Jul 132015


On this date in 1793 Charlotte Corday stabbed Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bath. Marat was a member of the radical Jacobin faction which had a leading role during the Reign of Terror. As a journalist, he exerted power and influence through his newspaper, L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”). Corday’s decision to kill Marat was stimulated not only by her revulsion at the September Massacres (part of the Reign of Terror), for which she held Marat responsible, but also by her fear of an all-out civil war. She believed that Marat was threatening the Republic, and that his death would end violence throughout the nation. She also believed that King Louis XVI should not have been executed (although in this case Marat had also been against it).

On 9 July 1793, Corday left her cousin’s (Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville’s) house in Caen where she lived, carrying a copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and went to Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. She bought a kitchen knife with a long blade, and then wrote her Addresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix (“Address to the French people, friends of Law and Peace”) to explain her motives for assassinating Marat.


Initially, she planned to assassinate Marat in front of the entire National Convention, intending to make an example out of him, but upon arriving in Paris she discovered that Marat no longer attended meetings because his health was deteriorating due to a serious and painful skin disorder. She was then forced to change her plan. She went to Marat’s home before noon on 13 July, claiming to have knowledge of a planned Girondist uprising in Caen; she was turned away by his wife, Simonne Evrard. On her return that evening, Marat admitted her. At the time, he conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of his skin condition. Marat wrote down the names of the Girondists that she gave to him, then she pulled out the knife and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He is said to have called out to his wife, Aidez-moi, ma chère amie! (“Help me, my dear friend!”) and died. Perhaps French experts can explain to me why he would use the vous form and not the tu form to his wife.

This moment was memorialized by Jacques-Louis David’s painting (image at top). The painting is pure propaganda, David being a staunch Jacobin and a friend to Marat. Marat’s figure is idealized. For example, the painting contains no sign of his skin problems. David, however, drew other details from his visit to Marat’s residence the day before the assassination: the green rug, the papers, and the pen. David promised his peers in the National Convention that he would later depict their murdered friend evocatively as “écrivant pour le bonheur du peuple” (writing for the good of the people). The Death of Marat is designed to commemorate a personable hero. Although the name Charlotte Corday can be seen on the paper held in Marat’s left hand, she herself is not visible. Close inspection of this painting shows Marat drawing his last breath, when Corday and many others were still nearby (Corday did not try to escape). Therefore, David intended to record more than just the horror of martyrdom. In this sense the painting, realistic as it is in its details, as a whole is a methodical construction (i.e. falsehood) focusing on the victim – a striking setup regarded today by several critics as an “awful beautiful lie”— certainly not a photograph in the forensic scientific sense and barely the simple image it may seem (for instance, in the painting, the knife is not to be seen where Corday had left it impaled in Marat’s chest, but on the ground, beside the bathtub).


The iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath was revisited from a different angle in Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s painting of 1860, both literally and interpretatively: Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero of the action.


At her trial, when Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying “I killed one man to save 100,000”, she was likely alluding to Maximilien Robespierre’s words before the execution of King Louis XVI. On 17 July 1793, four days after she killed Marat, Corday was executed by guillotine and her corpse was disposed of in the Madeleine Cemetery.


After her decapitation, a man named Legros lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek. Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner, indignantly rejected published reports that Legros was one of his assistants. However, Sanson stated in his diary that Legros was in fact a carpenter who had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. Witnesses report an expression of “unequivocal indignation” on her face when her cheek was slapped. The often-repeated anecdote has served to suggest that victims of the guillotine may in fact retain consciousness for a short while, including by Albert Camus in his Reflections on the Guillotine (“Charlotte Corday’s severed head blushed, it is said, under the executioner’s slap.”). This offense against a woman executed moments before was considered unacceptable and Legros was imprisoned for three months because of his outburst.

Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied immediately after her death to see if she was a virgin. They believed there was a man sharing her bed and the assassination plans. To their dismay, she was found to be virgo intacta, a condition that focused more attention on women throughout France – laundresses, housewives, domestic servants – who were also rising up against authority after having been controlled by men for so long. The Jacobins were forced to accept that a woman did not need a man’s help for such an action. I sometimes wonder when such men will finally get it.

The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of him replaced crucifixes and religious statues that had been banished under the new regime. Eventually, though, the tide of public opinion turned and Corday is now often viewed as a heroine and martyr and Marat plays the role of the villain.


Corday spent most of her life in Caen, so this might seem the perfect occasion to give a recipe for the famous Tripes à la Mode de Caen, but [expletive deleted] I’ve already given two recipes here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/battle-of-hastings/ — the perils of blogging for years (and, by the way, where does the time go?). So, I’d suggest a cheese plate including the extraordinary Nuns of Caen cheese. Current Norman cheeses include Camembert, Livarot, Pont l’Évêque, Brillat-Savarin, Neufchâtel, Petit Suisse and Boursin, all of which I enjoy eating plain or cooking with.   I have been a staunch fan of Camembert ever since I was an exchange student in France as a teen in the ‘60s. But Nuns of Caen is something special. It’s a ewes’ milk cheese, produced in England but originated in Caen. It is now made by Charles Martell and Son in Gloucestershire who recreated the cheese from an old recipe. The original was produced by nuns from Caen who settled in Gloucestershire in the 12th century. The main site is here: http://www.charlesmartell.com/products/nuns-of-caen/


It’s not available online, and is made intermittently because of the seasonality of the milk supply. Still – worth the hunt. I’d suggest slicing peeled and cored apples and pears, tossing them in sugar and Calvados (all products of Normandy), baking in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes, then layering Nuns of Caen (or Camembert) on top and baking for another 15 minutes.

