Wednesday, 28 October 2009

All Saints Day, La Toussaint and Chrysanthemums

Halloween in France is overshadowed by All Saints Day (November 1st) which is part of a National holiday known as La Toussaint. La Toussaint is a 2 day festival during which the French celebrate two holidays together: All Saints Day, the day for remembering Catholic saints, and All Souls Day (November 2nd), the day for praying for the souls of the deceased.

The day, which is a legal holiday in France, dates back to the 7th century and was derived from a much earlier feast. The first All Saints' Day occurred on May 13, 609 when Pope Boniface IV accepted the Pantheon as a gift from the Emperor Phocas. Boniface dedicated it as the Church of Santa Maria Rotonda in honour of the Blessed Virgin and all martyrs. During Pope Gregory III's reign (731-741), the festival was expanded to include all saints and a chapel in St. Peter's church was dedicated accordingly. Pope Gregory IV officially designated the day in 837.

Many people visit the graves of their loved ones at this time to decorate them with flowers or candles. In Brittany legends speak of evil coming to those who disturb the bones of the dead so children attempt to frighten visitors to graveyards on All Saints Day. The Chrysanthemum is the ‘official’ flower for La Toussaint – which is important for non-French people to know, because it is considered a terrible social 'faux pas' to give chrysanthemums at any time other than La Toussaint.

The Chrysanthemum (from the Greek “khrousos anthemon” – flower of gold) is a symbol of immortality in France, as it resists the frosts and takes little looking after. It is said that the chrysanthemum never flowers before the autumnal equinox (21st September) and their petals are seen as a light of hope in the midst of the autumnal mists and fogs.

In 1789 a French merchant from Marseilles named Pierre Louis Blancard brought three cultivars home from China, only one of these survived and was named Old Purple, the first named cultivar to grow in the western world. Eventually this cultivar reached Kew Gardens and its description was featured in the Botanical Magazine of 1796. In 1827, seed was successfully produced in Europe by a retired French officer, Captain Bernet and as many previous attempts by both English and French gardeners had failed, this date is of great historical importance in the Chrysanthemum world.

Roast Chicken Noodle Soup with Chrysanthemum

3 whole star anise
3 cups water
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, sliced into thin rounds
6 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
3 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bunches chrysanthemum leaves, bottoms trimmed, upper stems and leaves cut into 2-inch strips
1 pack thin fresh or dried Chinese egg noodles
1 lb freshly roasted chicken (cubed)
1 onion, sliced paper-thin
3 red Thai bird chillis or 1 large red jalapeño chilli, sliced into thin rounds

Stir star anise in heavy large saucepan over medium heat until fragrant. Add 3 cups water and ginger; simmer for 15 minutes. Add broth, soy sauce, and sugar; simmer for 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir oil and garlic in small frying pan over low heat until garlic is crisp and golden. Set garlic oil aside.

Blanch the chrysanthemum leaves in a large pan of boiling salted water until just wilted (about 5 seconds). Using a strainer, transfer greens to colander. Rinse with cold water and drain. Return water in pot to boil. Add noodles and cook until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring often. Drain; transfer to large bowl. Let stand 2 minutes. Mix in 1 tablespoon garlic oil. Using kitchen shears, cut noodles crosswise in several places. Heat chicken in microwave in 10-second intervals at low setting until warmed through. Divide noodles among 4 soup bowls; top each with ¼ of chrysanthemum, chicken, and onion. Ladle 2 cups broth mixture into each bowl. Drizzle with some garlic oil. Serve, passing red chillis separately.

I would recommend a rich wine such as M De Malle (£11.73) to pair with this dish. It's a dry White Graves wine from the vineyards of Château de Malle, owned by the Comtes de Bournazel who have 400 years of wine making experience. It's a beautiful wine: bold, brilliant green tinted gold with hints of white blossoms, exotic fruits, spice and good lemon acidity. It has also been accoladed the Hachette des Vins 2007: Coup de Coeur and is superb value for money.

The Bordeaux Clairet du Chateau de Lisennes (£5.87) is also a great choice. This clairet is one of the best that Bordeaux offers and won the gold medal in Brussels in 2006. The fragrant wine is a deep raspberry pink with violet reflections. The aroma is complex; it has raspberry, peach and spice overtones. It is soft and full, and the fruity taste of blackberries, redcurrants and raspberries explodes in the mouth giving intense round flavours.

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