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Saint Honoré | A French cake & Patron Saint of bakers

Woman serving customers on a bread stall piled high with loaves

Ally Mitchell investigates the legend of Saint Honoré and his importance to the bakers of France…

As a Brit, my appreciation of saint days extends to our patron saints of which there are four, one for each country within the United Kingdom. Beyond them and St Valentine, however, there are few saints recorded on my calendar. France, on the other hand, has filled in the blanks – they have a saint allocated to every day of the year.

Many slide right past on the conveyer belt of days, yet some are celebrated including St Catherine, the saint of unmarried women, in November, and St Honoré, the saint of bakers, in May. Both worthy of a good celebration (maybe they should be combined? What a good knees-up that would be). St Honoré even had a spectacular cake made in his honour, one which is now sold in boulangeries around France. Pretty good going for a young unassuming bishop from Amiens. So, to celebrate St Honoré on the 16th May, here’s his tale and how he became the saint of boulangers, pâtissiers and meuniers, three professions you might not expect would require a patron.

Who was St Honoré?

Amiens Cathedral

Honoré was born in Port-le-Grand, Picardy, in the sixth century to a noble family. Not a lot was recorded about his life until he was offered the role of the eighth bishop of Amiens. Even though he resisted the offer, believing himself to be unworthy, according to legend, at that exact moment, a ray a divine light shone down on him.

His beloved nursemaid didn’t believe he could have been honoured with such a position. She swore she would accept it only if her bread peel grew roots and transformed into a tree. Incidentally, she was baking bread at the time. Placing the end of the peel on the floor, it suddenly morphed into a mulberry tree. Ten centuries later, the tree was still standing and deemed miraculous.

Miracles and more

This wasn’t the only miracle allegedly conjured by Honoré, nor his only connection to bread and baking. Natural disasters were somehow avoided saving the crops and consequently the work of millers and bakers. St Honoré was credited with these miracles. After his death in around 600AD, drought loomed. In his absence, his relics were appealed to. They were carried in a procession around the city walls. Before long, the rain swiftly came.

His post-humous reputation continued to grow. In 1202, a baker wished to build a chapel in his honour and donated some local land to the city of Paris. This chapel was extended in 1579. It bequeathed its name to Rue Saint-Honoré which extends to Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré from the 1st to the 8th arrondissement. Streets aren’t the only locations bestowed with his eponym though. There is also the Saint-Honoré market and the now missing Saint-Honoré gate on the west of the city. The Saint-Honoré chapel has since been replaced by the departments of The Ministry of Culture.

Patron saint of bakers

In Paris in 1400, the guild of bakers was established in the church of St Honoratus. They dedicated the day of his feast to the 16th May. Even royalty jumped on board. In 1659, Louis XIV decreed that the feast of St Honoré must be observed by every baker annually. He also demanded that donations be given in his name. Both financial and edible donations were accepted.

You may be wondering why bakers, pastry makers and millers all needed a patron saint. These professions have always been gruelling, but none more so than during the medieval times when the workers suffered from various breathing and skin aliments due to the flour particles filling their lungs and pores. They also had bad reputations for selling under-weight bread or using bad grain. For these practices, they were punished with a contraption called the ‘baker’s gallows.’  It’s as bad as it sounds. They would be forced into a basket, hoisted up to 40 feet in the air, then dropped in mud.

Let them eat cake

St Honore cake

And what about this cake? Even by the 19th century, bakers and pastry chefs were still honouring St Honoré. And now they put their professional skills into action by baking him a showstopper of confectionary. In 1847, the Chiboust boulangerie on – where else? – the Rue Saint-Honoré, created a ring-shaped brioche filled with a finicky filling of crème patisserie lightened with Italian meringue. This cream, which became known as crème Chiboust even has its own Facebook page! It’s applied with a special St Honoré nozzle to form the pastry’s iconic petals of cream. Eventually, the brioche was replaced with puff pastry. Then it is topped with a circle of cream choux buns dipped in caramel. It’s no wonder that this is the patisserie of choice for St Honoré. All its elements demonstrate essential baking and pâtissier skills.

Saint Honoré’s Day in France

Celebrate St Honoré on the 16th May at Les Fetes du Pain where tompetitions (including the Best French Traditional Baguette), demonstrations and tastings are held in front of Notre-Dame in Paris. Pick up a St Honoré cake from your local boulangerie (or make one at home if you have several hours to spare). Visit Amiens Cathedral, a UNESCO heritage site, which dates back to the 13th century – St Honoré is tributed with the eponymous south portal.

Ally Mitchell is a blogger and freelance writer, specialising in food and recipes. Ally left the UK to live in Toulouse in 2021 and now writes about her new life in France on her food blog NigellaEatsEverything.

This article was first published in The Good Life France Magazine

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