from castle to castle, with periods of rest in between. Late in September Charles was well enough to make a pilgrimage of thanks to Notre Dame de Liesse near Laon after which he returned again to Paris.

The king’s sudden onset of insanity was seen by some as a sign of divine anger and punishment and by others as the result of sorcery. Modern historians speculate that Charles may have been experiencing the onset of paranoid schizophrenia. Charles continued to be mentally fragile, believing he was made of glass, and according to historian Desmond Seward, running “howling like a wolf down the corridors of the royal palaces.” Contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart wrote that the king’s illness was so severe that he was “far out of the way; no medicine could help him.” During the worst of his illness Charles was unable to recognize his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, demanding her removal when she entered his chamber, but after his recovery Charles made arrangements for her to hold guardianship of their children. Queen Isabeau eventually became guardian to her son—the future Charles VII of France— (b. 1403), granting her great political power and ensuring a place on the council of regents in event of a relapse.


In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century the historian Barbara Tuchman writes that the physician Harsigny, refusing “all pleas and offers of riches to remain,” left Paris and ordered the courtiers to shield the king from the duties of government and leadership. He told the king’s advisors to “be careful not to worry or irritate him …. Burden him with work as little as you can; pleasure and forgetfulness will be better for him than anything else.” To surround Charles with a festive atmosphere and to protect him from the rigors of governing, the court turned to elaborate amusements and extravagant fashions. Isabeau and her sister-in-law Valentina Visconti, Duchess of Orléans, wore jewel-laden dresses and elaborate braided hairstyles coiled into tall shells and covered with wide double hennins that reportedly required doorways to be widened to accommodate them.


The common people thought the extravagances excessive yet loved their young king, whom they called Charles le bien-aimé (the well-beloved). Blame for unnecessary excess and expense was directed at the foreign queen, who was brought from Bavaria at the request of Charles’ uncles. Neither Isabeau nor her sister-in-law Valentina—daughter of the ruthless Duke of Milan—were well liked by either the court or the people. Froissart wrote in his Chronicles that Charles’s uncles were content to allow the frivolities because “so long as the Queen and the Duc d’Orléans danced, they were not dangerous or even annoying.”

On 28 January 1393, Isabeau held a masquerade at the Hôtel Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting, Catherine de Fastaverin. Tuchman explains that a widow’s remarriage was traditionally an occasion for mockery and tomfoolery, often celebrated with masquerades or charivari characterized by “all sorts of licence, disguises, disorders, and loud blaring of discordant music and clanging of cymbals.” On the suggestion of Huguet de Guisay, whom Tuchman describes as well known for his “outrageous schemes” and cruelty, six high-ranking knights performed a dance in costume as wood savages. The costumes, which were sewn on to the men, were made of linen soaked with resin to which flax was attached “so that they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot.” Masks made of the same materials covered the dancers’ faces and hid their identities from the audience. Some chronicles report that the dancers were bound together by chains. Most of the audience were unaware that Charles was among the dancers. Strict orders forbade the lighting of hall torches and prohibited anyone from entering the hall with a torch during the performance, to minimize the risk of the highly flammable costumes catching fire.


According to historian Jan Veenstra the men capered and howled “like wolves”, spat obscenities and invited the audience to guess their identities while dancing in a “diabolical” frenzy. Charles’s brother, Orléans, arrived with Phillipe de Bar, late and drunk, and they entered the hall carrying lit torches. Accounts vary, but Orléans may have held his torch above a dancer’s mask to reveal his identity when a spark fell, setting fire to the dancer’s leg. In the 17th century, William Prynne wrote of the incident that “the Duke of Orleance … put one of the Torches his servants held so neere the flax, that he set one of the Coates on fire, and so each of them set fire on to the other, and so they were all in a bright flame,” whereas a contemporary chronicle stated that he threw the torch at one of the dancers.


Isabeau, knowing that her husband was one of the dancers, fainted when the men caught fire. Charles, however, was standing at a distance from the other dancers, near his 15-year-old aunt Joan, Duchess of Berry, who swiftly threw her voluminous skirt over him to protect him from the sparks. Sources disagree as to whether the duchess moved into the dance and drew the king aside to speak to him, or whether the king moved away toward the audience. Froissart wrote that “The King, who proceeded ahead of [the dancers], departed from his companions … and went to the ladies to show himself to them … and so passed by the Queen and came near the Duchess of Berry.”


