December 23, 2006

French Rum: Try Rhum agricole from Martinique


Stéphane, Funny that you asked about French rum (spelled rhum in French) after what happened to me a couple of weeks ago: Around 5:00 PM I was waiting for my bus 151 in front of my office building and it was deadly windy and cold, around 15 F, in Chicago. Standing next to me was a poor fellow who works in my building and he was sneezing and coughing, obviously hit by the early symptoms of a cold. He turned to me and said something to that matter and that he was going home and take two aspirins. I said:” better drink a grog, it’s the best natural preventive remedy I know against the early stage of a cold”. He looked at me, puzzled, and asked: “what’s that?” So I told him the recipe: ”In a coffee mug pour 1,5 oz of good quality rum, amber or gold, add 1,5 Tb of lemon juice, 1Tb of honey, a slice of lemon, and pour hot water almost up to the rim. Stir the drink and sip it while it’s warm.” He said: Sounds good. I will try it but I never had rum in my life, what should I buy? ”And my answer was:” if you want to buy a bottle just to make a few “grogs” any decent industrial rum, preferably “amber”, “gold” or “aged”, from a commercial brand from the Caribbean Islands will do: Barbancourt from Haiti, Mount Gay from Barbados, Myer’s from Jamaica, Cruzan from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Bambu from Antigua, or less preferably Bacardi from Porto Rico. But, if you don’t mind paying a little more money, and might want to enjoy that rum in other more relaxed and festive occasions than to take care of a cold, get yourself a bottle of Rhum Agricole de la Martinique, preferably “ambré”, or even better “ vieux” (old) from famous distillers like CLEMENT, BALLY, ST. JAMES, NEISSON, or LA FAVORITE. You will not regret it and I am ready to bet that after trying one of them, you will go back for more and will enjoy drinking them neat, as you would for an old bourbon, or a brandy”. I did not see this guy again since, and I do not know if he followed my advice. In France, in street cafés and bars, they use an inexpensive plain dark or golden “industrial” rum to prepare grogs. Americans until recently, have preferred light, especially white, or golden rums that they can mix in cocktails, like daiquiris, planter’s punch, Pina Coladas, Cuba libre, or Bacardis. They also enjoy drinking spiced or flavored rums. Captain Morgan is one of the biggest commercial success in that category.

But over the last 3 years, sophisticated and expensive rums have become trendy, especially in fancy bars and dance clubs. And a new class of rum drinkers has emerged: They prefer drinking “neat”, as after-dinner drinks, dark without the addition of caramel, usually “pot distilled” and aged in oak casks, age-dated rums coming from the best distilleries from producing areas such as Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, and Venezuela. For these connoisseurs aged dark rums are as enjoyable as good cognacs and armagnacs An amusing detail: Even though in France, in cafés and “bars-tabac” (see one of my earlier postings on the subject of French cafés and bars-tabac) many patrons used to drink grogs at the “comptoir” during harsh winter days when it was very cold and humid outside, this drink is not a French invention but an English one. The Royal Navy used to provide its sailors daily rations of brandy while at sea on long voyages. The purpose was not only to boost their morale but also to give a more acceptable flavor and cover the bad smell and taste of the “fresh water” on board that, after several days of navigation, used to get spoiled in its wooden tanks. In the 17Th century the Navy replaced the brandy with rum. But the negative impact of that strong liquor on the performance, discipline, and health of the sailors gave the idea to the famous Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed “Old Grog”, to mix water with the rum. Then the Royal Navy added lemon or lime juice to the daily rations since this combination not only delayed the spoilage of the water but also, the vitamin C contained in the lemon helped to protect the men from diseases like scurvy.  

