Geneva’s History in a Chocolate Cauldron

On my recent ‘Sweet Geneva’ tours, there was certainly a recurring theme.  The window displays of every chocolate shop in town were taken over by soup cauldrons made of chocolate !  Filled with marzipan vegetables and emblazoned with Geneva’s red and yellow coat of arms, you simply couldn’t miss it.  Pots made out of chocolate… in Geneva… that can mean only one thing: la Fête de l’Escalade, bien sûr !

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Escalade is a huge annual festival in Geneva, perhaps the most important holiday for Genevans, when they celebrate the victory over Savoyard soldiers (a surprise attack organized by the Duke of Savoy who wanted to make Geneva his capital in the northern Alps).  During the night of December 11/12 in the year 1602, the troops scaled the city’s ramparts, hence the name escalade, meaning climbing in French.

Now I know what you’re thinking… what does all that have to do with vegetable soup ?  We have Mère Royaume to thank for that.  Legend goes that she (Lyonnaise Catherine Cheynel) poured her pot of boiling vegetable soup out her window (or did she throw the whole pot) on the head of a Savoyard soldier, thus killing him.  This woke up yet more Genevan citizens, calling them to battle.   And so the story goes.

“Ces histoires et légendes, c’est très mêlé.  Toutes ces choses que l’on commémore, Guillaume Tell, c’est du bouche à oreille, c’est transformé; et puis on y croit, bien sûr, ça ne fait de mal à personne…. Et puis, ça fait plaisir à tout le monde.” *

In her honor, vegetable soup is consumed during the festivities and these chocolate marmites (pots) are ubiquitous, requiring an extraordinary amount of time and patience from chocolatiers all throughout the city.  Upwards of 20 distinct steps are involved for each, from using the copper molds (below) to make the chocolate pots, then the handles, legs and tops all done by hand, assembling them, making the sugar details, the marzipan and then some.  It’s an impressive undertaking, but chocolatiers are excited and proud to take part each year.

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After weeks and weeks of preparing these handmade pieces of edible art, the city celebrates !  Since 1926, three days of festivities are organized: parades with drums and flutes, battle reenactments and cannons fired, mulled wine in abundance and more (and a popular running race earlier in the month too).  Townspeople sing “Cé qu’è l’ainô,” commemorating the events of 1602 in old Genevan dialect, and the biggest moment of all is the Grand Cortège de la Proclamation, a torchlit procession with people in period costumes on foot and on horseback.  It’s the largest historical parade in Europe !

At the end of the weekend comes the most delicious tradition of all – you finally get to eat those marmites !   And the marzipan vegetables, brightly colored and simply adorable. (Don’t forget the bacon, below right, for the soup !)  The eldest and youngest family members hold hands and smash the chocolate cauldron together, reciting “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la République !” (thus perish the enemies of the Republic) and then everyone joins in to enjoy the chocolate and marzipan, a sweet finale until December of next year…

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I was lucky to get the behind-the-scenes shots above in David Paganel’s laboratory, where this space is all about those marmites for one month a year.  Trays upon trays of marzipan vegetables and racks upon racks of milk and dark chocolate cauldrons in varying sizes took up every inch of what is as close to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as I’ve ever seen. (Check out this photo of Paganel making a large chocolate cauldron with chain, canon and all !)

Originally from the southwest of France, Paganel has made his certainly mark on Geneva’s sweet scene.  He never ceases to impress me with his newest creations, nor amaze me with just how passionate about his craft he is.  Practically every week, I have an email from him with a photo of his newest idea, chocolate sculptures, creative themes, intriguing flavor combinations… With over 40 varieties of chocolate bars, I bet he has 40 more ideas already brewing in his head.  And that’s simply a “normal” routine for him, starting his day at the earliest hours of the morning when some of us late workers are just heading to bed.  Especially now with Escalade, followed by bûches de Noël for Christmas and Galette des Rois for Epiphany, never a dull moment – and he would never want there to be !  “Mon métier, c’est ma passion !  Et si je ne crée pas, je m’ennuie.” To say his work is his passion is an understatement; creating is what keeps him going.  Not just a chocolatier, confiseur, pastry chef… but a true artisan and artist.

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Last but not least, Paganel is known for one other thing that I haven’t yet mentioned… and I don’t even mean his addictive “La Paganella,” a spread that will wow Nutella lovers, nor his “Ristretto chocolat,” a rich hot chocolate served espresso style.  I am talking about his curly mustache !  His milk chocolate mustache lollipops can only make you smile.  And see if you can spot the mustache on the angel below in his shop on rue de Carouge, hidden among the moldings made of… sugar !  A true Willy Wonka indeed.