The scene soon descended into chaos; the dancers shrieked in pain as they burned in their costumes, and the audience, many of them also sustaining burns, screamed as they tried to rescue the burning men. The event was chronicled in uncharacteristic vividness by the Monk of St Denis, who wrote that “four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood.” Only two dancers survived: the king, thanks to the quick reactions of the Duchess of Berry, and the Sieur de Nantouillet, who jumped into an open vat of wine and remained there until the flames were extinguished. The Count de Joigny died at the scene; Yvain de Foix and Aimery Poitiers, son of the Count of Valentinois, lingered with painful burns for two days. The designer of the dance, Huguet de Guisay, survived a day longer, described by Tuchman as bitterly “cursing and insulting his fellow dancers, the dead and the living, until his last hour.”

The citizens of Paris, angered by the event and at the danger posed to their monarch, blamed Charles’s advisors. A “great commotion” swept through the city as the populace threatened to depose Charles’s uncles and kill dissolute and depraved courtiers. Greatly concerned at the popular outcry and worried about a repeat of the Maillotin revolt of the previous decade—when Parisians armed with mallets turned against tax collectors—Charles’s uncles persuaded the court to do penance at Notre Dame Cathedral, preceded by an apologetic royal progress through the city in which the king rode on horseback with his uncles walking in humility. Orléans, who was blamed for the tragedy, donated funds in atonement for a chapel to be built at the Celestine monastery.

Froissart’s chronicle of the event places blame directly on Charles’ brother, Orléans. He wrote: “And thus the feast and marriage celebrations ended with such great sorrow … [Charles] and [Isabeau] could do nothing to remedy it. We must accept that it was no fault of theirs but of the duke of Orléans.” Orléans’ reputation was severely damaged by the event, compounded by an episode a few years earlier in which he was accused of sorcery after hiring an apostate monk to imbue a ring, dagger and sword with demonic magic. The theologian Jean Petit would later testify that Orléans practiced sorcery, and that the fire at the dance represented a failed attempt at regicide made in retaliation for Charles’ attack the previous summer.


The Bal des Ardents added to the impression of a court steeped in extravagance, with a king in delicate health and unable to rule. Charles’ attacks of illness increased in frequency such that by the end of the 1390s his role was merely ceremonial. By the early 15th century he was neglected and often forgotten, a lack of leadership that contributed to the decline and fragmentation of the Valois dynasty. In 1407, Philip the Bold’s son, John the Fearless, had Orléans assassinated because of “vice, corruption, sorcery, and a long list of public and private villainies”; at the same time Isabeau was accused of having been the mistress of her husband’s brother. Orléans’ assassination pushed the country into a civil war between the Burgundians and the Orléanists (known as the Armagnacs), which lasted for several decades. The vacuum created by the lack of central power and the general irresponsibility of the French court resulted in it gaining a reputation for lax morals and decadence that endured for more than 200 years.

I have chosen a recipe for waffles (gaufres) from Le Ménagier de Paris, a 14th century French manuscript. Waffles were very popular in the Middle Ages in France. They were made using waffle irons in much the same way as they are made today.

Gauffres sont faites par quatre manières L’une que l’en bat des œufs en une jatte, et puis du sel et du vin, et gette-l’en de la fleur, et destremper l’un avec l’autre, et puis mettre en deux fers petit à petit, à chascune fois autant de paste comme une lesche de frommage est grande, et estraindre entre deux fers et cuire d’une part et d’autre; et se le fer ne se délivre bien de la paste, l’en l’oint avant d’un petit drappelet mouillé eu huille ou en sain.

La deuxième manière est comme la première, mais l’en y met du frommage, c’est assavoir que l’en estend la paste comme pour faire tartre ou pasté, puis met-l’en le frommage par 1’esches ou milieu et recueuvre-l’en les deux bors; ainsi demeure le frommage entre deux pastes et ainsi est mis entre deux fers.

La tierce manière, si est de gauffres couléisses, et sont dictes couléisses pour ce seulement que la paste est plus clère et est comme boulie clère, faicte comme dessus; et gecte-l’en avec, du fin frommage esmié à la gratuise; et tout mesler ensemble.