 A few historical facts about rum

Rum started to be consumed in England in the middle of the 17th century. Most probably it was coming from the English-speaking Caribbean island of BARBADOS, perhaps the first place on earth where rum was distilled. Good rum is a product coming from the distillation of fermented juice or syrup coming from the sugar contained in the fibrous stalks of sugar cane, a perennial tall grass that some experts think was first growing in New Guinea (Papua) or Indonesia. The Latin name for sugarcane is Saccharum. Therefore it is often thought that the three last letters of that Latin word are at the origin of the name of the spirit . But in England they think that the word rum derives from Rumbullion, a word from the 17h century meaning “ great tumult” . This word, as well as the expression ‘’kill-devil’’, was used in the British Caribbean Islands to define rum that had the bad reputation to give nasty headaches and excite the bad behavior of its consumers. Nowadays many people agree that the growing of sugar cane was extended in several Asian regions by the Chinese and introduced to the Middle-East (and North Africa) by Arabs. That is where the French catholic crusaders found it and they brought it back with them to Europe. The Spanish, who call rum ‘ron’’, planted sugarcane in the Canary Islands, as early as the 12th or 13th century, and Christopher Columbus brought some cane from the Canaries to Hispaniola, an island shared nowadays by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in 1493. In turn, the Portuguese conquistadors and colonizers brought sugar cane to Brazil. When the ever growing demand for sugar boomed in the 17th century, all the Caribbean islands, as well as countries of Central and South America, benefiting from the same ideal climatic conditions for this kind of cultivation, that had been colonized by the Dutch, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, expanded their plantations of sugar cane and subsequently of sugar mills. In the mid 1600’s , they started to ferment and distill the residual byproducts of crushed sugar cane (after extraction of the sugar juice) , and it produced a heavy gooey syrup called “molasses”. It is at that time that rum was born. As a matter of fact the majority of industrial and even some good quality rums produced in the Caribbean, Central and South America, are based on the distillation from molasses. Only in the French Antilles, and more particularly in the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Marie Galante, is very high quality rum produced exclusively from the pure fresh juice from the cane. This rum is called RHUM AGRICOLE. Its production is very strictly controlled and these rums benefit, like some French cheeses, from an AOC (Apellation d’Origine Controlée) label. (see later in this article) Even though rum is produced in countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, Taiwan, the Philippines, Newfoundland, or Hawaii, the largest concentration of rum distillers is nevertheless located in 17 islands of the Caribbean Basin. The largest producers being Barbados, Puerto Rico, Antigua, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, La Martinique, La Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British). Some noteworthy producers are also found all over Central America, and in a lesser way in some South American countries, the best rums coming from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Guyana and Venezuela. Brazil produces a lot of light cheap rum (Cachaca) Some European countries like France, the U.K, Germany and Austria import rums from the Caribbean and age, blend, and bottle them. But they are most of the time 2nd quality industrial rum.

Two additional historical notes: 1. From 1750 to the American Revolution, they were about 40 distilleries in New England making rum from molasses shipped from Caribbean sugar plantations. Then the British started to tax heavily the import of nay molasses not produced in a British islands or territories. The French did not like the loss of this lucrative markets and, as you know, enthusiastically assisted the New England revolutionaries in their fight against the Brits. 2. Rum was unfortunately used as a tool of the slave trade since the rum made in New England and the Caribbean was used as a payment of West African slaves, who were then sent to the plantations of The Caribbean, and South America to work in sugar cane fields and sugar mills. When, some years ago, your mother and I visited St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands there were many historical sites, including a museum and some old sugar mills, reminding us that this island was a major clearing and exchange center for both the rum and slave trade between West Africa, North America and Europe, particularly Denmark that for many years was ruling St. Croix.  

What are the major types of rums produced in Martinique ? La Martinique is an island located in the ‘lesser Antilles” in the Caribbean Sea, half-way between Puerto Rico and the Venezuelan coast. It has the administrative statute of a full-fledge French “departement”. The first French settlers came to Martinique in 1635. They started to export sugar around 1650. But it is the invention in 1694 by a Dominican Priest, Father Labat, of a still that will allow local sugar plants to distill the molasses. In 1767 there were 450 sugar mills in Martinique. But after 1870, the prices of sugar collapsed. And later on, in the middle of the 20th century, when a large part of the cane sugar consumed by the French was progressively replaced by sugar coming from beets, most of the sugar plantations and mills in Martinique went bankrupt. Their owners then in order to survive, got the idea to distill the fresh fermented juice extracted directly from the cane. The RHUM AGRICOLE was born and a real rum industry replaced the purely sugar-producing one. The appellation DOC for Rhum agricole was obtained in 1996. In the fifties there were around 100 distilleries left in Martinique. In 2006, only 9 of them are still active.