Oct 142013

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 between the Norman-French army of Duke William II of Normandy and an English army under the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, during the Norman conquest of England. It took place approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) north-west of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, and was a decisive Norman victory.

The background to the battle was the death of the childless King Edward the Confessor in January 1066, which set up a succession struggle between several claimants to his throne. Harold was crowned king shortly after Edward’s death, but faced invasions by William, his own brother Tostig, and the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (Harold III of Norway). Hardrada and Tostig defeated a hastily gathered army of Englishmen at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066, and were in turn defeated by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge five days later. The deaths of Tostig and Hardrada at Stamford left William as Harold’s only serious opponent. While Harold and his forces were recovering from Stamford, William landed his invasion forces in the south of England at Pevensey on 28 September 1066 and established a beachhead for his conquest of the kingdom. Harold was forced to march south swiftly, gathering forces as he went.


The exact numbers present at the battle are unknown; estimates are around 10,000 for William and about 7000 for Harold. The composition of the forces is clearer; the English army was composed almost entirely of infantry and had few archers, whereas about half of the invading force was infantry, the rest split equally between cavalry and archers. Harold appears to have tried to surprise William, but scouts found his army and reported its arrival to William, who marched from Hastings to the battlefield to confront Harold. The battle lasted from about 9 am to dusk. Early efforts of the invaders to break the English battle lines had little effect, therefore the Normans adopted the tactic of pretending to flee in panic and then turning on their pursuers. Harold’s death, probably near the end of the battle, led to the retreat and defeat of most of his army.


After further marching and some skirmishes, William was crowned as king on Christmas Day 1066.

Although there continued to be rebellions and resistance to William’s rule, Hastings effectively marked the culmination of William’s conquest of England. Casualty figures are hard to come by, but some historians estimate that 2000 invaders died along with about twice that number of Englishmen. William founded a monastery at the site of the battle, the high altar of the abbey church supposedly placed at the spot where Harold died.


One of the ultimate effects of the Norman conquest was linguistic (with a culinary twist).  The actual dialect history is complicated so I will oversimplify and use modern spellings for Old English and Old Norman words.  When William conquered England the English nobility was largely replaced by Norman barons.  So there developed a class divide that was both cultural and linguistic.  The nobility spoke Old French, and the underclasses spoke Old English. (Both had several dialects which is why it’s too complicated to explain here).  Old French persisted among the nobility well into the thirteenth century, not least because the kings of England retained the title of Duke of Normandy, sometimes living more in Normandy than in France. Over time, Old English acquired a large number of words from Old French, and the language eventually evolved into Middle English (Chaucer’s language) and then Modern English.  Hence English often has two words for the same thing – one from Old French and one from Old English; “woodland” (English) and “forest” (French), for example.  When it comes to meats things get interesting.  Generally European languages use the same word for the animal and its meat.  English does this with lamb and chicken.  But not so with beef, pork, and mutton, which come from cows, pigs, and sheep.  The words for the animals are Old English in origin, and the words for the meats are from the Old French words for the animals/meat (modernized: boeuf, porc, mouton).  This is because it was Anglo-Saxon peasants who tended the animals, but Norman nobility who ate them.  Animals in the field had English names; animals on the plate had French ones.

Parts of Normandy, now as of old, consist of rolling countryside typified by pasture for dairy cattle and apple orchards. A wide range of dairy products are produced and exported. Norman cheeses include Camembert, Livarot, Pont l’Évêque, Brillat-Savarin, Neufchâtel, Petit Suisse and Boursin. Normandy butter and Normandy cream are lavishly used in gastronomic specialties.


Normandy is also a major cider-producing region – European cider, that is, not what people in the U.S. think of.  Perry (like cider but from pears) is also produced, but in less significant quantities. Apple brandy, of which the most famous variety is calvados, is also popular. The mealtime trou normand, or “Norman hole,” is a pause between meal courses in which diners partake of a glassful of calvados in order to improve the appetite and make room for the next course – still observed in many homes and restaurants. Pommeau is an apéritif produced by blending unfermented cider and apple brandy. Another aperitif is the kir normand, a measure of crème de cassis topped up with cider. Bénédictine (why God made monks) is produced in Fécamp.

Apples are widely used in cooking: for example, moules à la normande are mussels cooked with apples and cream, bourdelots are apples baked in pastry, partridges are flamed with reinette apples, and localities all over the province have their own variation of apple tart (baked upside down), tarte tatin.

