When it’s time for dessert, at first glance le juge might not seem very impressive: small, flat, round, and black, shaped like a hockey puck, made slippery and greased so it can spin off without qualms across the frozen surface, as an aerial hockey stick sends it overhead. Because of its roundness it belongs to that category of desserts whose ingestion is a permanent challenge to the tentative efforts of codification of table manners. Although it might not seem easy to determine by which extremity to seize it—because it has no extremity to speak of—from the onset it is easy to surmise that it will more gladly defy social norms of decency and cleanliness, than fail to honour its reputation of being available to each and every pressing appetite.
Beneath the chocolate icing, which entirely covers le juge is hidden a thin cushion of redcurrant jelly, a remarkable combination of acidity and sweetness, heightened by the crunchiness of its tiny pips. This acidic marmalade reclines on a bed of chocolate mousse whose bitterness compensates the head-notes whilst making it less cloying to the palate. These two layers of bittersweet compromise rest comfortably on a thick sponge-cake base. Generally, the summit of le juge’s body is adorned with a fan-shaped ribbed chocolate decoration, completed by artistically disposed fresh redcurrants. However, there are many variations of ornamentation, reflecting the rich history of this little-known pastry, which has travelled through time under many shapes.
Indeed, the said pastry is far from recent: if this skating-rink accessory like pastry holds its name from the ancient profession practised in the halls of Justice it is not because of superficial considerations such as are traditionally associated with the darkness, shabbiness or baseness of its exterior aspect, which, it is believed by some wise-acres, coincides not only with contemporary judges’ ceremonial apparel, but also with the expression of their deep-down temperament.
Although admittedly, French gastronomy didn’t acquire its artistic dignity only by using the weapons of technique and savours; the literary and political implications of a great number of its daily feats have largely contributed to its consecration. This phenomenon is particular to France, whose culinary tradition, whether gourmet haute cuisine or family home cooking, often transcends the simple satisfaction of nutritive or even gustative ambitions. Luckily enough these last two pre-requisites have always been fulfilled; which is why culinary inventiveness has had ample time to gather a ludic dimension, which ignores social barriers, and distinguishes itself as much by the pleasure taken in the play of words, as in the intelligence at work in a technique. Free because it was considered superfluous, relegated to the end of meals, or reserved for the occasional popular festivities, when not for children’s amusement, and thus consumable outside of regular meal schedules and of proper places, pastry has therefore played an important role in the emergence of an avant-garde ludic food culture.
It is in that light that the purely logical, and spontaneous justifications of le juge’s appellation are true, inasmuch as they partake of that same freedom. Indeed le juge is called a ‘judge’ because it shares the blackness, ugliness and pettiness, whether moral, physical or vestimentary, it’s always been associated with, as is shown by popular imagery from Daumier to Brassens, amongst many others. For indeed judges do sit on ‘biscuits’, by which they are bought, and they do ‘puff themselves up’. Indeed judges, however cupid and vain, are cold monsters nevertheless, trapped between their ‘icing’ and their chocolaty bitterness. And yes, judges are more often ‘seeds’ of trouble, not to use a harsher word, such as ‘being steeped deep in it’, than justice. Yet a dessert is more than a set of disembodied concepts.
Moreover French pastry tradition proves not only that verbal cleverness isn’t the appanage of laborious concept forgers, in spite of their idolatry, but more to the point, that irony has its place in manual realisations, which give it shape often far better than words can. This joy born of action flourishes in the dessert under the guise of humour, a transmitted, shared humour experienced in the midst of an authentic collective history, although it may never be written, nor even glimpsed by art historians, omitting their object because they ignore its existence.
Le juge is a case study in this alternative art history. It is part of a tradition that goes back to the middle of the fourteenth century and originates in Bar-le-Duc, in Lorraine: that is where a gourmet apothecary invented a redcurrant jelly which was seeded by a goose feather. The city archives would rapidly report extravagant acquisitions of this precious substance for quite unconventional uses. And little by little a custom came into being, by which all judges who displayed an exemplary form of serenity in their judgements—one might as well say, all judges, given that whether the criteria was met or not was decided by the party which had gained satisfaction, would be rewarded by an offering of this jelly. In 1518 this custom was to take on a new intensity when the rosewood cases, which the jelly had previously been presented in, were replaced by small precious chiselled crystal glasses, the master-pieces of the monks of the Lisle-en-Barrois monastery. From then on, both the nobility and the middle class rivalled with each other in upholding this custom, under the benevolent gaze of the judges, always eager to do justice, not least to their appetites. And this form of corruption, whose childlike ingenuity could make it appear almost comical, was to become totally excessive as time went by, as is shown by the town archives, before the Revolution swept away these practises: production had reached 50,000 pots in 1780 and as was common knowledge throughout France, during centuries the Bar-Le-Duc jellies were offered all over France to all the mighty or influential people of the kingdom passing through this most welcoming and agreeable city of Lorraine, for protection or influence.