They produce 2 kinds of rhums:

·Rhum industriel (sometimes called rhum léger), that is produced mainly from the distillation of molasses coming from sugar mill. Only less than 25% of rhums from the Martinique are rhums industriels. ·
Rhum Agricole, that is produced either from “gros sirop” (a natural dripped “brut” sugar), or from a “sirop de batterie”, which is high concentration cane juice The cane harvest takes place in the first months of the year when the tropical weather is dry at a time when the canes are reaching their ultimate level of maturity. The harvest used to be done by hand, but now is most of the time mechanized. The stalks of cane are pressed in horizontal mills to expel the juice. The fibrous residues, called “bagasse”, are dried and burned to provide heat for the stills. The first juice called VESOU, is fermented in large vats to become sort of a wine. Then when the fermentation is complete, the Vesou is distilled in single-column copper stills made by the same French coppersmiths that build stills for Cognac producers. The resulting RHUM has an alcoholic rating of around 70%. Often it is mixed with water to reduce its alcoholic content to 50 or 60% (100 to 120 proof). It is a very transparent spirit that will stay in large vats for 2 to 6 months, to let all its natural aromas develop. At that time a part of this batch will be bottled and is sold as “rhum blanc” (white rhum). It is used mainly straight as a before dinner ‘’apéritif’’ and in cocktails and punches, etc. Some rhums blancs are also aged. But when they start to get a darker hue, they are treated to become transparent again.
The best rhums blancs come from a stage of distillation called ‘’coeur de chauffe’’. They are consumed in their youth when their velvety fresh aromas are still potent. The second part of the batch is put in oak barrels to age. All kind of different barrels, new and used, made of different kind of woods, generating various levels of tannins, vanillin, smoke flavors, are used to produce specific bouquets and distinctive aromas. If it is aged for more than 3 years, this kind of rhum can be labeled RHUM VIEUX (Old Rhum). Its beautiful different shades of colors also come from the type of wood used in the barrel. Some rhums vieux are 30 or even 50 years old. But they must be aged at least 4 years to be called VSOP and 6 years minimum for an XO ( Hors d’âge) appellation . · If this RHUM AGRICOLE is made exclusively from distilled freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, it can earn the label of Rhum Agricole de la Martinique (or de la Guadeloupe), Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. So be suspicious of labels saying imported from France. Over the last few years, a slightly caramelized white rum, called ‘’ambré’’ or ‘’rhum paille’(if it is not caramelized), aged for around 18 months, including a few in oak vats, is getting more and more popular.  

Some reliable brands of Rhum Agricole de la Martinique that you can find in Chicago

At Sam,s La Favorite , Rhum agricole blanc, 100 proof One liter: around 29 dollars La Favorite, Rhum agricole ambré, 100 proof One liter: around 34 dollars L a Favorite, Rhum agricole Vieux, 80 proof One liter: around 48 dollars Neisson, Rhum agricole élevé sous bois (sort of ambré) 100 proof around 66.00 dollars St. James XO Rhum agricole around 24 dollars at Binny,s Rhum Clément VSOP: around 35.00 dollars Rhum agricole blanc Clément: around 30.00 dollars Rhum St. James Hors d’âge: around 30 dollars Neisson Rhum agricole Réserve Spéciale: around 65 dollars. Personally, I would go with the Neisson Réserve Spéciale and the La Favorite vieux. If you want a white for punchs or mixed drinks buy the Clément A ta santé....

