A drop of kirsch, a whiff of quiche and a word with General Humbert’s descendant

An Irishman’s Diary on a weekend in Lorraine

Remembering Gen Humbert (centre in big hat) and troops in a re-enactment at his home in Saint-Nabord last month.

Remembering Gen Humbert (centre in big hat) and troops in a re-enactment at his home in Saint-Nabord last month.

 

During a weekend in Lorraine last month, I did not encounter a single quiche anywhere. I did however meet plenty of kirsch, a soundalike regional speciality that featured, among other places, in the most alcoholic dessert I have ever tasted.

The dessert was typical of the Vosges, they said, and on first appearance, the solid part resembled ice-cream. It turned out, disconcertingly, to be cream cheese, a disappointment I never got over although, encouraged by the kirschwasser in which it was drowned, I carried on bravely to the last spoonful.

Another thing I didn’t encounter in Lorraine were any women so christened. I have marvelled here before about the name’s one-time popularity in Ireland, which must have been at least partly due to the wars in which the ancient province was vied over between France and Germany, and constantly in the news.

There is a male version too. In fact, Lorraine is from the German Lothringen, or “Lothar’s Realm”, after a ninth-century king, Lothair I. But for some reason, Luther (as it’s usually spelt in anglophone countries) never caught on in Catholic Ireland. Nor did the more romantic, Italian variant: Lothario.

Historically, the name Lothario implied warrior-like qualities, being a combination of old German words for “loud” and “army”. But its reputation has never quite lived down a play from 1703, The Fair Penitant, in which a rakish character was known as “the gay Lothario”. By the 1750s, Lothario had entered the English language as a word for the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter marrying. Its popularity as a Christian name suffered accordingly.

Speaking of soldiers, one of the more interesting people I did meet in Lorraine was Aude Schifferling. Not that Aude is a soldier – she’s a law student at the University of Nancy. But she is descended laterally from a certain Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, the man who landed at Killala in 1798, won a famous battle at Castlebar, established the Republic of Connacht, and was advancing eastwards when his forces were overwhelmed at Ballinamuck, 220 years ago next month.

French slang

Aude has since followed his footsteps here as part of commemorative events, and will be back for more soon. In the meantime, thanks to her, I have learned some new French slang centred on Lorraine’s eponymous dish. Its culinary meaning apart, I now know, “quiche” is also used sometimes to describe people. To be called a quiche does not mean you resemble a flan made from ham and eggs. It just means you’re “silly, or clumsy”.

Returning the educational favour, I told Aude that, in keeping with her revolutionary ancestor, she shares her name with a ship that was briefly famous in Easter Week 1916. Then I remembered that before it could land its cargo of guns, that Aud was sunk. Perhaps I was a bit of a quiche to even mention it.

Humbert returned

In contrast with the rough justice dealt to captured Irish troops in 1798, Humbert was returned unharmed to France and lived to fight another day, on another continent, with interesting consequences for at least one of the victors at Ballinamuck, Lieut Edward Packenham.

In the meantime, he had earned the dislike of Napoleon, whose meteoric rise in the revolutionary army he had mirrored for a time. Romance was a factor in his reverse. Although General Humbert was in no sense a Lothario (the “Amable” of his name meant merely “lovable”), he did have an affair with Pauline Bonaparte, sister of the emperor, who disapproved. This and Humbert’s dislike for Napoleon’s self-aggrandisement ended his French army career.

Instead, he crossed the Atlantic to New Orleans where, after some freelance adventures, he returned to military life in the service of America, and Gen Andrew Jackson, but fighting an old enemy, in the Battle of New Orleans (1815).

British forces again included Edward Packenham, who was now Gen Packenham, hero of the Peninsular War where he had fought alongside his fellow Irish in-law, the Duke of Wellington. Packenham ran out of luck in New Orleans, however, aged 36. Wellington blamed his death there on the shortcomings of another British commander, but took consolation that he “fell as he lived, in the honourable discharge of his duty”.

I remembered Packenham’s story, somewhat indelicately, over that alcoholic dessert in Saint-Nabord, Humbert’s home village. It was said in New Orleans in 1815 that the British general was returning to Ireland “in good spirits”. This was partly true. To preserve the body on its long journey back to Westmeath, it travelled in a casket filled with rum.

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