Le juge appears to be connected to this ‘ French caviar’ through a spatial and temporal coincidence which is all the more troubling in that its initial sweet shape was that of a redcurrant jelly ‘roll’. This dessert is composed of a layer of raised cake, coated with various preparations according to the local traditions, and then rolled to form a roll, which is then sliced into thick round slices with a spiral design. This is a cake which has an ancient history in Eastern Europe and which is omnipresent from Alsace to Hungary, where poppy-seed and walnuts replace the jelly in the roll. In Eastern France, redcurrant jellies dominate, for reasons bound to remain mysterious if one fails to take into account both the century-old tradition of graft in Bar-le-Duc as well as a major linguistic phenomenon which appeared in Europe during the fifteenth century: the emergence, in the wake of the Roms’ arrival, of a slang specific to the so-called ‘dangerous’ classes. The trial of the Coquillards that took place in Dijon in 1455 has provided us with a precious lexicon of double-meanings used by these villains, all too familiar with justice, and this has completed the data provided by the jargon in Villon’s ballads. Thus it is that we learn from the glossary that was put together by the judges from Dijon that the Coquillards call ‘the justice of any place the marine or the rouhe’ (wheel). Consuming redcurrant jelly rolls, as preceded by the farcical slicing of the roll into ‘wheels’, in the popular layers of society which were not devoid of humour, was a festive simulacrum of the cannibal ritual, intended to purge society of the judges’ revolting corruption.
Of course by definition, slang’s main interest is that the majority of people don’t understand it. Thus it was that the tradition of naming juge the redcurrant jelly roll in the Eastern part of France remained quite esoteric, despite the cake’s popularity, and almost disappeared as time went by, as the roll changed appearances, as new pastry trends came along, such as the progressive introduction of chocolate, in the form of icing or cream. Why le juge was to reappear with such panache on the French gastronomic scene in the 1870’s must therefore be explained at length. France had just lost Alsace as well as a part of Lorraine, birthplace of le juge, the future of the Republic, which was dear to le juge-eaters, seemed far from well-assured, when an apparently new dessert began its incredible ascension. The very first Christmas bûche was a confectionary produced by Antoine Chabarlot, on Christmas Eve in 1874: it was made of sponge cake, butter and chocolate cream, and was shaped as a roll. The scholars of the profession in their unconvincing quest for believable origins evoke a Provençal custom of burning a log on Christmas Eve. In French slang a sapeur[* Sapeur: in English is a sapper, ‘sapements’ in slang means the punishments of justice and ‘sapins’ those employed to mete out these punishments; and a sapin is also a fir-tree.]* is another word for a judge; he saps by sapements , executed by sapins ; the same root is attested with similar meanings whether in rom, or caló or in fourbesque. This roll is yet another metamorphosis of the roulé[** Roulé means rolled yet has another meaning: to be taken advantage of.]** which is le juge: roulés had always been consumed on Christmas Eve all over Eastern Europe and this avatar of the log, only gave children, intent on ‘entering the career’, a pretext for lodging a Christmas tree in its behind by a just return of things. Words can deceive and pleasure is not only oral...
‘Once you’ve passed the boundary, there are no limits’, would repeat the sapeur Camember, Lure-born and a contemporary cartoon protagonist of these events. This well-known embodiment of imbecility would then add: “And, I do claim it, in my eyes, the guilty party is innocent”. Animated by the same spirit of absurd exaggeration, Alsatian refugees, who were pastry confectioners, sold in Paris, in the heat of the success of the first impaled logs, the first juges presented as such publicly: thick slices of redcurrant filled logs, served lying flat and coated with chocolate icing, giving them an appearance quite close to le juges’ current aspect. The name blended in easily given this pompous end of century’s fad with its diplomates, marquises, religieuses, financiers, colonels and other nourishing notables. Le juge remained in fashion until World War I , as did the fashion of the redcurrant jellies seeded with a goose-feather, whose production crossed the threshold of 600,000 pots in 1909. With the progress of the ideals of Democracy under the Third Republic, as well as with the Dreyfus Affair, the sarcastic verve to which le juge owed its very birth, had found ample echo, yet the vicissitudes of fashion were to impose on it years of Siberian exile until the leaden years of Vichy.