La quarte manière est de fleur pestrie à l eaue, sel et vin, sans œufs ne frommage

Waffles are made in four ways. First way, beat eggs in a bowl, then add salt and wine;sprinkle with flour and mix together.Then gradually fill two [waffle] irons with this mixture, no more than the equivalent of a cheese strip at a time, then tighten the two irons, and cook on both sides.If the dough does not come off easily from the iron, rub it first with a piece of cloth that has been soaked in oil or fat.

The second way is like the first, but add cheese, that is, spread the batter as though making a tart or pie, then put slices of cheese in the middle, and cover the edges. Thus the cheese stays within the batter and then you put it between two irons.

The third way gives dropped waffles, so called simply because the dough is more fluid;it is made ​​as above but with the consistency of a clear broth.Mix in the grated cheese.

The fourth way is to knead the flour with water, salt and wine, no eggs or cheese.

Well, I don’t have a waffle iron, so I made this recipe using the second method, with a skillet, much like a pancake.

First, make an egg batter as you would for pancakes or waffles. Here’s my version:


Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat, and pour in your batter. Cook until the top is no longer moist.


Place a slice of cheese on top.


Then cover with another layer of batter.


Cook the top under the broiler.


You can see that the finished product has two layers with melted cheese in the middle. Made a nice breakfast as I was writing. Bon appétit.

Aug 112015


Today is Independence Day in Chad, officially the Republic of Chad, marking the end of French colonial rule on this date in 1960. In the past I have not celebrated countries with poor human rights records, but a friend recently challenged this policy saying that (a) a country’s people should not necessarily be held responsible for the actions of its leaders, and (b) anniversaries of this sort are a chance to highlight abuses. So here is Chad.


Chad is a landlocked country in Central Africa. It borders Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest, and Niger to the west. Due to its distance from the sea and its largely desert climate, the country is sometimes referred to as the “Dead Heart of Africa.” The territory now known as Chad possesses some of the richest archaeological sites in Africa. A hominid skull was found by Michel Brunet in 2002 in Borkou that is more than 7 million years old, the oldest discovered anywhere in the world. It has been given the name Sahelanthropus tchadensis. In 1996 Brunet had unearthed a hominid jaw which he named Australopithecus bahrelghazali, and unofficially dubbed Abel. It was dated using beryllium based radiometric dating as living circa. 3.6 million years ago.


During the 7th millennium BCE, the northern half of Chad was part of a broad expanse of land, stretching from the Indus River in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, in which ecological conditions favored early human settlement. Rock art of the “Round Head” style, found in the Ennedi region, has been dated to before the 7th millennium BCE and, because of the tools with which the rocks were carved and the scenes they depict, may represent the oldest evidence in the Sahara of Neolithic industries. Many of the pottery-making and Neolithic activities in Ennedi date back further than any of those of the Nile Valley to the east. In prehistoric times, Chad was much wetter than it is today, as evidenced by large game animals depicted in rock paintings in the Tibesti and Borkou regions.

chad10 chad9 chad6 chad5

Recent linguistic research suggests that all of Africa’s major language groupings south of the Sahara Desert (except Khoisan), i. e. the Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger–Congo phyla, originated in prehistoric times in a narrow band between Lake Chad and the Nile Valley. The origins of Chad’s peoples, however, remain unclear. Several of the proven archaeological sites have been only partially studied, and other sites of great potential have yet to be explored.

Toward the end of the 1st millennium CE, the formation of states began across central Chad in the sahelian zone between the desert and the savanna. For almost the next 1,000 years, these states, their relations with each other, and their effects on the peoples who lived in stateless societies along their peripheries dominated Chad’s political history. Recent research suggests that indigenous Africans founded most of these states, not migrating Arabic-speaking groups, as was believed previously. Nonetheless, immigrants, Arabic-speaking or otherwise, played a significant role, along with Islam, in the formation and early evolution of these states.

Most states began as kingdoms, in which the king was considered divine and endowed with temporal and spiritual powers. All states were militaristic (or they did not survive long), but none was able to expand far into southern Chad, where forests and the tsetse fly complicated the use of cavalry. Control over the trans-Saharan trade routes that passed through the region formed the economic basis of these kingdoms. Although many states rose and fell, the most important and durable of the empires were Kanem-Bornu, Baguirmi, and Ouaddai, according to most written sources (mainly court chronicles and writings of Arab traders and travelers).


