I have always had a keen interest in history, and although the majority of what we learn in schools centres around New Zealand’s history, the French Revolution has fascinated me for a long time; the integral catalyst of this event being the storming of the Bastille. The founding of what we now know as Bastille Day occurred on July 14, 1789, when a mob of peasants, dissatisfied with the monarch, stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and freed every single prisoner – all seven of them.
While the repercussions affected the French Empire of a grand scale, the actual event was seen more as a non-event. Perhaps that is why the French are the only ones who don’t call it Bastille Day, instead it is known as le quatorze juillet – the 14th of July. In effect, the date is more important than anything that happened on it, the date that symbolises the beginning of the working class uprising – the event is so unimportant that I have encountered born-and-bred French citizens who have never learnt about what happened at Bastille.
Le quatorze julliet is the ideal public holiday – it falls in the middle of summer so the sun is always shining, nobody has to go to work so you can enjoy the balmy weather with friends, eating, drinking and being merry, and the fireworks displays are of world class quality, but how has the way it is celebrated changed how it is perceived?
A military parade is held in Paris each year from the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs-Elysée in an epitome of patriotism; the warm summer air carrying the notes of La Marseillaise, fluttering Tricolore flags gripped by children and adults alike, who crowd the street in unruly lines. Further South, the celebrations’ leniency increases with the humidity. Many people opt for escaping the city confines to the beach or the countryside to laze about by the pool with fresh salads, cold beer and homemade pizzas. They may get back to the city to see the evening fireworks display, or maybe not.
While this kind of celebration, or more accurately – lack of celebration, could be taken as a slight to the birth of modern-day France, and a remembrance of those involved, especially in comparison to the celebratory fanfare of the 4th of July, I think it should be interpreted as the base-level, relaxed celebration that it is. After all, the Storming of the Bastille was brought about by many things; the absolute control of the monarchy being one of them, but also the exorbitantly high taxes and shortage of food, were the driving forces. Daily life is made almost impossible when you can’t buy bread, something the nobility didn’t understand – substituting bread for cake seemed an appropriate solution. Keeping that in mind, should this holiday not be about enjoying and celebrating the fact that we can now afford to eat, that buying a baguette costs less than a euro and not a day’s wage?
For me, every day is a celebration of food; mostly thinking about it, but on occasions eating and creating too. My first Bastille Day was my first encounter with a traditional wood fire pizza oven. I had seen them before, and eaten pizza cooked on them, but I had never actually operated one. I know that making your own pizza is not the French-est sounding activity, but it was such an interesting experience; a daylong event!
The heat of the oven, after hours of feeding the fire log after log, blisters the dough and liquefies the cheese and toppings, a wondrous contrast to the crunch of the base. If you make each base the size of a small plate it is a perfect serving for one – so you don’t have to compromise on toppings; it can be just what you like! But it’s more fun if you leave everyone to design their own and then share them around, you might just find a new favourite. For me, it was the very French combination of goat’s cheese and honey – I know it sounds odd, but believe me when I say it is a match made in heaven!