I was making a quiche, rubbing butter and flour between my fingertips, and thinking about the French immersion course I took before I moved to Paris, about the lessons and my classmates, and a poem that we learned by heart. It’s a slight poem, and mournful. I can still recite the words.
Chanson d’Automne de Paul Verlaine
Les sanglots longs
blessent mon coeur
et blême, quand
je me souviens
des jours anciens
et je pleure
Et je m’en vais
au vent mauvais
pareil à la
(Translation: The long sobs of autumn’s violins wound my heart with a dreary lethargy.
All stifled and lifeless, when the hour strikes I remember days gone by and I weep.
And so I go on an ill wind, which carries me here and there like a dead leaf.)
Pretty mournful, right?
The cadence of Paul Verlaine’s autumn song swam in my head as I squeezed water from defrosted spinach, and chopped some steamed broccoli, and whisked together eggs, milk, and cheese. When the quiche was in the oven, I sat down at my computer and Googled “Chanson d’Automne.” And I made a discovery.
During World War II, the BBC and the French Resistance developed a code to signal the start of Operation Overlord, aka D-Day—and they used the first three lines of Chanson d’Automne as an alert. When repeated twice—“Les sanglots longs/ des violons/ de l’automne”—meant that operations would start within two weeks. The lines were broadcast on June 1, 1944. When the poem’s next three lines were transmitted twice—“Blessent mon coeur/ d’une langueur/ monotone”—it signaled that the action would take place within 48 hours and that the Resistance should begin sabotage operations. These lines were broadcast on June 5, 1944.
It turns out that Paul Verlaine’s despondent poem—part of an 1866 series that he oh-so-cheerfully entitled Paysages Tristes, or “sad landscapes”—was actually a symbol of hope.
I leave you with a recipe for quiche and the wish that cooking it may bring you many insightful, heartening, and inspiring contemplations.
1 recipe pâte brisée dough
1 lb frozen chopped spinach
1 cup grated cheese (Comté, Gruyère)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk or cream
Salt and pepper
With clean cool hands and a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough on a floured surface and fit it into a 22-cm/10-inch tart pan. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Chill for one hour (allegedly this reduces the shrinking). Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bake the tart crust until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven.
While the shell is baking, defrost the spinach and squeeze it dry (I usually use my bare hands. It’s very satisfying). Combine with the milk, cheese, and beaten eggs. Season well. Pour the egg mixture into the prepared crust. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, or until the quiche is puffed, set, and lightly golden.