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La Chandeleur: Why do the French eat crêpes on February 2nd?

It's La Chandeleur on Sunday - the day when France goes pancake mad. But there are certain very particular ways to eat your crêpe, according to French tradition.

La Chandeleur: Why do the French eat crêpes on February 2nd?
You can't just eat this delicious crêpe - you need the superstitions too. Photo: AFP

What is La Chandeleur?

It's a religious holiday in France that nowadays basically just involves people eating a lot of crêpes.

Why crêpes?

Well there's a lot of history to this day – more on this later – but in short, it was a good way to use up the extra wheat ahead of the new harvest. And symbolically, it looks like a sun, so it was a reason to rejoice as the days started to get longer. 

Why February 2nd?

The date actually marks when Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem.

Before becoming a religious holiday, Chandeleur stemmed from several pagan traditions celebrating the fertility of the earth and the beginning of the end of winter. 

It's said that in the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I started the Festival des Chandelles on this date, a candlelit procession through the streets of Rome that culminated in placing the blessed candles in the churches. Gelasius linked this custom to crêpes by handing out galettes (a type of salty crêpe) to poor pilgrims who arrived in Rome that day.

Thanks for the history lesson. 

You're welcome. It's good to know the history, but nowadays the crêpes themselves are the most important thing about La Chandeleur for many. 

Do the French do Crepe Tuesday too?

You mean for Shrove Tuesday? No, they don't. Shrove Tuesday, when many other people around the world are eating pancakes, is called Mardi Gras in France (or Fat Tuesday) and is more associated with eating fatty foods – traditionally ahead of the fasting that began on Ash Wednesday. 

 

So how do I take part? Cook up some crêpes for breakfast?

No! You can’t just whip up a batch of crêpes like you would on an ordinary day. Firstly, it's traditional to have them in the evening. And don't forget the superstitions. 

What are the superstitions?

It’s recommended to toss the crêpe in the pan with your right hand while holding a piece of gold in your left – for good luck of course.

Another old tradition also saw people putting the first crêpe in a drawer or on top of a wardrobe to attract prosperity for the coming year.

There are so many traditions, in fact, that we've explained them all here – from candles and snow to coin flipping and ashes. 

Is that all the superstitions? 

Of course not, we haven't mentioned the weather yet – a crucial part of the day. 

Tradition says that a rainy day means another 40 days of rain. Indeed, you might hear the French say “Quand il pleut pour la Chandeleur, il pleut pendant quarante jours”.

Other sayings suggest that a sunny day will bring more winter and misfortune, a clear day means winter is behind us, and a cloudy day means another 40 days of winter. 

These three all sound better in French, where they rhyme. Here they are in the same order:

“Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur”, and “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere”, and “Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte”.
 
Now you're ready – good luck and happy tossing!

Member comments

  1. Who wrote this? What happened to calling it CANDLEMAS? Its not only in France, its all Christendom that Candlemas is celebrated. Presentation of Jesus, first time in temple, purification of the mother, its also the day when traditionally in churches, all the candles are blessed for the coming year – hence the name CANDLEMAS/CHANDELEUR !

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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