A visit with France’s ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present.
Christmas season starts in France just as it does in North America, at the beginning of November. The fliers, adverts for Christmas markets (idea imported from Germany), “getaway-from-it-all” travel offers and Rudolph jingles start to invade our space. By the end of November, the shops are crowded, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps have wonderful displays of lights, and the windows are full of little mechanical manikins. Children gaze in starry-eyed enchantment. The Champs Elysees is switched on but, this is Paris after all, with restrained elegance: only white lights and only on huge painted twigs stuck in the ground.
There was not much commercial activity 30 to 40 years ago. The French world did not stop for the festive season as it did in Great Britain where nearly everything stayed closed until New Year. Christmas was treated like a Sunday in Toronto the Good. Everything was closed for the day except for (we are in France) the food purveyors where you went to collect your sea food platters or cooked lobster or Christmas Log. In addition, since the government made all education in state schools secular, those French people who were not practising Christians (i.e., not Catholic for there are few Protestants in France) had no cultural education about Christ’s Mass or the Nativity and thought of it as just another family occasion to fill their faces. They didn’t even really give presents and certainly sent no Christmas cards. You might receive a discreet business card which had New Year’s greetings handwritten on the back. There are still no Christmas carols and certainly no gangs of tone-deaf kids banging on the door to sing one for you!
Our first Christmas in France taught Ted a lesson in survival. We had come, on a belated honeymoon, to visit my pen-friend’s family in the Loire. Of course, everyone was delighted to see the newlyweds, and they all broke out their best wines and champagnes, plying us with innumerable delicacies. I did warn Ted not to take second helpings, even if offered, because one never knew how much food was going to be served. I remembered Sunday lunches where I was served two starters, a fish course, a roast meat course and a meat cooked in wine (each with a vegetable), salad, a cheese platter and two or three desserts followed by petits fours. This type of lunch would last from 12 till 5.
That Christmas, there were 14 of us around the table for dinner which normally takes place on Christmas Eve at nine or in Catholic families after Midnight Mass so around 1.30 in the morning. Jacqueline had provided a dozen oysters per person. The children ate only one or two each and I had half a dozen. Ted did the gentlemanly thing and ate his dozen plus all the leftovers – around 36 in all.
There followed Foie Gras, asparagus, a huge turkey, roast potatoes, salad, a wonderful selection of cheeses and home-made pineapple ice-cream served in half a pineapple. The following day at midday was a gargantuan feast ( I remember roast hare with chestnut puree and onion sauce cooked in wine for four hours) with another member of the family, and the evening meal was a Pantagruelian repast — this was after all Rabelais country!
The short lulls between meals were filled with champagne and petits fours at yet other houses. By evening three, Ted had retired to bed with a crise de foie (literally, a liver crisis where the liver refuses to digest any more and you spend eight or so hours feeling like death). As neither of us could face any more food, we decided to say we had made a mistake about our return flight and had to leave a day early. What a relief! When we finally settled in Normandy and had made a few friends, we were quite relieved to have Christmas to ourselves!
People in France rarely invite you for Christmas and there is rarely a neighbourly drink except perhaps at a local bar. So the first big invitation we had was for New Year’s Eve, from Jacques and Claudine – our antique dealer friends from Pont l’Eveque. Claudine’s mother was living on a small farm outside Pont l’Eveque. We all tucked into platters of oysters and sea-food, followed by home-made Foie Gras, a gorgeously greasy roast goose, litres of champagne and good wines. It remained a glorious, boozey, happy memory for years, so much so that we determined to repeat the experience. I, therefore, worked on the principle that if I invited people between Christmas and New Year, we would surely be invited for New Year’s Eve again. We stocked up on christmas crackers and British Christmas goodies and invited people around for drinks – mulled wine, mince pies and lots of nibbles.
