The Feast of St Martha: Dragons, Food and Tour de Force, Part 1

This is Part One of a Two-Part blog. Read Part Two.

It was the feast of St Martha, disciple of Jesus, dragon-tamer, and patron of cooks, on 29 July. I didn’t do anything foody for her feast, but, as it turned out, today’s visit to an Alliance Francaise market gave me ample opportunity to remember her happy patronage.

The French market was part of East London’s Alliance’s Tour de Force, a mountain bike race held at Three Silos, which is not all that far from Gonubie. The race is, of course, a nod in the direction of the Tour de France.

The French Market at Alliance Francaise d’ East London’s Tour de Force mountain bike race, held at Three Silos.

Neither my mother nor I are keen cyclists, but the market sounded like a perfect Sunday outing, so off we went. Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m too lazy a slob to cycle. As a child, my bicycle was one of the best things I owned.

However, after more than a decade of not having been on a bicycle, I decided to ride across Gonubie on my brother’s bike. This happened a few weeks ago, so it’s all still quite fresh in my memory.

The first thing I noticed about the bike was the saddle. I didn’t remember them being that narrow, but how bad could it be? Then I noticed the gears. I hadn’t seen bicycle gears quite like that before, but how difficult could it be? And then I noticed how low the handle bars were, but I was quite certain it wouldn’t make all that much of a difference.

By the time I got home, I thought I was going to die, and then I couldn’t sit comfortably for days. Oh, yes, I remembered how to pedal and steer, but I think that’s about as good as it got. So, no mountain bike races for me, but I was more than happy to stuff my face at the market.

Food, Glorious French Food

The French Market at the Alliance Francaise d’ East London’s Tour de Force was a delight. It was bigger than I expected, and the quality of the clothing, ceramics, knickknacks, and food surpassed my expectations.

Mom and I browsed just about every stall, and then made return trips for food, and, my goodness, what food!

We feasted on cassoulet made with beef and beans, and on orange, cardamom, and white chocolate cake from the Appetito stall.

The cassoulet was packed with flavour. The meat was sweet and tender, and a mix of beans buttery and earthy. There was an exquisite sharpness to it, which I’m sure my mother said was remoulade.

Wonderful flavours aside, what was also noticeable about my bowl of cassoulet was the casserole to rice ratio. I’m used to seeing portions that are rice-heavy; no matter where I buy street or market food, if there’s rice involved, there’s usually more rice than anything else.

It was quite the opposite this time around. This time, there was just enough rice to soak up all those delicious juices, so it was just about perfect.

Cassoulet from Appetito’s stall at the Alliance Francaise French Market.

As for that cake… It was as good as it sounds, if not better. It was more dense, and the cardamom more subtle, than I expected. I didn’t mind the texture, although I wouldn’t have minded just a bit more cardamom – it’s a seriously underrated spice, and one I really do enjoy using in the kitchen.

Orange, cardamom and white chocolate cake from Appetito.

We washed lunch down with coffee, and then went to look for treats to take home. We headed back to Appetito, where we found tarte au chocolate, crepes Suzette, mini croissants with salami, cheese, and greens, and these wonderful snack packs with slices of pork belly on skewers, a mini baguette, and a small pot of pate.

We’ve eaten nearly everything we bought, and indeed it was good.

Tarte au chocolat from Appetito.

 St Martha, Hostess of the Lord

“Almighty ever-living God,

Whose Son was pleased to be welcomed in Saint Martha’s house as a guest,

Grant, we pray, that, through her intercession,

Serving Christ faithfully in our brothers and sisters

We may merit to be received by you into the halls of heaven.”

– Collect of the feast, Daily Missal

Saint Martha, in a Flemish illumination from the Isabella Breviary, 1497. wiki
Saint Martha, in a Flemish illumination from the Isabella Breviary, 1497. Pic: Wikipedia

Martha whose Aramaic name ‘Marta’ means the ‘mistress’ or ‘lady’, was a disciple of Jesus. The church ranks her among the Virgins.

In the gospel accounts, she lived with Mary her sister in the village of Bethany, and received Christ into her house as a guest. She and her sister make only a few appearances in the gospels, but when they do, the scenes are touching ones.

Saint Martha’s first appearance is when Christ visits her house. She gets a bit flustered looking after all her guests, while her sister is sitting at Christ’s feet, listening to him talk.

On asking Christ to tell her sister to do some work, he tells her to chill out in the nicest way, and explains that Mary has ‘chosen the better part’, because “only one thing is needed” (cf. Luke 10:38-42).

Christ with Martha and Maria, by Henryk Siemiradzki
Christ with Martha and Maria by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1886. Pic: Wikipedia

We next we meet the sisters, they are mourning the death of their brother Lazarus, after they had sent a message to Christ, informing him that their brother had fallen ill.