Cattle and apple products also combine in the legendary tripes à la mode de caen (tripe caen style),  perhaps the most regal, most famous, and most daunting of all tripe dishes.  I promise after this I will leave my tripe fetish alone for a while.

I’ve slaved hour after hour, day after day at home to try to come up with a serviceable recipe.  I think I now have it, but I want to begin with a fair warning to all cooks who want to try to replicate this dish at home – DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS RECIPE WITHOUT A SAFETY NET.    I’ve had to eat (or pitch out) an awful lot of failures.  The huge problem is that for the dish to be successful the cooking pot must be sealed as tightly as possible to ensure that none of the juices escape during the long slow cooking process.  So you basically have to put it in the oven and simply forget it until your previous experience tells you it’s ready.  But . . . too little cooking time or too slow an oven and the meat is chewy and the sauce thin; too long cooking or too high a flame and you have a gelatinous, soggy, unappetizing mess.  Believe me, I’ve seen it all.  So, my best advice is to save up your pennies and take a gustatory trip to a specialty restaurant or two in Normandy.

Acquiring even remotely close to the proper ingredients for tripes à la mode de Caen is a tricky (if not impossible) business.  Strictly speaking the offal parts should be from oxen.  Ox feet are essential to provide enough gelatinous and fatty material to make the sauce thick and silky.  The ox tripe should consist of selections from all four stomachs chambers, and not simply the ubiquitous honeycomb tripe.  There are specialized butchers that can get rumen (blanket) and omasum (bible) tripe with some effort, so it’s worth a try.  Chinese butchers often have bible tripe. You are most especially supposed to use fully raw tripe so that it can accept the long slow cooking process, and so you get the true meaty richness that is missing from the generally available parboiled and bleached samples.

I am going to give two recipes here.  The first, a “traditional” version, assumes you can get all the necessary ingredients and that you have the patience for the long effort.  The second, my “cheaters’” version, is for those cooks who have to make do with what they can gather from local supermarkets.  Whichever you choose, this is a big dish and needs lots of hungry eaters.


©Tripes à la Mode de Caen

Traditional Recipe


4 ½ lbs of ox tripe including rumen, honeycomb, omasum, and reed.
1 whole ox foot split lengthways
1 lb beef fat
5 medium onions
5 medium carrots
3 small leeks
2 pints French cider (or English)
¼ cup Calvados
fresh thyme sprigs
fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
4 peeled garlic cloves
salt and pepper
flour paste


Use an ovenproof casserole (preferably earthenware), that will hold all the ingredients compactly.  Peel and slice the onions and carrots into bite sized pieces and use them to line the base of the casserole.  Put the ox foot halves on top of the vegetables.  Cut the tripe into 2” squares and layer them into the casserole.   Make a bundle of herbs (bouquet garni) by tying together 2 sprigs of parsley, with 4 sprigs of thyme and two bay leaves.   Trim the coarse leaves and roots from the leeks, and make sure they are scrubbed thoroughly to remove all traces of dirt.  Tie them in a bundle.  Insert the herbs, garlic, and leeks in among the tripe.  Season with salt and pepper, plus a pinch of allspice.  Slice the beef fat thinly and make a layer that covers the tripe completely.  Pour in the Calvados and then add the cider to cover the meat completely.  The amount given here is approximate and will vary according to the type of vessel used.  (Some cooks use water instead of cider because the cider darkens the tripe too much for their tastes.) Cover the casserole with a tight fitting lid that has been hermetically sealed with a paste made from flour and a little water.  Bake at 275°F/135°C for about 12 hours.

At the end of the cooking time remove the lid of the casserole and discard the flour paste.  Strain off the gravy and skim off the fat carefully.  Remove the vegetables and herbs.  Bone the ox foot and place it in an earthenware serving dish along with the tripe pieces.  Pour over the gravy and serve.

Serves 10.

Cheaters’ Version


4 ½ lbs parboiled tripe (honeycomb and bible if possible)
1 whole ox foot split lengthways (or two calves’ feet, split)
5 medium onions
5 medium carrots
3 leeks
2 pints hard cider
¼ cup applejack
fresh thyme sprigs
fresh parsley
2 bay leaves
4 peeled garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cloves
salt and pepper


Use a casserole with a tight fitting lid.  Peel and dice the onions and carrots.  Clean the leeks thoroughly, removing the roots and tough leaves, and slice them thickly.  Make a bed of all these vegetables at the base of the casserole.  Cut the tripe into 2” squares and place it over the vegetables along with the ox foot.  Make a bundle of herbs out of the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves using 3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, and 1 or 2 of parsley.  Tuck the herbs in the tripe layer in the casserole along with the garlic and cloves.  Season with salt and pepper to your taste.  Pour in the applejack and enough cider to completely cover the tripe.  Close the lid tightly and give the whole casserole a double wrapping of aluminum foil so that it is as hermetically sealed as possible.  Bake in a 300°F/150°C oven for about 3 hours.

Serve in the same manner as the traditional version with the boned ox foot and tripe covered with the degreased gravy.  It is good to serve it with nice crusty bread and a steaming bowl of freshly boiled new potatoes.

Serves 10-12