The Kanem Empire originated in the 9th century CE to the northeast of Lake Chad. Historians agree that the leaders of the new state were ancestors of the Kanembu people. Toward the end of the 11th century the Sayfawa king (or mai, the title of the Sayfawa rulers) Hummay, converted to Islam. In the following century the Sayfawa rulers expanded southward into Kanem, where was to rise their first capital, Njimi. Kanem’s expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (c. 1221–1259).

By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn Kanem apart. Finally, around 1396 the Bulala invaders forced Mai Umar Idrismi to abandon Njimi and move the Kanembu people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad. Over time, the intermarriage of the Kanembu and Bornu peoples created a new people and language, the Kanuri, and founded a new capital, Ngazargamu.


Kanem-Bornu peaked during the reign of Mai Idris Aluma (c. 1571–1603). Aluma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety. The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma sustained the empire until the mid-17th century, when its power began to fade. By the early 19th century, Kanem-Bornu was clearly an empire in decline, and in 1808 Fulani warriors conquered Ngazargamu. Bornu survived, but the Sayfawa dynasty ended in 1846 and the Empire itself fell in 1893.

In addition to Kanem-Bornu, two other states in the region, Baguirmi and Ouaddai, achieved historical prominence. Baguirmi emerged to the southeast of Kanem-Bornu in the 16th century. Islam was adopted, and the state became a sultanate. Absorbed into Kanem-Bornu, Baguirmi broke free later in the 17th century, only to be returned to tributary status in the mid-18th century. Early in the 19th century, Baguirmi fell into decay and was threatened militarily by the nearby kingdom of Ouaddai. Although Baguirmi resisted, it accepted tributary status in order to obtain help from Ouaddai in putting down internal dissension. When the capital was burned in 1893, the sultan sought and received protectorate status from the French.

Located northeast of Baguirmi, Ouaddai was a non-Muslim kingdom that emerged in the 16th century as an offshoot of the state of Darfur (in present-day Sudan). Early in the 12th century, groups in the region rallied to Abd al-Karim Sabun, who overthrew the ruling Tunjur group, transforming Ouaddai in an Islamic sultanate. During much of the 18th century, Ouaddai resisted reincorporation into Darfur.

In about 1804, under the rule of Sabun, the sultanate began to expand its power. A new trade route north was discovered, and Sabun outfitted royal caravans to take advantage of it. He began minting his own coinage and imported chain mail, firearms, and military advisers from North Africa. Sabun’s successors were less able than he, and Darfur took advantage of a disputed political succession in 1838 to put its own candidate in power. This tactic backfired when Darfur’s choice, Muhammad Sharif, rejected Darfur and asserted his own authority. In doing so, he gained acceptance from Ouaddai’s various factions and went on to become Ouaddai’s ablest ruler. Sharif eventually established Ouaddai’s hegemony over Baguirmi and kingdoms as far away as the Chari River. The Ouaddai opposed French domination until well into the 20th century.


The French first penetrated Chad in 1891, establishing their authority through military expeditions primarily against the Muslim kingdoms. The decisive colonial battle for Chad was fought on April 22, 1900 at the Battle of Kousséri between forces of French Major Amédée-François Lamy and forces of the Sudanese warlord Rabih az-Zubayr. Both leaders were killed in the battle. In 1905, administrative responsibility for Chad was placed under a governor-general stationed at Brazzaville, capital of French Equatorial Africa (AEF). Chad did not have separate colonial status until 1920, when it was placed under a lieutenant-governor stationed in Fort-Lamy (today N’Djamena).

Two fundamental themes dominated Chad’s colonial experience with the French: an absence of policies designed to unify the territory and an exceptionally slow pace of modernization. In the French scale of priorities, the colony of Chad ranked near the bottom, and the French came to perceive Chad primarily as a source of raw cotton and untrained labor to be used in the more productive colonies to the south. Throughout the colonial period, large areas of Chad were not governed effectively: in the huge BET Prefecture, the handful of French military administrators usually left the people alone, and in central Chad, French rule was only slightly more substantive. France managed to govern effectively only the south. During World War II, Chad was the first French colony to rejoin the Allies (August 26, 1940), after the defeat of France by Germany. Under the administration of Félix Éboué (lead photo), France’s first black colonial governor, a military column, commanded by Colonel Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, and including two battalions of Sara troops, moved north from Fort Lamy to engage Axis forces in Libya, where, in partnership with the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group, they captured Kufra.