Hearing that Jesus was coming, Martha went and met him, while Mary remained at home. She tells Christ that Lazarus would not have died if he had come sooner, to which he responds with a teaching on resurrection, and one of the seven “I Am” sayings; in this case, “I am the resurrection and the life”.

There follows a poignant account of Jesus meeting Mary, the friends grieving at the tomb of Lazarus, and his subsequent raising from the dead (cf. John 11:1-45).

The Raising of Lazarus by Giotto. Pic: Fisheaters

The sisters and their brother make their final canonical gospel appearance in the last week of Jesus’ life. Six days before the Passover, we are told, Jesus visits his friends in Bethany one last time.

They give a dinner for him, where, true to form, Martha serves. This time, instead of sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him, Mary takes a pound of spikenard, anoints his feet, and wipes them with her hair (cf. John 12:1-11).

The sisters from Bethany also appear in the Pistis Sophia, a Gnostic text in which they are among the women whom Christ proclaims blessed.

Mary Mix-Up Makes Magdalene Martha’s Sister

In her book, Mary Magdalene: the Essential History, Susan Haskins tells how, in the sixth century, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman of chapter seven in Luke’s gospel were merged into one figure by Pope Gregory the Great.

It took them approximately a thousand years to figure out that the three women are, indeed, three separate figures. Still, the multifaceted Magdalene is important in the legendary life of St Martha, because the identification of Mary of Magdala with Mary of Bethany makes her Martha’s sister.

Martha’s arrival in France. Pic: Fisheaters

In the 12th century legends, Martha, Lazarus, and the three Marys arrive in Provence by boat. Martha travels to a town on the Rhone, where a dragon called the Tarasque is bringing destruction and death. The saints tames the dragon, which is then killed by the townsfolk.

Martha brings them to faith in Christ, the town is renamed in the slain dragon’s honour, and Martha remains there to found a community of virgins and work signs and wonders among the people.

martha naturalibus blogspot
St Martha and the Tarasque. Pic: Naturalibus

 Herbs for Martha’s Cooking Pot

I couldn’t find any dishes traditionally associated with St Martha’s feast, but Fisheaters has a wonderful suggestion of making something using the herb tarragon.

It grows naturally in the region in France in which the saint was said to have lived, and part of its botanical name (Artemisia dranunculus) means “little dragon”. I love tarragon, so have no problem including two recipes I’ve really enjoyed.

Jane Griffiths’ book, Jane’s Delicious Herbs, says that, at one time, the herb was believed to be an antidote for the bites of poisonous animals.

Regarding its culinary uses, Griffiths says, “Although tarragon is subtle, it infuses dishes very quickly with its flavour, and should not be used excessively. Fresh tarragon is ideal for flavouring egg dishes, chicken, sauces, salad dressings, and soups. Tarragon vinegar, made using good-quality white wine vinegar, is a tasty way to preserve leaves and produce flavoured vinegar.”

While the herb is used mostly in cooking, it does have medicinal properties. Griffiths says that it contains enzymes that assist with digestion, especially the digestion of protein, and that it’s calming, helps with insomnia, can help ease toothache, cuts and sores, and is a good tonic.

The first is for chicken with a tarragon sauce, based on Allora Andiamo’s recipe on Jamie Oliver’s website; the second, which is at the end of part two of this blog, is for fillet steak with tarragon, taken from Joanne Harris’ the French Kitchen.

chicken with tarragon sauce
Chicken with Tarragon Sauce

 Chicken with Tarragon Sauce

4 small chicken breasts, deboned (if they’re quite thick, slice them partway through so they flatten in the pan)

225ml crème fraiche

1 glass white wine

2 or 3 shallots, or 1 small onion, chopped finely

1 clove of garlic (crushed in a press is best, otherwise chop as finely as possible)

2 teaspoons of dried tarragon, or a small bunch of fresh tarragon, chopped finely

1 level teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

A couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter and olive oil

Put the butter and olive oil in a pan, and heat it until it’s hot enough for frying. Add the breasts, and fry over a medium heat until golden and the juices run clear. Remove them from the pan, and keep them warm while making the sauce.

Reduce the heat under the pan, add the shallots/onions and garlic, and cook over a low heat until soft and lightly browned.

Pour the wine into the pan, sprinkle in the tarragon, and season with salt and pepper. Increase the heat, and let the wine reduce until you’re left with about six tablespoons of liquid. Adjust the seasoning, if needed (scrape the bottom of the pan to ensure the chickeny bits lift up to mingle with the liquid).

Reduce the heat, and stir in the crème fraiche and the mustard. Let it cook gently for a few minutes; keep stirring, but not too forcefully. Don’t add the crème fraiche while the sauce is at a high temperature, because the sauce could separate.

As soon as the sauce is ready, transfer the chicken breasts to plates, and spoon the sauce over them. I like to serve this with simpler sides, such as mashed potatoes and green beans.

Read part two of this blog.


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