Of Figs and Hedgehogs

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This started out to be an entry about fig compote, but instead, it’s going to be about differences in literary sensibilities. Hmmm….

It all starts with the fact that I’m currently reading L’elegance du herisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by French novelist and professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery, as recommended by friends as a must-read. I’m about a third of the way through the novel, and it’s essentially a dialogue between two female protagonists–a 54-year-old concierge (Renee) in an apartment building in the chic 6th arrondissement of Paris and a 12-year-old tenant (Paloma)—to answer the basic question, “Why bother living?”

To get to an answer, Renee and Paloma take a philosophical excursion through Zen Buddhism, Marxism, phenomenology, Freudian psychology, existentialism, and…need I go on? In some ways, it’s quite a dark story (with Paloma contemplating suicide as the only rational answer to the question), while in other respects, it’s very funny (kudos to Barbery for bringing out the humor in German philosopher Edmund Husserl).

As I was looking for cover images of the novel for this blog entry, I was struck by the way the book’s U.S. paperback publisher, Europa Editions, configures the cover (top left) to suggest the book is some sort of YA novel.

IMHO, the French paperback cover (top right) is closer, in its simple yet sophisticated aesthetic, to a fairer representation of the novel, which comes to the conclusion that Beauty and Art—among other things–are reasons in and of themselves for living. (And, as a hint, camelias  have something to do with this idea.) I wouldn’t call a novel full of allusions to and long discussions of philosophy, world literature, Japanese film, master paintings, architecture, and classical music the stuff of the average American YA novel. (I wonder what Andrew would say? Readers?)

In any case, at one point, Paloma casually suggests in her journal that French cuisine is boring—let’s make that BORING—and not the least bit inventive. I read this section of her journal on the day I had fig compote for dessert in the bistro down the block from where we were staying in Paris (on vacation earlier this month).

I made the compote (bottom, right) last night at home, and I have to say: Paloma is wrong. Fig compote a la francaise is an eye opener. In fact, it’s a good reason for living. Figs are in season now. Make the compote at home and see if you agree.

fig compote 1 Fig Compote

1 quart fresh figs, quartered

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 tbsp lemon juice


Put all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat to medium-low, and boil gently for about 20-25 minutes. Set aside to cool and thicken.

Serve with a generous dollop of vanilla chantilly (whipped cream) and/or mascarpone. Sprinkle with chunks of your favorite spicy/flavorful cookie (such as molasses cookies, ginger cookies, or macaroons).

Check in next week for more from TFCB!

[photos: Hedgehog cover, amazon.com; Herisson cover, amazon.fr; compote, yours truly]