When people talk about Les Misérables it’s rare that they’re talking about Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Embarrassingly enough, until I was fifteen, I didn’t know that it was a book at all. I did, however, know a good bit about the musical from one of my childhood best friends, Julia. She was obsessed with it and every year her parents took her to New York City to see it. Julia was the ultimate girly-girl and her bedroom was absolutely fascinating to me—-all floral country bedding and lacy bed-skirts—it was nothing like the bedroom I shared with my sisters, my corner of which was covered in reproductions of antique baseball cards that I had bought at Bop City Comics and stuck to the wall with my older sister’s braces wax.
The centerpiece of Julia’s bedroom was her most prized possession: a dome-shaped glass music box filled with fiber-optic flowers that spit light like some kind of deep-sea amoeba and swayed to “Castle on a Cloud” when she turned the dome’s big iron crank (and she, of course, was the only one who was allowed turn it). I hated that thing and wanted it, needed it, in equal measure, it tortured me.
Years later, my aunt gave me a beautiful copy of Les Misérables as a fifteenth birthday gift and I learned for the first time that it wasn’t just a musical but a book—an enormous and very serious-looking book—one that looked nothing like the inspiration for Julia’s dome of flowers or the precious song that emanated from it. I tore through the book in a week and a half, staying up late and neglecting my freshman year assigned reading to find out whom Marius would end up with. I loved Jean Valjean through all of his transformations and missteps, going so far as to scribble his name inside of a heart in the bathroom stall at school where every girl wrote the initials of her crush in ragged ballpoint pen (I feel very raw admitting this).
Despite my love of the book, I still have yet to ever see the play, and as of now still haven’t gone to see the movie. It could be that the play will always be too much associated with Julia’s girliness, or that in general I despise musicals (which could, at its root, also stem from Julia), but since Christmas, every time I am about to buy a ticket to go and see the movie, I just can’t bring myself to do it. The constant loop of the movie’s trailer on TV and the barrage of posters in every subway did fill me with the desire to read the book again, though—a decision that immediately thwarted my New Year’s resolution to eat less bread in 2013.
Any post about food in Les Misérables, or really any post about Les Misérables in general, would be incomplete without the mention of bread. The entire plot of the novel is driven by Jean Valjean’s nineteen-year imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. The French Revolution is always quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) present in the novel, which mostly takes place in 1815, only 15 years after Marie Antoinette reportedly declared “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” upon hearing that the peasants had no bread to eat. Throughout the novel, people’s stations and the direness of their situations are often described in reference to whether or not they have bread, or, more specifically, what kind of bread they do have.
When we first meet Jean Valjean he has just been released from prison, and he is wandering through Digne starving after being turned away from every inn and household for being an ex-prisoner. Finally, he is sent to the Bishop Myriel’s house, where he is given one of my most favorite literary meals.
“The supper consisted of a piece of mutton, figs, a fresh cheese, and a loaf of rye bread. She had herself added a bottle of old Mauves wine.”
The meal is beautiful in its simplicity, and especially satisfying after reading pages and pages describing Valjean’s desperate hunger.
Black rye bread was especially prevalent throughout France at the time Les Misérables was written, it was a staple for lower and middle class people alike, and was one of the main foods provided in prisons like the one Valjean lived in for nineteen years. This black rye is nothing like what Valjean would have eaten in prison, it is sweet and bitter and complex and incredibly delicious. I ate mine with a stinky soft cheese and figs for extra literary meal authenticity, but feel free to top it with whatever you like. It would be great with cream cheese and lox, or honey and butter, or even some almond or cashew butter–really, I can’t think of anything that it wouldn’t compliment, go nuts!
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Les Miserables Black Rye Bread
- 2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (usually 1 packet’s worth)
- 1 1/3 cups warm water (110 F)
- 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons finely ground espresso beans or instant espresso powder
- 1/4 cup dark molasses
- 6 teaspoons caraway seeds, plus more for topping
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
- 1 1/3 cup rye flour
- 3 ¼ cup bread flour plus more for dusting
- olive oil for brushing
- flaky sea salt for sprinkling on top
Place your yeast in a small bowl and combine it with dark brown sugar and 1 1/3 of your warm water to activate it. Within about 5 minutes the yeast should be foamy—if it isn’t, toss it and start again (you had a dud yeast packet). While you are waiting for the yeast to activate, combine your cocoa powder, espresso, molasses, caraway seeds, butter and salt in a medium saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat until butter is melted and ingredients are well-combined. Add molasses mixture to active yeast mixture (molasses mixture should be warm, not scorching hot when you do this), and pour into a mixing bowl fitted with a bread hook attachment. In a separate bowl mix rye and bread flour together and with your mixer running, slowly add flour to molasses/yeast mixture. One everything comes together knead the dough for 5 minutes or until dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl and hugging the bread hook—dough should also spring back when you poke your thumb into it. If it is too dry, add more water, or if it is too wet add more flour, until you get the desired consistency. Shape the dough into a ball and place seam-side down in an oiled bowl. Cover loosely with a towel and let it rise for 2 hours in a warm place.
After 2 hours, punch down the risen dough with your fist gently (yes, I said punch it gently), and turn it out onto a floured surface. Shape the dough into your desired shape, place it in your dutch oven (or any heavy-bottomed, oven-safe dish with a lid) and allow it to rise for another 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. Once it is doubled in size, turn your oven to 425, brush the bread with olive oil, sprinkle it with caraway seeds and sea salt. When your oven is up to temp, place bread in and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. After 20 minutes remove the lid and turn the heat down to 350, bake for another 20-25 minutes. Top with whatever you like and enjoy!