After the war ended local parties started to develop in Chad. The first was the radical Chadian Progressive Party (PPT) in February 1947, initially headed by Panamanian born Gabriel Lisette, but from 1959 headed by François Tombalbaye. The more conservative Chadian Democratic Union (UDT) was founded in November 1947 and represented French commercial interests and a bloc of traditional leaders made up primarily of Muslim and Ouaddaïan nobility. The confrontation between the PPT and UDT was more than simply ideological; it represented different regional identities, with the PPT representing the Christian and animist south and the UDT the Islamic north.

The PPT won the May 1957 pre-independence elections thanks to a greatly expanded franchise, and Lisette led the government of the Territorial Assembly until he lost a confidence vote on 11 February 1959. After a referendum on territorial autonomy on 28 September 1958, French Equatorial Africa was dissolved, and its four constituent states – Gabon, Congo (Brazzaville), the Central African Republic, and Chad became autonomous members of the French Community from 28 November 1958. Following Lisette’s fall in February 1959 the opposition leaders Gontchome Sahoulba and Ahmed Koulamallah could not form a stable government, so the PPT was again asked to form an administration – which it did under the leadership of François Tombalbaye on 26 March 1959. On 12 July 1960 France agreed to Chad becoming fully independent. On 11 August 1960, Chad became an independent country and François Tombalbaye became its first President. Since then Chad has been torn apart by coups and attempted coups, civil war, external wars and interventions, insurgencies, brutal repression, civilian massacres, government corruption, and constant abuses of human rights. Nothing much new on the horizon.

Like most cuisines of central Africa, Chadians use a variety of grains, mainly millet sorghum and rice, vegetables, such as okra, tomatoes and cassava, and meats, including goat, mutton, beef and chicken. Fish is the most easily available protein in the region around Lake Chad. Here’s my version of a local goat stew. It’s not easy to find goat in the West. I used to find it frozen (in bony chunks) in an immigrant community in Rockland County, NY. It requires long, slow simmering to be tender, but it is very flavorful.


© Chadian Goat Stew

Over high heat in a deep, heavy skillet sauté, in a little vegetable oil, 1 Kg of goat meat cut in chunks until nicely browned on all sides. Add 3 onions coarsely chopped, 1 clove of garlic minced fine, 1 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg, 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 1 (8 ounce) can of tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste, and light stock to cover. Bring slowly to a gentle simmer and cook, covered for 2 hours or longer, until the meat is rags. Add more stock if the stew begins to dry out.

Add ½ cup of smooth peanut butter and stir well to incorporate. Heat through for about 20 minutes. Serve with boiled white rice.

Aug 272013


On this date in 1928 the Kellogg–Briand Pact (or Pact of Paris, officially General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy) was signed by France, the United States, and 13 other nations.  It was the brainchild of French foreign minister Aristide Briand, but codified and expanded by United States Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg. It was a most laudable effort in the aftermath of the First World War (known as “The Great War” at that time), to appeal to nations to resolve differences without resort to war.  I wholeheartedly applaud the effort, and have no difficulty celebrating the day, even though the effort was a complete failure.  I should note that the pact has never been repealed in the U.S. so, in some technical sense, it is still in force.

The guts of the Kellogg–Briand Pact are contained in the first two articles:

The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.

The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.

Kellogg was awarded the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to provide what he hoped would be a permanent end to war as an “instrument of national policy.” Well, you get an A for effort Frank. (Briand had already shared the Nobel Prize in 1926 for previous peace efforts)


The map below charts the worldwide signatories to the pact. Dark green represents the original signatories, light green represents subsequent signatories, and light blue represents dependent colonies of nations who signed, and were, therefore, legally bound as well.  I am interested to note that almost all of Latin America is conspicuous in its failure to sign on, mainly because Latin American nations were neutral during the First World War (following the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907). Only Brazil was directly involved and not until 1917.


