There is no better moment of the year to reflect on the French Paradox than right now. After months of saturated fats- all the heavy Christmas dishes, foie gras, the cheeses, the bûche de Noël, champagne, champagne and champagne, then the formidable Galette des Rois the French culinary year now rolls into… la Chandeleur.
La chandeleur which is Candlemas in English is a Christian festival celebrated every February 2 or 40 days after Christmas. The term Candlemas comes from la Chandeleur “festival of candles”. This is for the faithful to celebrate that “Jesus is light,” and the purity of the Virgin Mary. Of course in France celebrating usually means with butter : )
Candlemas commemorates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Jewish tradition that every first-born male of the family was taken to the Temple 40 days after birth in order to be consecrated to the Lord. This period of 40 days is the period during which mothers were considered unclean by the Jewish law after their birth. After this period, the mothers could go to the temple in order to perform an animal sacrifice and thus recover their purity.
It is this religious event that today’s faithful reminisce about at Candlemas. However, Candlemas actually has even earlier origins, it is believed to have stemmed from the ancient Roman Rite, the amburbiales, related to the purification of the city. This rite was celebrated with processions by torchlight around Rome. The Christianization of this pagan rite is believed to have been the work of Pope Gelasius 1 (494) or the Emperor Justinian (in an edict of 542).
In the Catholic religion, Candlemas results in a blessing of candles followed by a procession by candlelight to the church where a solemn mass is held to remind the faithful of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. After the Mass, each family brings home a candle, which is said to have purifying virtues according to local traditions.
Today, like Mardi Gras, (which is in just one week from today- OMG the eating never stops!) the festival is associated with crêpes. A tradition that is traced to the custom of distributing crêpes to pilgrims coming to Rome, or more simply to remember that the end of the winter is approaching (can I get an Amen!) and we still have food reserves. This practice of combining the Festival of Lights to consuming a “fatty” dessert is also found in the Jewish tradition of eating donuts during the festival of Hanukkah (the Jewish Festival of Lights).
A really neat custom in France is when cooking the first crêpe, it is common to flip it up in the air several times in order to ward off bad luck for the coming year. You are also supposed to do this with a gold coin in your left hand while flipping with your right. This old superstition is said to attract happiness and prosperity until next February 2nd.
While the French are known for celebrating February 2 with crepes, Candlemas is celebrated around the world.
In Luxembourg, the current tradition is inherited from the Roman torchlight procession; children roam the streets in groups during the evening of February 2, holding a lantern or a wand. They sing traditional songs hoping to receive sweets in exchange.
In Mexico, Candlemas is the opportunity to eat tamales, corn flour crepes that can be sweet or savory and stuffed with meat or fruit. Following tradition, the person that found the baby in the King’s Cake on January 6 (epiphany) has to bring the tamales for the Candlemas celebration.
In addition, and having nothing to do with sweet treats, in the United States and Canada, February 2 is Groundhog Day! If Punxsutawney Phil (for the Europeans reading this, yes, the groundhog has a name) comes out of his burrow and does not see his shadow (because of clouds in the sky), it is a sign that winter will soon end. On the contrary, if it sees its shadow (because of the clear sky), it means that winter will last another six weeks. Go figure, but this tradition has roots back to the German immigrants in Pennsylvania celebrating Candlemas!
Moral of the story, whatever part of the world you are in, crêpes are always a good idea! Here is my recipe for crêpes. These are eaten sweet because they are made with white flour. Savory crêpes are made from buckwheat flour and are called galettes.
Bon appétit and don’t forget we still have Valentine’s Day and skiing/winter sports which entails fondue and raclette. I’m off to the gym now…
Recipe for sweet crêpes
- 4 large eggs
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups flour
- 5 Tbs melted butter
- Pinch of salt
- 2 Tbs sugar (add vanilla sugar if you have it)
To change things up I occasionally add a splash of vanilla or orange flower essence. In France crêpes are often made with the variation of adding beer instead of water to the batter. Find a good basic recipe first then go ahead and change it up and make it yours.
In a blender (yes, I realize this is not how my husband’s old Breton ancestors did it but I got this tip from Alton Brown and it is great!), combine all of the ingredients and blend. Let it sit to rest for 1 hour. If you want you can store this in the fridge for up to 48 hours.
Use a frying pan for pancakes or if you are lucky enough to have a Billig, or crêpe pan, use that. Grease your pan with a pat of butter (preferably salted) and then use a ladle to add some of the liquid mix to the hot pan. Make it thin, these are crêpes not pancakes. You can give the pan a swirl to make sure the whole pan is thinly and evenly coated. Cook your crêpe approximately 2 minutes on each side and then stack up the cooked ones on a plate.
Crêpes are eaten however you fancy, often with powdered sugar, salted butter caramel, confiture, nutella and my favorite is butter, sugar and fresh squeezed lemon.
If you are feeling extravagant you could try to flambé them with fruit and alcohol or if you have the time and patience you could make a gâteau au crêpe like I made here.