Most of my current time in Europe is spent in Greece, however there is another European country that is near and dear to my heart, Switzerland. Having lived in the city of Geneva until college, I do my best to return periodically to visit friends. In my book, there are two times of year that the city is at its best, August 1st and December 12th. The former is when Switzerland celebrates the creation of the Swiss confederation, similar to the American 4th of July, and the latter is Geneva's commemoration of the Savoyards' attempted invasion of the city, known as Escalade. While our trips usually take place in the summer, this year, we chose to visit during the month of December and enjoy all of the ritual and tradition associated with Escalade.
The story of Escalade, as recounted to children from the time they are of school age, is as follows. On the night of December 12, 1602, the Duke of Savoy ordered a surprise attack on Geneva. The city, which sat atop a hill, was surrounded by stone walls, forcing the Savoyard soldiers to scale ladders in an attempt to gain access to the city. When the invasion struck, Catherine Royaume, a Genevese woman, who would become known as Mother Royaume, was boiling a cauldron of vegetable soup for her ailing husband. Rather than serve the soup, she is said to have rushed to the city walls and poured the iron cauldron’s contents onto the invading soldiers. While victory is likely attributable to more than Mother Royaume's act of bravery, her vegetable soup and cauldron have become emblems of the city’s victory and play center stage in the annual celebration.
On December 12th, families and friends gather to break the confections by having the oldest and youngest members of the group join fists and smash the cauldron while all declare “Such will perish the enemies of the Republic”. The broken pieces are then distributed and savored by all.
In addition to the marmites, the Genevese enjoy a weekend of celebrations in the city's old town. The beautifully preserved streets and buildings of the ancient city provide the perfect setting to relive and celebrate events from the 17th century.
Geneva in the 17th century
The Swiss, who are known for their chocolate confections, pay homage to the city's history by confecting chocolate cauldrons of all sizes. The edible works of art, known in French as “marmites” (pronunciation: ‘mar-meets’) are on full display in bakeries and tea rooms throughout the city during the first two weeks of December.
On Saturday evening, citizens dressed in period garb, serve a traditional vegetable soup (see recipe) along with mulled wine, gruyere cheese, bread, minced meat pie, apple tart, and other traditional fare. A wonderful feature of the evening is the option to purchase the soup in a handmade bowl to be kept as a memento of the annual celebration.
On Sunday evening, the festivities conclude with an Escalade parade, offering a wonderful display of the city’s period artifacts. Prior to the start of the parade, old fashion carts filled with gallons of hot mulled wine make their way along the path, stopping every few feet to offer a warm beverage to those who have come out to watch the parade.
The procession, which lasts 20 to 30 minutes, is filled with the sounds of drums and flutes. Some 800 volunteers march throughout the old town representing the different members of 17th century society including the city council, clergy, academia, military, artisans, peasants, women and children. This authentic display of history is a beautiful reminder of how life once was and a testament to the city's pride and effort to preserve its heritage. It most certainly was "A la belle Escalade!"