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Your calendars are already filling up for next year… Slow Food Market and Salon du Chocolat in Zürich, and now you can add the 410th anniversary of the Escalade in Geneva, that will be celebrated on December 7-9, 2012.

More info on the Fête de l’Escalade:
Compagnie de 1602 (en français): official site of the Compagnie de 1602
Listen to Amy Eber, Food Scout on World Radio Switzerland: “Marmite, the Swiss way (hint: It’s chocolate)”
Watch this video by Genève Tourism
Read about the 409th anniversary in the Tribune de Genève (en français)
A Chacun son Escalade, French book written by Sophie Lagana for the 400th anniversary (*quote above was taken from book)

Pâtisserie Chocolatier Paganel
71, rue de Carouge (rive gauche)
1205 Genève
26, Jean-Charles Amat (rive droite)
1202 Genève

14 Responses to “Geneva’s History in a Chocolate Cauldron”

  1. Rosa says:

    A great post! 😉



  2. Katie Parla says:

    The chocolate lollipop moustache scares me a little but i would totally eat it

  3. jen laceda says:

    Very informative post, Kerrin! Those marzipan vegetables are so cute! Only the French or Swiss lavish such attention and craftsmanship dedicated to a holiday! Nowhere in Canada can you find similar festivities that would require days of preparing chocolate pots and marzipan candies!!! Even at Christmas, all the chocolates here are mostly “manufactured” and mass-produced! It would be nice to have a holiday with lots of hand crafted chocolates!! LOL.

    By the way, those choco moustaches are really adorable!

  4. Victoria (District Chocoholic) says:

    I love this! And yes, the vegetables are adorable and so detailed. So much talent there in Switzerland.

  5. Kerrin says:

    Rosa, merci ! Profite de l’ambiance à Genève pour moi, sil te plait ! 🙂

    Katie, HAHA !

    jen, aren’t those little marzipan veggies the cutest ?! Love them. But, my goodness, say it isn’t so – only mass-produced sweets over by you ? Well get over here to enjoy some of this good Swiss artisanal stuff ! And then spread the word back in Canada ! 😉

    Victoria, thanks ! So much talent is so true, always a new (sweet) discovery to be made…

  6. Emma says:

    Hehe, silly moustachioed chocolates – I just wore a mustache last night for a holiday party. I would have preferred it to be chocolate, but that’s no surprise.

    I love everything about this holiday, I think it rivals Sechselauten for the coolest celebration you’ve featured here. I especially love that marzipan bacon.

    Do you think Napoleon really laughed about his past ideas? I’m not so sure:)

  7. Karen@Mignardise says:

    Great post! I love Geneva even though it’s been decades since I was there. This makes me want to visit even more. It must be magical this time of year.

  8. Samantha Angela says:

    I second Jen’s comment. I only wish there was such a festival with that kind of attention to detail. Chocolate here is just not the same quality as it is in Europe so it is under appreciated.

  9. Deborah says:

    Ahahah!!!! The chocolate moustache is so funny!!!

  10. Kelly says:

    I keep imagining the soup being made in the chocolate pots! Thank you for introducing the Galettes des Rois to me. I’ve not come across them before and I love the idea.

  11. Kerrin says:

    Emma, you just wore a mustache for a holiday party ? Um, can you please elaborate on that costume – or what kind of party exactly that was ? 😉 Totally agree on the marzipan bacon, that was really my fave. But hmm, I’ll have to give that one some thought: Escalade vs. Sechseläuten…?! As for Napoléon laughing at his ideas, yeah, I’m with you, not really pegging him as that kinda guy.

    Karen, merci ! Hope you can get back to Geneva soon…

    Samantha, sorry to hear about under appreciated chocolate, that really is a shame. Not having the quality or the attention to it it deserves.

    Deborah, c’est marrant, non ?! =)

    Kelly, that would be one funky tasting soup – vegetables and chocolate ! 😉

  12. Emma says:

    I’ve be happy to elaborate – It was a ‘dress as your favorite Christmas song’ party, so I wore a mustache and a sombrero and went as Feliz Navidad:) I like the song so much because I have a faint memory of a Sesame Street xmas special where all the puppets were ice skating and wearing winter apparel while the song played. If not for that, I’d be all “favorite christmas song?? who has a favorite christmas song?!?”

  13. Kerrin says:

    Emma, that is hysterical. All of it.

  14. Valentina says:

    How did I miss this post? Loved it! How fun and hard must it be to mould these little cauldrons.

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