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 !
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.
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…
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.
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.
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)
26, Jean-Charles Amat (rive droite)