I decorated the lounge with garlands of Christmas cards, snowflakes cut out of silver paper, holly, ivy and mistletoe, a little tree with tiny prezzies for everyone. There were only about ten of us. Before the European Union and until about ten years ago, the French didn’t go in for decorating the towns and nobody decorated their houses or bought trees so, at that point in time, our guests had never experienced a North American Christmas. No one sent cards and kids had few presents. Nowadays, there is such a vogue for decorated towns that people troop off in buses to see them. We even have a Santa Claus parade in the heavily decorated village. Every child has a container full of junk toys.
In the past, money got spent on food and wine though. Everybody drank champagne of reasonable quality. One friend would phone me up with news of Foie Gras prices in Honfleur or champagne on offer. Everyone shared their knowledge of where to go for the best bargains, which fishmonger was doing a “Special” on lobsters for Christmas, which butcher had the choicest game. Even the most lowly seemed to be able to afford Foie Gras or oysters or a huge seafood platter or Lobsters – unheard of in Britain and untried by most British people too.
My English class would update me on what they would be having for Christmas and how to prepare it. As we lived in the midst of hunting country (show me a bit of France that isn’t) we would regularly see hunters bringing home game. They could sell it on to butchers in the 60s and 70s so there was a plentiful supply. Game made a change from turkey which neither of us liked much. So every Christmas for a good few years we experimented with different meats but now we limit ourselves to some favourites — leg of wild Boar (marinated for four to five days in cider and herbs) roasted in a slow oven with potatoes and served with fried slices of Granny Smith apples followed by mixed green salad dressed with hazelnut oil and cider vinegar, a creamy soft Camembert and a light dessert such as an apple charlotte, a Calvados Sorbet or a Parfait, with Cider Sabayon.
Another favourite is Leg of Roe-deer, marinated for four to five days in white wine and herbs. The marinade is used to make a Sauce Grand Veneur and the roast is served with Celeriac puree. We sometimes have Duck stuffed with sauerkraut and apples as a main course or Goose stuffed with apples and prunes both served with plain boiled potatoes, salad dressed with Walnut oil and raspberry vinegar and a light dessert. I make a lot of sorbets and parfaits so always have something on hand for Christmas. Italian raspberry sorbet with red wine is tasty and light and lemon sorbet is a wonderful palate cleansing finish to a meal.
We keep the starters simple: either oysters with lemon juice or shallot vinaigrette or Oyster Soup Lamy. Finely sliced raw scallops, dribbled with fresh lime and peanut oil, with a shake of paprika make a good light starter too. After the experience of liver upsets, I try to avoid a greasy and heavy menu so no more Foie Gras followed by goose or duck. We sometimes have lobster, just like the French, but tend only to have a salad with it.
Creeping materialism and a tide of dreck decorations and even more tatty toys has invaded the French spirit of Christmas. Supermarket shelves are loaded with cheap sugary chocolates and confectionary that the French used to abhor. Foie Gras and scallops are available all year round so they are no longer special Christmas treats. However, a French Christmas meal is still worth the effort!
These are some of the menus I have served over the years and they leave enough room for a bit of North American Tradition – mince pies and coffee afterwards!
French Christmas Menus
Roast Duck with Sauerkraut stuffing
Baba au rhum
Rillettes de Saumon
Turkey with a Fruit Stuffing
Leg of Roe Deer, Sauce Grand Veneur
Sprouts and Chestnuts
Raspberry and Red Wine Sorbet
Oyster Soup Lamy
Boar with Cider and Cream Sauce
Fried and Sliced Granny Smith Apples
Recipe for Oyster Soup Lamy
For 6 people
Take 5-6 oysters per person from their shells and reserve the juice.
Crush finely a small packet of Tuc crackers.
Poach the oysters in their juice adding water to cover. Do not boil. Lift off any scum.
At the last minute add, ¾ bottle of dry white wine and three tablespoons of sour cream plus a soupspoon of butter.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Put the crushed biscuits in the bottom of the serving bowl and pour the liquid over it. Stir and serve immediately).
For video showing Christmas lights in Paris go to YOU TUBE Christmas lights in Paris