If you are near Marseille on Candlemas Day, stop by the Four des Navettes where Jean-Claude Imbert carries on a tradition more than two centuries old. Navette de St-Victor - story and recipe
Candlemas - February 2nd
Candlemas is a celebration of light, the day of candles, but in many parts of the world it is thought of by both young and old as pancake day!
Candlemas Crepes (Pancakes) - Traditions and recipe - former chef Gérard Rabaey, Le Pont de Brent, Switzerland
For many people worldwide, Candlemas, February 2, has a particular smell: not just the scent of lighted candles but also the fragrance of pancakes being cooked for family and friends. Whose turn is it to flip the pancake with a neat flick of the wrist, deftly manoeuvring the pan with the right hand while holding a gold coin in the left? It mustn't fall, stick to the ceiling or come back down in shreds. They say that to do achieve this little acrobatic feat successfully will bring happiness. Perhaps no one believes it, though everyone tries, tempted by the promise of money for the coming year!
In fact, the old superstition went a step further: besides just flipping the first pancake while holding a gold coin, the pancake then had to be rolled around the coin. This little package was then carried in procession by the whole family and placed at the top of the wardrobe of the eldest member of the household, where, it was said, it wouldn't mould. The remains of last year's pancake were then removed and the coin inside given to the first poor person who passed by. Among the Acadians of Prince Edward Island a collection was taken up on that day for the poor of the parish.
Because its golden disc reminds us of the sun. The tradition of pancakes (or in southern France, round doughnuts) is a symbol that survives from an ancient myth dealing with the solar wheel.
However, Candlemas pancakes have to be made with wheat flour from the previous harvest. Stacks of them can be prepared without fear of famine, since soon the fields will regain their golden colour.
There was even an old saying that held if you ate pancakes on Candlemas, you would be ensured a good harvest in the coming year.
While the pancake tradition is carried on from one end of France to the other, some regions replace it or complement it with doughnuts: in the Berry region they make apple fritters, in Franche-Comté they are called "beugnets" and in the Yonne they serve "roubigneaux" made from flour and milk, fried in oil and butter.
In Quebec the tradition of pancakes for "la Chandeleur" has died out somewhat, since breakfast pancakes are served throughout the year with maple syrup and a knob of butter. On the other hand, in the Saguenay - Lac St. Jean region, there is a Candlemas custom that is found nowhere else: Cretons de la Chandeleur, a dish of potted meat, made not from pork, but with veal and chicken livers flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg.
In the Valls, the day brings with it the smell of little white onions (calçotades) which are grilled over the coals. Their aroma wafts through the streets. Later on, they are dipped into romesco or salbitxada sauce to accompany charcoal-grilled meats, for here Candlemas is celebrated as a popular holiday around an outdoor barbecue.
In a tradition that dates back to pre-Reformation times, in the British Isles pancakes are customarily served on Shrove Tuesday, instead of for Candlemas. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday - called Mardi Gras, or "fat Tuesday" in French - was the last opportunity to use up all the household's fat, eggs and dairy products before the strict Lenten fast began. What better way than to turn them into pancakes? In some parts of England, there are "pancake day races," a tradition dating back to the 15th century. The legend goes that a medieval housewife, in the midst of cooking pancakes, rushed off to church, skillet still in hand, when she heard the Shrove Tuesday "shriving bell" summoning her to confession. Today, women carrying a skillet containing a pancake (that must be flipped three times during the race) vie to see who will be first to complete the course.
While in some countries Epiphany is the occasion for the crowning of the king or queen of the feast, the custom has an unhappier ending in this part of the world! Whoever discovers a little sugar Jesus or a bean in his "rosca de reyes," or kings' crown, has to organize and pay for the Candlemas party on February 2, when all the guests will be invited for tamales. It is whispered that anyone who is a bit stingy will have no qualms about swallowing the bean, but since the party takes place with family and friends, the subterfuge is quickly pointed out with laughs and good-natured taunts.
Navettes are traditional little pastries made in the shape of a "navette" or small boat, 7 to 8 cm long. Their name recalls the voyage of Lazarus, his sister Martha and the two Saint Marys, who are said to have landed in Provence almost 2000 years ago in such a vessel, giving their name to the town of "Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer."
At Le Four des Navettes, near the Abbey of St. Victor in the heart of Marseille, navettes have been baked continuously since 1781. They are traditionally eaten after the Candlemas Day procession on February 2. The Archbishop of Marseille blesses an ovenload of these little cakes and according to tradition, ten days later, on February 12, the Black Virgin of the Abbey appears in the chapel.
For more tradition and recipe, click here.
The word Candlemas comes from the Latin "festa candelarum," the festival of candles. It was originally a pagan holiday called Lupercales that honoured the god Pan, during which rowdy revelers would run through the streets of Rome at night waving flaming torches.
Pope Gelasius I, who often provided pancakes to sustain weary pilgrims arriving in Rome, decided in 472 to Christianize the old pagan holiday by renaming it the feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple, symbolized by light. On Candlemas, candles are brought to the church to be blessed, to be lit later during storms to provide protection from lightning, as well as in the bedrooms of the dying to keep away evil spirits. Candles were also burned during the sowing season and carried in procession through fields and vineyards.
February 2 marks the halfway point of the winter season and there are numerous weather-related proverbs connected with the day. One old English proverb holds that "if Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again."
In a North American tradition that dates back to early Pennsylvania German settlers, February 2 is also known as "Groundhog Day." Legend has it that if a groundhog emerges from its hole on February 2 and sees its shadow, there will be 6 more weeks of winter weather!
While the candles may have gone out long ago, "pancake" day lives on. Just add a bowlful of cider to make the feast complete!
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