French Minister of Foreign Affairs Aristide Briand’s initial proposal was for a peace pact as a bilateral agreement between the United States and France to outlaw war between them. Particularly hard hit by the First World War, France faced continuing insecurity from Germany and sought alliances to shore up its defenses. Briand published an open letter in April of 1927 containing the proposal. Though the suggestion had the enthusiastic support of some members of the U.S. peace movement, President Calvin Coolidge and Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg were less eager than Briand to enter into a bilateral arrangement. They worried that the agreement against war could be interpreted as a bilateral alliance and require the United States to intervene if France was ever threatened (which it was). To avoid this, Kellogg suggested that the two nations take the lead in inviting all nations to join them in outlawing war.  So, although Briand initiated the idea of a peace pact, it was Kellogg who broadened it to its global basis.


The original signatories were France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement by a vote of 85–1, though it did so only after making reservations to note that U.S. participation did not limit its right to self-defense or require it to act against signatories breaking the agreement – pretty much a “get out of jail free” card.

In reality the pact had zero impact on the signatories.  Makes one wonder why they bothered.  The following cartoon is perhaps a little obscure nowadays even with the handwritten legend “Innocents Abroad.” The intent is pretty clear, though.  Europe saw the U.S. as being naïvely paternalistic in its efforts in this regard.  Europe plays the dutiful child saying “yes, daddy” and then goes and does what it pleases.  It was naïve to expect such a pact to achieve anything, but I believe it was sincere.


The first major test of the pact came just a few years later in 1931, when the Mukden Incident led to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Though Japan had signed the pact, the combination of the worldwide depression and a limited desire to go to war to preserve China prevented the League of Nations or the United States from taking any action to enforce it. Further threats to the pact also came from fellow signatories Germany, Austria, and Italy. It soon became clear that there was no way to enforce the pact or sanction those who broke it; it also never fully defined what constituted “self-defense,” so there were many ways around its terms (including the avoidance of formal declarations of war). In the end, the Kellogg-Briand Pact did nothing to prevent World War II or any of the conflicts that followed. Its legacy remains as a statement of the idealism expressed by advocates for peace in the interwar period. Let us hope for a return to that idealism SOON.

I thought that French fries  would be a good choice for a recipe to celebrate a pact that came out of U.S./France negotiations.  I’m going to go two ways with this.  First I am going to give you my recipe (and notes) for perfect fries. Second, I am going to list a number of ways that French fries are served around the world (whatever they call them — let’s not fight!).

© Tío Juan’s Perfect French Fries

Starting notes:

Type of potato. Russet or Idaho potatoes are the classics in the U.S. They are in the category of mealy potatoes sometimes called floury potatoes.  You need to use the one available where you live.  King Edward used to be the classic in the U.K. Maris Peer and Maris Piper are newer varieties that work well. In other countries use a potato classified as a baking potato. Do not use waxy potatoes.

Peeling.  For a long time I never peeled potatoes at all, no matter what the dish.  I would simply scrub them well on the outside and then cut them, skins on, for whatever I needed them for.  Unpeeled French fries have a tasty, crispy skin side that has a slight earthiness to it.  These go well with rustic dishes.  Peeled French fries are a bit more refined, but also cleaner in taste.

Cutting. Style of cutting depends on personal preferences plus the nature of the dish the fries are to be served with. The general issue has to do with the ratio of crisp outer layer to tender insides.  Here I think it is cook’s choice plus some common sense.  Shoestring fries are ultra-thin, so they are crispy with almost no insides.  They are perhaps best as a snack or garnish.  “Regular” fries, the size you get in fast food joints, are multi-purpose, but best served with other fried foods. Wedges and steak fries, are big and hearty with lots of floury center.  They go well with robustly sauced dishes where you might otherwise use boiled or baked potatoes.

Fat.  What fat you choose depends to a large degree on how often you eat fried foods. I rarely do (maybe three or four times per year) so I have no problem making French fries with the most hideously artery clogging fats there are.  If you are more of a glutton for fried foods, you might want to go with healthier choices. Although it is a relatively modern trend, duck fat is unrivalled, producing crispy delicious fries.  Lard was the usual fat for British chippies when I used to eat in them in the 60’s, and is my fat of choice when I cannot get anything else.  If I cook a goose at Christmas I will use the plenteous fat from the baking dish for deep frying.   Otherwise, use oils that are low in saturated fats and trans-fat. Your best choices in this regard are safflower oil and canola oil.