The way judges acted during the Occupation is certainly not a subject of pride for French administration, especially in the higher spheres of power. This probably explains why it is still very difficult to obtain documentation on the acts of the Conseil d’ Etat, in both the occupied and ‘free’ zones. The highest jurisdiction in French administration has taken the wise precaution of having its history recorded by its own kind: like their judgements, the result of this very objective analysis holds in a few lines, avoiding the subject without much grace, yet always without appeal. There’s quite a yawning gap between this official version and history as it took place, for during that period the judge in its pastry form was in full effervescence. The goose-feather seeded jelly having disappeared there arose the need of a replacement fruit. The solution came from a pastry confectioner in Riom, who disgusted by the gutlessness of his magistrate clientèle, found the adequate fruit: in the absence of the goose-feather seeded white or redcurrant jelly, he used the gooseberry (except that in French the gooseberry is called: groseille à maquereau, maquereau meaning mackerel as well as pimp), a bit coarser certainly but with aptly evocative connotations as to what was really going on, with the noble corporation at work in the lofty halls of Justice busily selling France to the Nazis, re-interpreting French law so that it negated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, so as to legitimise the persecution of Jews and political opponents.
Yet our modern juge was born a bit later. This event took place in Paris, at a time during which the lack of chocolate entailed the use of all kinds of mediocre substitutes, some closer to a colourizer than to cocoa. Indeed these tasteless ersatz brought more clients to the black-market, which was exorbitantly expensive but well-stocked, for the well-off fringe of collaborationists—high-ranking civil servants, intellectuals and judges—intended to display a lifestyle worthy of their German hosts. A Parisian pastry confectioner decided to use the business his reputation brought him in order to divert some of the chocolate graciously provided by his despicable clientèle for the confection of juges. He modified the dessert’s structure by adding a thick and very mellow Sacher sponge-cake, made from raw almond paste and cocoa powder—that is to say from ersatz... By proceeding this way he could reserve the real chocolate for the icing of the top, without altering the traditional aspect of le juge, black from head to toe. The ‘almond’ was not the most honourable[* Allusion to the expression ‘ Faire amende honorable’: to make honourable amends, a process by which the punished person asked forgiveness as he was being punished and which was denounced by Voltaire.]* but the recipe was a treat and the connoisseurs appreciated the artful appropriation of the invention of the Viennese pastry confectioner, homonymous with the famous Sacher-Masoch, whose laughable perversions echoed the depravations of the eponymous puppets of their favourite sweet.
A taciturn Lorran pastry confectioner it was, who tired of hearing his finicky clients reproach him with the disappearance of the goose-feather seeded jelly, added one last touch to le juge’s reform by adding an original decoration: a little feather planted right in its heart, as he called it politely. So that those who were not content could seed the gooseberry jam themselves before eating the dessert. This new version of the sweet met with resounding success and spread all over the country, for, beyond its supposed function, it meant a return to the sources of this historical pastry. Its keen irony was immediately deciphered as a limpid allusion to the nocturnal collusion of the collaborating judges and Nazi occupying forces, who shared a taste for Parisian cabarets presenting pert young ladies dancing, wearing almost nothing but a few feathers, most often planted on their rear ends. Most confessed that the judges, by their outrageous submission to the occupants had shown that they deserved this insignia: they deserved to have a feather planted in their arses to complete the picture, and that’s exactly what took place.
This dessert, which was emblematic of dark times, did not thrive during the period immediately after the war. Beyond the psychological barrier, there were also many material obstacles: rationing as well as the absence of the counter-balancing fighting force of indignation. Furthermore the pastry confectioners would have to adapt to the new sociological reality of the ‘ Trente Glorieuses’ [* ‘ Les Trente Glorieuses’: the thirty years of economical stability France enjoyed from the Libération until the first oil crisis (45-74).]* marked by an important part of their clientèle’s accession to the middle class. This had disastrous consequences on professional onomastics; amongst those direly named desserts, only the beaten (battu) cakes and the failed (manqué) cakes managed to survive. Their disgusting names would progressively condemn to a prudish extinction such centenary cakes as the ‘vérolé’ (poxed), the ‘galeux’ (mangy), and le juge. Yet this last pastry managed a stupendous comeback during our millennium, which remains unexplained in the actual state of research—although it would constitute an admirable topic of investigation. Whereas in Bar-le-Duc there was only one firm left, À la Lorraine, founded in 1879, still producing goose-feather seeded redcurrant jelly, suddenly, in the year 2000, a second one appeared. At exactly the same time some Parisian pastry confectioners began to present juges for sale. It is true they’ve lost their feathers; instead a chip of black chocolate seeks, through an engraving-like effect, to emulate a downy texture. Yet as soon as one engages in conversation with one of these facetious artisans of the rebirth of this little concentrate of French history, each and every one of them is prompt to offer a set of multi-coloured feathers to be stuck into the pastry when the time comes to eat it. As we know, for children the Twelfth Night Cake (La Galette des Rois) would lose all attraction without the ‘hidden bean’ (fève) and the ‘crown’ delivered by the baker, so it is for le juge; one must plant the feather up its arse oneself.