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Of Merovingians and macaroons

October 2, 2010

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.

A palimpsest in stone: layers of arches from different periods and styles

Anyhoo, before setting out to found his abbey, St. Philibert had lived at the Merovingian court. The Merovingians were a Frankish dynasty who ruled much of the region which we now know as France. They were enthusiastic supporters of the Church, recognising (as many Christian kings were later to do) that building close ties between monasticism and the royal court could benefit both. They must have been astute rulers in their time. This is a period about which I know almost nothing, however – we’re in the heart of the Dark Ages here – and I’m afraid that the two most memorable (to me) facts about the Merovingians are not very edifying. One is, that the kings had long hair which, like Samson’s, symbolised their power. The other is that they eventually declined in authority until the last Merovingian king, a hundred year’s after St. Philibert’s time, was deposed by Pepin le Bref, founder of the great Carolingian dynasty. (The deposed king had his hair cut off and was – ironically – incarcerated in a monastery.) So these were hairy guys who lost out to someone called Pepin the Short. Not a very glorious end. Or perhaps that is just height-ist as well as facetious.

A wry expression and a splendid head of hair

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.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 2, 2010 5:53 am

    Wonderful post. I preferred the monastic ruins to the macaroons (I don’t have a very sweet tooth) but I’m so glad you found them at the last minute. I hope you enjoyed every last crumb.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 2, 2010 7:39 pm

      Thank you, Lyn. I did sacrifice one of them to my husband – greater love hath no wife! But yes, I savoured every crumb of the others.

  2. Jane permalink
    October 2, 2010 5:26 pm

    I would have been happy to join you for a cup of tea, a chat and the sheer pleasure of watching a dear friend enjoy such a sweet treat!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 2, 2010 7:40 pm

      I’d love to have been able to buy a really big box to share with friends! It did feel a guiltily self-indulgent pleasure.

  3. October 2, 2010 11:26 pm

    Those macaroons are a work of art!

  4. October 4, 2010 4:55 pm

    Oh Beastie: I wish I could have stowed away fr Normandy in your luggage. Failing that, visited you for coffee the morning you had macaroons!! Yum!!

  5. Margaret Lambert permalink
    October 5, 2010 5:25 pm

    There’s no doubt your small boys will learn some history, with your slightly Python-ish point of view! I adore ruins, and that fragment of an exquisite arch is a heartbreaker.
    You have my sympathy on missing one of the principal reasons for travel to France- great food. But Laduree at the airport?!! They have cleverly realized that their delicate pastel macaroons have become an international obsession.
    A delightful post!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 22, 2010 4:22 pm

      Thanks! I spent most of my twenties as a medieval historian, before realising that didn’t want to spend the rest of my life surrounded by people who have been dead for 700 years or more. But I am still very interested, and a great believer in sharing that enthusiasm without making it too stuffy. Human history is full of quirky, fun facts, after all, and it’s so much fun sharing it with my boys.

  6. October 18, 2010 9:50 pm

    Oh! Ladurée! How I miss it!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      October 22, 2010 4:24 pm

      Oh, me too, here in rural Scotland. But it makes their macaroons all the more exquisite when one does – VERY occasionally – have the chance to savour them.

  7. January 13, 2011 10:52 am

    Ah a far more eloquent homage to the macaroon that my little picture! You describe their hold over us beautifully, just something about the lightness and those exquisite colours and names! Mouth is watering just thinking about the Caramel Beurre Sale one, which my flatmate included in the box she brought back for me. I’m just going to drift off into a daydream where I am Marie Antoinette and get to sit and eat macaroons all day….

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      January 13, 2011 12:27 pm

      mmm…I’ll join you there….

  8. August 20, 2011 9:19 pm

    Join us in celebration of St. Filbert’s Day on August 22, 2011! A nice cup of tea and
    some hazelnut pastries would be a fitting tribute!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      August 20, 2011 9:38 pm

      Oh, what a happy thought – thank you for reminding me. I do like to take note of Saints’ Days, little punctuation marks in the story of the year. I might take the excuse to seek out some gianduia chocolates, made with Piedmont hazelnuts, to have with that nice cup of tea which you suggest. Here’s to St. Filbert. 🙂

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