Draining. This is a big issue for me.  Just about every recipe I ever read calls for draining cooked fries (and other deep fried foods) on paper towels. WRONG! If the food sits on paper towels the paper absorbs the fat but the fries then sit in the fat. Always drain fried food on a wire rack with a pan lined with paper towels underneath. If you like you can pat the fries with paper towels to remove excess, but that it is all.


1 ½ lbs potatoes (your choice)
cooking fat/oil (your choice)


Peel the potatoes or not as you choose. Cut the potatoes to the shape and size of your choice.  Put them in a colander or large sieve and rinse them under cold running water until the water runs clear. Put the potatoes in a bowl and cover them with cold water.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

You can use the fryer of your choice. You MUST have a way to accurately measure the temperature of the fat.

Preheat the fat/oil to 325°F/160°C

Drain the potatoes and dry them with a kitchen towel or paper towels.

Fry the potatoes in batches.  If you cook too many at a time the temperature of the fryer will drop too much.  Fry each batch for around 8 minutes, until the potatoes are limp and begin to turn color, about 6 minutes.  Drain on a wire rack (see notes). Cool to room temperature.

Reheat the oil/fat to 350°F/175°C. Fry the blanched potatoes in batches again until golden. This should not take more than 2 minutes.  Drain on a wire rack again, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Choice of toppings or condiments.

These are generalizations, more to give you the idea than hard and fast rules as to how people in a few different countries season their fries. Dip them in whatever you want, or douse them in anything tasty.

U.S.A. Tomato ketchup reigns supreme, of course, but don’t forget chili cheese fries – a healthy dose of chili (no beans) and grated cheese.


U.K. Of course British chips are not really French fries at all. The ones I am familiar with from fish and chip shops tend to be fat and rather limp – delicious, though.  The classic flavorings are malt vinegar and salt. If you let them put the salt on for you, you may well have a stroke.  In the Midlands of England it is common to eat chips with mushy peas (which are what the name suggests). It’s also common to get chips with curry sauce at both Chinese and Indian takeaways, although the style of curry is quite different at each.


Argentina. Tomato ketchup is common, but we also use salsa golf, which is a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise, sometimes with a touch of oregano.  You can also use chimichurri, a blend of chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano, and white or red wine vinegar.

Belgium and Holland. Mayonnaise is usual, but it is a richer, creamier mayonnaise than you get elsewhere.  Belgians also serve meat stews directly over French fries (see post 21 July).  Belgians claim they invented the French fry, which may or may not be true. The historical evidence is not very clear. Whatever the case, Belgians enjoy deep fried potatoes with a variety of meals, including formal ones.


Romania. In Romania, you can dip French fries in mujdei, a spicy sauce made with minced garlic cloves, salt, oil, vinegar, and a little bit of water. It’s rather liquid.

Canada. In Canada you can get poutine in quick food joints: fries smothered in beef gravy and topped with crumbled cheese curds.


Philippines. Banana ketchup is a common condiment.  It’s sweeter than tomato ketchup, and a little spicier.  Throughout SE Asia sweeter, spicier sauces are common.

Japan. There are spice mixes in Japan that are used as seasonings for plain rice that are used for fries also.  A blend of nori flakes with the shichimi togarashi (red chili pepper, orange peel, sesame seeds, Japanese pepper, ginger and seaweed) is common.

With fries there are no rules.  Any sauce works. Mayonnaise can be juiced up a hundred ways: curry powder, fines herbes, garlic . . . Or go with bearnaise sauce, tartar sauce, tzatziki, feta cheese, barbecue sauce, chicken gravy, brown sauce, lemon juice, piccalilli, pickled cucumber, gherkins, pickled onions (a fav of mine), fresh cheese curds of any variety. Mix and match. Try not to be dull in this life.

