Thorny delight

… a trace of Calvinistic resistance to easy pleasures remains, and it is found on the festive tables amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines. There you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.

One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…

From right to left, W. Farel (l.), Jean Calvin (m.), Theo. de Bèze (r.)… The reformers: “Don’t be happy, worry!”

Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.

All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

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Cardoons prior to preparation

The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.

Cardoon character
At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.

It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.

The easy way to get cardons… buy it at the supermarket for about CHF 14,95…

You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.

Taming the wild cardoon
From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.

A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.

Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.

To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.

 

 

 

Geneva by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Geneva run

L’Escalade: the run of your life

In a confederate system as diverse as Switzerland, it is hardly surprising to find that Cantons and cities occasionally engage in very local celebrations that no one else has ever heard of. There is the Chalandamarz and the Pschuuri in the Grisons, or the Bloch at Mardi Gras in Appenzell. Not to be outdone (especially by its Germanic co-confederates) , Geneva has the “Escalade,” The Climb, which has evolved into one of the main participatory spectacles in town.

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Geneva is Geneva, of course, and stringent logic often seems absent from the organisation of local urban life, so the climb actually involves horizontal rather than upward mobility. Much of the event consists of people running, Marathon-like, through the city on the first Saturday in December or, if Saturday falls on the 11th, then on the second Saturday. In 2014, it was on Saturday December 6. The date, like the hare-brained configuration of the city’s public transportation, needs some clarification.

The event that spawned The Climb took place on a wintry night of 11-12 December 1602, the longest night of the year, since Genevans still used the old Julian calendar at the time. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy had coveted the Calvinist city north of the Alps, and was hoping to force it back into the Catholic fold for religious, strategic and economic reasons. On that fateful night, a band of mercenaries managed to scale (escalader) the walls at around 2 a.m. When two sentinels ran into them, all hell broke loose. Reports say that civilians joined in, throwing heavy stuff out of windows, tables, chairs, barrels, stones, and real weapons like halberds.

The Genevans got the better of the attackers. They lost 18 men in the skirmish, 54 of the attackers were killed, 13 taken prisoner, tortured and executed. Ultimately Charles-Emmanuel signed a treaty with the city and peace was restored once and for all at the Treaty of St. Julien (a town just beyond the border in France).

Memories are made of this

A year later, the whole battle and its political setting were set to music to an epic ballad in 68 strophes in Provencal dialect, Cé qu’è lainô. The event was also immortalized in a poem, Genève delivrée, by Samuel Chappuzeau. In 1926, an association called Compagnie de 1602 started a parade to celebrate the victory. Participants come in gaudy period costumes; there are drummers, fife-players, weapons-bearers, a hangman and other period figures. Today, the parade, which is held on Sunday after the races, ends at the door of the Cathedral St. Pierre in the old town with speeches exalting the Republic, freedom, and so on.

The Escalade races were started in 1978. They now last almost all day, with participants broken down into different categories running set courses in a staggered schedule. Ages range from the “Poussins” and “Poussines” (literally chicks, boys and girls born in 2005-6) to Hommes VI or Femmes VI, men and women born before 1942. The length of the run goes from 1.8 km for the youngest runners, to 7.2 km for the older ones. This year drew 32,150 participants. All races begin and end in the Parc des Bastions right under the walls of the old town.The ladies' run

Walking and Nordic Walking have also been introduced for more comfortable sportspeople 10 years of age and above. The 8-km course begins in Veyrier and ends in the Parc des Bastion. The final race is the Course du Duc (the Duke’s Course) and is the toughest, naturally, since the Duke lost the battle: 17.5 km.

There are fees for the runners, and those running the longer itineraries will have to get medical certificates. For more details, please visit www.escalade.ch. The money paid goes to maintaining the costumes and organizing the events.

Marmite74 The final race on Saturday is simply called “Marmite”, or Cauldron and comes in two categories, youth and adult. The runners complete their nearly 3.5-km itinerary in crazy garb. There are no real winners here, but whoever comes first in this fantastical dash, will have their name and pictures published in the local paper, the Tribune de Genève (along with the serious runners).

What’s in a cauldron?

The chaudron is ubiquitous in Escalade season. Throughout the festivities, spectators and participants are regaled with vegetable soup cooked in great cauldrons sometimes on an open fire. It’s a very pleasant and fortifying dish in the damp and frigid days of early December. Escalade parties are held during this time to which children come disguised and singing a ditty that gives a blow-by-blow account of the “battle”. They will occasionally do something resembling trick-or-treating, i.e., knock on people’s door, sing that very same ditty, an request candy or coin. On one evening, children, parents and staff are invited to contribute vegetables to a big cauldron of soup, which is enjoyed usually with bread and some sweets.

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Eat your (marzipan) vegetables for the sake of the Republic

And for a few weeks prior to the Escalade, pastry shops, confectioners and supermarkets sell chocolate cauldrons decorated with the coat-of-arms of the city and filled with marzipan vegetables. The way to eat them is to break the cauldron with a stick or a knife while hollering valiantly: “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la république!” (”Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!”)

Those raised on Asterix may get the wrong idea. The brave and independent Genevans did not beat back the Savoyards intruders by dint of a magic vegetable soup. Somewhere on the line a story emerged from the mists of history, that one Mère Royaume, living near the city gates was in her kitchen cooking a cauldron of vegetable and rice soup. Hearing the enemy in the streets, she carried the heavy pot to the window and heaved it onto the hapless invaders.

Mère Royaume was a real person. She was Catherine Cheynel, born in Lyon. She and her second husband, a maker of tin pots, were Protestants and escaped to Geneva soon after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 1572). By 1602, she was 60 years of age and had given birth to 14 children, few of whom had survived. The idea of her dumping hot soup on an enemy apparently comes from Verse 29 of the epic Cé qu’è lainô mentioned above. But history has many such modest heroes, like the women of Eger in Hungary who threw boiling fat on the attacking Turks.

Let them eat soup

As a journalist, I must wonder: What was she doing cooking vegetables soup at 2 a.m.? And would she, as a Protestant Genevan, waste food that way? Really? It is difficult to imagine. I suspect that on waking and hearing the ruckus, she grabbed the first thing at hand … under, or close to, her bed and hurled that out the window. So whosoever came up with the marmite idea has done us all a great service in Geneva. Imagine thousands of Genevans screaming: “Ainsi périssent les ennemies de la République!” while standing around steaming chamber pots.

Real or not, it’s a nice story, and it gets everyone out and about eating healthy soups. In an interview with Le Temps in 2009,  Catherine Santschi, state archivist pointed out a more reasonable explanation for the victory, one that has repercussions to this day: “It wasn’t Mère Royaume and her cauldron of soup that protected Geneva, but rather the fact that the citizens kept their weapons at home. They woke up in the middle of the night and were able to fight right away. If they had had to go to the arsenal first, the battle would have ended differently.”

Whatever the history, Geneva loves its Escalade, and for good reason. It’s a heart-warming, belly-filling feast, with so many parties, no one has to have a bad conscience for having fun. People from all walks of life have a chance to rub elbows in a congenial atmosphere. In some ways, too, it celebrates the victory over Catholicism in what was then a strictly Protestant-Calvinistic city. Paradoxically, it now serves to conveniently condense and celebrate Carnival, St. Nicholas and other religious/profane festivities that Calvin and his dour and sour successors had wiped off the calendar.