The Escalade: Festival of the Chocolate Pot – 1602

Celebrated in Geneva this weekend 7-9 December 2018

A history of The Escalade: Festival of the Chocolate Pot celebrated in Geneva – A commemoration of the defeat of The Duke of Savoy and his army

Each year in the second week of December, Geneva in Switzerland comes alive with the sound of revolution. Fife and drum bands march the cobbled streets of the Old Town. Cannon fire and musket shot burst into the night. Secret passageways are lit by flaming torches and women in dirndls tend to boiling cauldrons of vegetable soup – all in celebration of the victory known as ‘The Escalade’ – a night 400 years ago when the citizens of Geneva repelled an invasion by neighbouring Savoy.

Click here for a link to the programme of the events this weekend

Marmite de l’Escalade

The symbol of this uniquely Genevan celebration is an old-fashioned cauldron called a marmite. It’s made of chocolate and filled with marzipan vegetables. Family and friends come together over the Marmite de l’Escalade and break them using a rolling pin, sword or their fists formed in a handshake. One, two, three – smash

The chocolate Marmite, Escalade Geneva
The chocolate Marmite, Escalade Geneva

To an outsider, this looks like a celebration of chocolate, but in fact, the pot is a symbol of the roles ordinary citizens played in maintaining the sovereignty of their city-state. They are also a reminder of what happens when refugees cometo the aid of the city that saved them. 

Switzerland has a long history as a proud Protestant nation. John Calvin arrived in Genevain 1573. For the following thirty years it became home to thousands of Huguenots escaping Catholic persecution. In 1602 peace talks were under way with Franceto recognize the autonomous state, but Charles Emmanuel – the Duke of Savoy -wanted to take the wealthy city for himself and return St Pierre’s Cathedral tothe Catholic church.

The Duke of Savoy

At midnight on the night on December 11th the Duke’s army assembled in the fields of Plainpalais. There, 2,000 armed soldiers waited while 200 armed noblemen crept ahead to enter the city with a view to opening the main gates and letting the rest of them in.

Escalade Celebrations Geneva

Under the newly built south wall they raised three specially made extendable ladders and started to climb. It took two hours them all to reach the top in full armour. Once over the wall they split up to breech the inner gates.

It was the middle of winter and the guards were huddled around braziers to keep warm. No-one saw them scale the inner wall and open the Tertasse Gate to let in Lord d’Albigny. He was so flush with success he sent word to the Duke of Savoy telling him they’d taken the city. This premature celebration delivered an exquisite embarrassment to the events which followed. 

A third group of soldiers arrived at Porte de Monnaie at the base of the Rue de la Cité where the Escalade statue stands today. Jacques Mercier was the Sentinel that night. He thought he heard something and went with François Bousezel to investigate.  Mercier was the first to die. Bousezel was next, but not before he fired a single shot which reverberated around the town.

Lights came on in the nearby houses. People began to shout. Soon church bells were ringing and half-dressed men ran into the streets to help.

Mere Royaume

Mere Royaume wife of a money engraver, Pierre Royaume, lived above the Porte de Monnaie. According to the song,  Céqu’è lainô, she threw household items onto the soldiers below – stones, cooking utensils, a barrel – finally launching her wrought iron cooking pot (boiling vegetable soup and all) killing one man dead on the spot.

Further along the Corraterie, soldiers entered the passageway at the home of Madame Piaget. Her servant, Abraham de Baptista held the invaders off with a rapier. After he was killed, Madame Piaget moved a heavy piece of furniture in front of the door to block the army. She then called from her window for help. When it arrived, she threw her keys to the militia so they could enter the walkway and rout the Savoyard.

All along la Corraterie women of Geneva were setting fire to their straw mattresses and throwing them from their windows onto the Savoyard.

At the Porte de Neuve the thirteen guards stationed there managed to fire off a single round before running to the armoury for backup – leaving the guardhouse to the invaders. Among them was an explosives expert named Picot. His job was to blow the lock on wooden doors of Porte Neuveusing a small explosive device called a petard.

Savoy Army Trapped

He began work immediately – unaware that Isaac Mercier was quietly climbing the gate to cut the rope holding up the heavy metal portcullis. It plummeted to the ground killing Pico and barring the entrance. Not only could the Savoy army no longer enter the city, the soldiers inside were trapped.

By now Clemence, the great tocsin bell in Cathedral St Pierre, was ringing. The bulk of the 12,000 citizens were out of bed and fighting. From the city’s armoury at the top of La Treille they launched the ‘mantlets’ – traditional cannons with a heavy metal shield wrapped around the barrel. They were squeaking with rust as they rolled down the hill where they provided excellent cover for the militiabehind them.

The men of Geneva advanced towards the Savoy army where they pressed together into battle. The gateway at the top of Rue de Tertasse had now filled with citizens. It was here that all the forces collided and the bulk of the fighting occurred. They fired their cannon onto the ladders propped against the wall knocking them over. Now the retreating army had no option but to fight or fall to their death.

Word reached the Duke of Savoy that Geneva was his. He sent a message to his cousin, the King of France, and then rode towards Geneva to claim victory – only to be met by his retreating army.

After a long night…

By 5am on Sunday it was all over – a complete routing of the Savoy army by the Genevoise. Thirteen of the noblemen who led the charge were tried and hung on the Porte de l’Oyle. They beheaded them (and the other dead Savoyards) then left the 67 heads on pikes until the signing of a peace treaty with Savoy seven months later.

Theodore Béze’s sermon that Sunday was brief but emphatic in its praise of God. Then everyone set about tidying the city and burying the eighteen Genevoise who died during the night.

That marmite pot stayed in the Royaume family for generations. It was eventually stored in the armoury for safe keeping but was lost during the French occupation in the 19th century.

After the confederation of the Swiss states in 1848 (and after the Swiss invention of milk chocolate), the locals finally created the Marmite de l’Escalade. They decorated it with the Genevan coat of arms and filled with marzipan vegetables – as the symbol for their victory. One hundred and thirty years later and it is now an iconic symbol which also celebrates local ingenuity and courage.

Marmite - Escalade Geneva
Marmite – Escalade Geneva

This post – The Escalade: Festival of the Chocolate Pot is a guest post written by Sheridan Jobbins, an Australian author and screenwriter who has made her home in Geneva.  All photographs provided by Sheridan Jobbins

Click here to Check out the Christmas Markets in Geneva

The current Duke of Savoy resides in Chambery – read my post
Six Things to do in Chambery

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