Of Merovingians and macaroons
Last weekend’s family wedding in Normandy was an event that we had looked forward to for ages. Not only because we hadn’t seen our très sympa cousins in far too long but also, let’s face it, because who wouldn’t be smitten by the prospect of whisking off for a weekend in la belle France? To add piquancy to my expectations, I had been on a rather strict diet for the previous month, and so the prospect of a weekend of wonderful French food was even more tempting than usual. Alas! It would not, I think, be a betrayal of the warm welcome we received from our cousins to say that the gîte (guesthouse) in which we were all staying was a major disappointment. My hopes of blowing my diet in style were dashed: there was no cheer and precious little good food on offer from our hostess. We soon realised that, if we wanted to find the France we longed for, we would have to go elsewhere. On the morning of the wedding, then, those of us on the periphery of the plans took the opportunity to escape Madame’s clutches in search of one of the things – other than apples and cheese – that Normandy does best: medieval abbeys. One needs food for the soul, after all, not just for the body.
The abbey of Jumièges was described by one 19th century French historian as the most beautiful ruin in France. Set in green parkland, it has stood for over a thousand years beside the river Seine, a few miles from the city of Rouen. While France is rich in medieval churches, the religious foundation at Jumièges is of extraordinary antiquity. It was founded in 634 A.D. by a chap called St. Philibert. This name caught my attention: in medieval England, philibert or filbert was the common name for a hazelnut. St. Hazel? A nutter? Being an amateur philologist (which actually means a lover of the love of words, so is a tautology, but I digress further) I had to look up the origins of the name. Apparently I have the meanings the wrong way around: according to Walter Skeat’s splendid ‘Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language’ (1882), hazelnuts were named after St. Philibert, whose saint’s day falls on August 22nd, which presumably is around the time that hazelnuts ripen in northern France. I hope he liked them.
Are you wondering about the macaroons? Well, don’t go away, I’m coming to them. That’s the Merovingians dealt with. Like them, the splendid abbey of Jumièges was to suffer a few slings and arrows of fortune in its time. In the ninth century it was pillaged and destroyed by the Vikings, those North-men who, finding the local cider and camembert to their liking, settled and gave their name to Normandy. Yet under their descendants, Jumièges rose from the ashes to become one of the greatest centres of learning and pastoral care in medieval France. Surviving the onslaughts of the Wars of Religion in the 16th Century, the abbey was finally destroyed by the French Revolution. Under the rule of the godless revolutionaries, the religious community at Jumièges was disbanded and the soaring white towers and cloisters were sold off as – o tempora! o mores! – a stone quarry. Hence its current renown as a beautiful ruin: much of it was destroyed before it fell into more sympathetic hands in the nineteenth century.
For today’s visitors, then, Jumièges is but an object of aesthetic appreciation. The spiritual heart stopped beating long ago, but the bones still offer an unusually fine place in which to wander and ponder. It was a memorable location in which to pass the morning of the wedding. And in the afternoon, we found ourselves in another beautiful medieval cathedral, as the wedding took place in the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp: a church with a remarkably similar history to Jumièges, founded by an associate of St. Philibert. The difference is that Fécamp succeeded in making itself indispensable to the people by virtue of its housing a precious relic, a phial of the Holy Blood of Christ (Dan Brown fans, here’s something for you). Thus it survives today as a living centre of Catholicism, to which pilgrims still make their way.
So much for food for the soul. The wedding itself was a truly joyful occasion, which we would not have missed for anything. It was worth putting up with a soulless guesthouse for the sake of sharing in such a warm and happy family event. And yet, and yet…my hunger for more temporal nourishment was still unsatisfied. I had to accompany our little boy to bed before the wedding dinner appeared, so by the end of the weekend was still feeling that I had been cheated of the delights of French cuisine. We found ourselves back at Charles de Gaulle airport on Sunday afternoon, about to head back to Scotland, still hungry for..well, for food, but also for glamour, I suppose. That je ne sais quoi which Paris is supposed to possess. For me, this is epitomised by that most frivolous of foods, the macaroon. You know, those little mouthfuls of nothing, concocted of ground almonds, cream and frilly knickers, whipped up in the pastel colours of a Rococo boudoir and served in exquisite little boxes like jewels for a mistress.
If there was one thing I’d have loved to bring home from a weekend in France, it would have been a little box of macaroons. A nasty tuna salad from an airport food bar did not answer. I was dreaming of a wonderful little chocolatier in Dives-sur-Mer on the Norman coast, which sold some of the finest macaroons I’ve ever tasted…
…and then I saw it. Not the chocolatier in Dives, obviously, but the answer to my dreams nonetheless. The other, more famous, most exquisite creator of macaroons: Ladurée. A little boutique on the airport concourse, painted in eau de nil and breathing the most delicate and seductive scents of almond, vanilla, rose, spice… Screeching to a halt, I parked my long-suffering husband and son in the nearest chairs and almost ran into the arms of Ladurée. Several happy minutes later, I was the proud possessor of a tiny box containing eight expensive, extravagant, perfect macaroons. Each flavour is like a poem: Figue, Pain d’Epices, Pétales de Roses and my all-time favourite, Caramel Beurre salé. My happiness was now complete. We had been nourished emotionally by spending time with family and sharing in a beautiful church service; we had found intellectual nourishment in polishing up our rusty language skills and learning some medieval history at Jumièges; and now at the last moment I had found physical nourishment, albeit of the most frivolous, Marie-Antoinette-ish, Parisian kind. Just what one wants from a weekend in France, in other words.
Back home the next day, it was a normal Monday morning of school runs, laundry, washing up. But my mid-morning coffee at the kitchen table has never tasted so good.