Jun 042013

roquefort caves2

Roquefort_Caves  roquefort caves

Today is traditionally held to be the day that Roquefort cheese was first made accidentally in the year 1070 near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the south of France, when a young shepherd boy, eating his lunch of curds, saw a beautiful girl in the distance. Abandoning his meal in a nearby cave, he set off to meet her. When he failed to catch her he returned home. Several months later he happened upon his abandoned, and now moldy, lunch and ate it out of pure hunger. It turned out to be delicious. Nice story. However, Roquefort is mentioned in literature as far back as 79, when Pliny the Elder remarked upon its rich flavor, and cheese making colanders have been discovered amongst the region’s prehistoric relics. Regardless of the date of invention, on June 4th 1411 Charles VI granted a monopoly for the ripening of the cheese to the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

The mould (Penicillium roqueforti) which gives Roquefort its distinctive character is found in the soil of the local caves. Traditionally the cheese makers extracted it by leaving bread in the caves for six to eight weeks until it was consumed by the mold. The interior of the bread was then dried to produce a powder which was mixed with the cheese curds, or injected into the unripe cheeses. In modern times the mold is grown in a laboratory, which allows for greater consistency.

Roquefort is made entirely from the milk of the Lacaune, Manech and Basco-Béarnaise breeds of sheep. Prior to regulations of 1925, a small amount of cow’s or goat’s milk was sometimes added. Now it must be 100% ewe’s milk.  A total of around 4.5 liters (9.5 pints) of milk are required to make one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of Roquefort.

European law ensures that only those cheeses aged in the natural Cambalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may bear the name Roquefort, as it has a protected designation of origin.  Regulations governing its production even within the designated region are very strict. These include:

•  All milk used must be delivered at least 20 days after lambing has taken place.
•  The sheep must be on pasture, whenever possible, in an area including most of Aveyron and parts of neighboring départements. At least 3/4 of the grain fed to the sheep must be grown in the same area
•  The milk must be whole, raw (not heated above 34 °C; 93.2 °F), and unfiltered except to remove macroscopic particles.
•  The addition of rennet must occur within 48 hours of milking.
•  The Penicillium roqueforti used in the production must be produced in France from the natural caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
•  The whole process of maturation, cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese must take place in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

We use the word “terroir” these days for such regulations, that is, food from a particular region has a unique taste by virtue of the soil that brings it forth.

Around 19,000 tons of Roquefort are produced annually (about 3 million cheeses), almost all of which is consumed within France where it is the second most popular cheese (after Comté). Spain is the largest importer with 1,000 tons annually.

Roquefort is an incredibly versatile cheese. I always have some in my refrigerator for cooking, or just as a snack on crackers.  You can crumble it into salads.  You can make a delectable sauce for steaks by melting Roquefort into heavy cream with a few chopped shallots.  This sauce also works well over pasta or raw oysters.  You can make a spread called Auld Alliance (celebrating historic treaties between Scotland and France – mostly to harass England), by pounding Roquefort to a paste and slowly adding Scotch whisky until the cheese will not absorb more.  Just about any recipe that uses cheese, such as quiche or soufflé, can be made with Roquefort.  Here’s a pureéd cauliflower and Roquefort soup recipe. The original was vegetarian, but I prefer chicken stock as the base.  For the vegetarian version, place the leftover trimmings from the cauliflower in a medium-sized saucepan with 2½ pints (1.5 litres) of water, and salt to taste. Bring it up to the boil and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Strain and discard the trimmings.

Cauliflower and Roquefort Soup


2½ pints (1.5 l) stock (chicken or vegetarian)
1 medium cauliflower
2 oz (50 g) Roquefort, crumbled into small pieces
2 bay leaves
1 oz (25 g) butter
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large leek, trimmed, washed, and chopped
4 oz (110 g) potato, peeled and chopped into dice
2 tablespoons  crème fraîche, (with extra for serving)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
snipped chives for garnish


In large saucepan with a well-fitting lid, melt the butter over a gentle heat.

Add the onion, celery, leek and potato. Cover and let the vegetables gently sweat for 15 minutes. Keep the heat very low.

Add the stock and the bay leaves and bring it to a simmer.

Cut the cauliflower into florets and discard the larger stems. Add them to the stock, and simmer very gently for 20-25 minutes, until the cauliflower is completely tender. Do not cover the pot.

Remove the bay leaves, then purée the soup in a food processor or blender and process until  smooth and creamy.

Return the soup to the saucepan. Stir in the crème fraîche and cheese and keep stirring until the cheese has melted and the soup is hot but not boiling.

Serve in hot bowls, garnished with a little more crème fraîche and chives.

Serves 4