On the Rue du 4 Septembre in Arles, you will find Guy LeBlanc's pastry and chocolate shop. And what a treat it is just to step through the door. Actually, it is a feast for your eyes even before you open the door. Just looking at the window display is a joy. M. LeBlanc is a Le Nôtre trained pastry chef. His wife offered me my very own carte de fidelité, a frequent shopper's card, this time. I pretended that I would be back very soon to fill it up and get my treat and discount...
(photo by Catherine Yang)
Now that spring is here, the shop is full of chocolate chickens, as well as the fish pictured above with the lovely lavender-colored ribbons around their bellies.
This is the shortened version, taken from several sites. Believe what you will. If some of my French buddies correct me, I will keep you posted.
- The Julian Calendar, established by my friend Julius Caesar in 46 BC made January 1 New Year's Day. But a few centuries later, most regions in France were still using Easter (around March 25, although the date of Easter changes since it is based on lunar cycles) as the legal and administrative New Year. Things were a big mess. Everyone was confused. Sans blague. No kidding.
- King Charles IX ordered a new calendar to replace the Julian one in 1564, attempting to end the confusion. Enter the Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII (the Catholic Church adopted it in 1582). January 1 was once again proclaimed New Year's Day, legally and otherwise.
- Some French folks, though, resisted the change and continued to celebrate New Year's during the week following March 25, ending the fun around April 1. Those who made the calendar switch made fun of the ones who didn't, sending them fake gifts and invitations to non-existent parties. That's a really dirty trick, n'est-ce pas? Getting all dressed up only to find you have no where to go. Enter the fools, les foux.
- So, later the French adopted April 1 as a new celebration (any excuse for fun?) and called it Poisson d'avril.
- Why poisson, you ask? There are a few theories out there-- one is that it coincides with the sun leaving the astrological sign of Pisces, the fish. Another is that fishing wasn't allowed in April in 16th century France because the newly hatched fish needed to grow up before being caught and fried up in un tout petit peu d'huile d'olive (ok, the frying in olive oil part I made up). Yet another is that in April fish are abundant and they are easy to fool with a hook and the proper lure or bait. Yet one more is that during Lent you are allowed to eat fish but not red meat (this one doesn't make much sense, now does it?)
- New information: The French give gifts to their friends at New Year's, les étrennes, they are called. In the 16th century, food was the most popular gift (not a shock at all... I think it is still the best gift, myself!) and since Easter marks the end of Lent (Christians were forbidden to eat meat during the 40 days of Lent), fish was often offered to friends (Chef Érick was busy smoking salmon for friends when I left Arles in December of 2008). After the New Year's switch to Januray 1, fish remained the symbol of April 1, but this time for fun, in the form of paper fish, fish stickers (placed on someone's back as a joke- kind of like our "Kick me" stickers when I was a kid) and bien sûr, poissons de chocolat, those beautiful chocolate fishies.
- And this has nothing to do with it, but I found it interesting. Supposedly, Napoléon was nicknamed le Poisson d'avril because he married Marie-Louise of Austria on April 1, 1810. This led me to wondering just how tall was Napoléon anyway? I took my students to visit Les Invalides in Paris and we paid homage to l'Empereur by visiting his tomb. They always ask me how tall he was. Not as short as you would think, it seems. At the time of his death he was measured and listed at 5'2 inches. (Some have even said he was only 4'11.) That wasn't accurately translated into English measurement until later. He was really 5'6.5. That's not so short. I am 5'5 and I only feel short next to my sons and their basketball teammates. That was actually taller than the average Frenchman in 1800. Maybe Napoléon just hung out with taller guys and and that made him appear short.
Here in the U.S., as we get ready for the Easter Bunny to pay us a visit, I have already stashed some bon chocolat aside just for moi.
Dolly Mama bunny is my favorite. He is called The Carolina Spring Bunny (Carolina blue ribbon?) and he is made of chocolate and peanut butter. Some of her caramels are wrapped up here, too. The green bunny came from Foster's Market where I had coffee this morning while proofreading progress reports. Non, pas de poissons in my collection. Dommage! Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring me some...
When my eaters need something chocolate and I need a quick recipe, this is the one...
Chocolate Oatmeal No-Bake Cookies
(recipe from my mother-in-law)
2 c. sugar
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. butter
3 Tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. peanut butter
3 c. oatmeal
Combine sugar, milk, butter, and cocoa. Bring to boil and boil for one minute. Add vanilla and peanut butter. Stir until peanut butter is melted. Add oatmeal and stir until it is well-coated. Drop on waxed paper and place in refrigerator until cooled.
Makes about 3 dozen.
Bon appétit, Poisson d'avril and the Easter Bunny!