December 15, 2006

French Rum

Hi Dad, I made a nice rum punch receipe the other day with some nice Carribean Rum which got me wondering about where some of the finest Rum's come from? That reminded me that you had once mentioned that there are Rums as good as Armagnac. Certainly that is not what is going into the Rum punch but I'd love to learn more about some of the Rum's you've sampled in the french Carribean and any reccomendations on a nice bottle to buy. Thanks! Stephane

December 05, 2006

French Christmas dinners

Salut Stéphane… I will try now to answer your question about traditional French Christmas dinners

When I was 11 years old I read, several times, a charming book called “ Lettres de mon Moulin” (letters from my windmill) the most well-known work of a relatively minor French author from the late 19th century, Alphonse Daudet. Like myself he was born in Nimes where the name of my High School was “Lycée Alphonse Daudet”. Even though Daudet lived most of his adult life in Paris, he loved to return to Provence to relax and observe the local people, and the imaginary narrator of this book that consists of 30 short stories and tales taking place in Provence, is supposed to live in a windmill in the small village of Fontvieille, about 7 miles northeast of Arles. That windmill called nowadays “Le Moulin de Daudet” still exists and can be visited. But Daudet himself never lived there. He just enjoyed so much one of the old abandoned windmills of Fontvieille, where flour used to be milled until the early part of the 19th century, that he decided to buy it. Even though he never completed the actual purchase, he would keep coming regularly from Paris to visit his friends in Fontvieille and spend quiet days in front of “his” decrepit windmill, enjoying the surroundings and taking notes for future stories. One of the stories of “Lettres”, “Les trois messes basses”, centers around a priest, Dom Balaguere, the chaplain of a castle in a small village of Provence. He is about to celebrate the three ritual “messes basses” (low masses) celebrated on Christmas Eve, one after the other, in the chapel of the castle for the villagers. But the poor priest does not know that his altar boy that night, Garrigou, is in fact the Devil pretending to be Garrigou. The Devil has decided to induce him in temptation of extreme gluttony and then to punish him in a terminal way through excessive eating and drinking during the “réveillon” (Christmas Eve’s traditional festive feast). So, just before mass, while they prepare in the chapel’s sacristy, Garrigou tells Dom Balaguere, with an accumulation of juicy detailed descriptions, about all the beautiful dishes, wines,desserts and liquors, that they are preparing in the kitchens of the Castle. All these goodies are part of the traditional “Repas Gras” that people in Provence used to eat after midnight mass. Garrigou describes different types of waterfowl: grouse, partridge, pheasant, etc. Then it talks about the fish courses: carps, eels, trouts. Then he describes the main traditional dish of stuffed turkey with truffles. And the wines he says will be 100 times better than the communion wine. Personally I think these wines were probably produced in either the nearby vineyards of Les Baux or even might have been some Côtes du Rhône, like perhaps a Chateauneuf-Du-Pape, located 45 miles North of Fontvieille. The priest is so excited by all these gastronomical perspectives that he accelerates the normal reading of the liturgy, bypasses several texts and chanting, and gives a furiously fast paced rhythm to the 3 masses under the encouragement of the increasingly rapid and insistent bell ringing of the demonic altar boy. Once the masses are expeditiously finished, Dom Balaguere can at last splurge at the ”Reveillon” table. But he dies from a stroke due to over-absorption of food and wine before the end of the feast. At the end of the story, he is, later on, coolly received at the entrance of Paradise by Saint Peter who gives him a special punishment… I will not tell you the end so that one day in the future you can read this entertaining book to your son Sébastien. As a matter of fact, the most famous provençal writer and film director, Marcel Pagnol, adapted and directed in 1954 a film also titled “Letters from my Windmill” which covers only 3 of the 30 short stories of the original book. But one of them is “ Les 3 messes basses”. Perhaps you could find it at Blockbusters. Video Adventures in Evanston used to carry it
Each French province has its own Christmas culinary traditions, but my favorites are the ones from PROVENCE.

I have been dreaming for many years to be able to return to my native area in the South of France at Christmas time and to indulge in one of those traditional special Provençal ‘Repas Gras” eaten when people return home from Midnight mass. But I am not even sure that these traditional feasts still exist. Even though each region of France has its own Christmas culinary traditions that vary often according to the products that are grown and produced locally, there is no doubt in my mind that until the fifties, Provence, along with Alsace, had the richest ones. 
In Alsace, river and lake fish like pike, carp, or trout, as well as foie gras (an institution there since it was practically invented in that region), are often followed by roasted goose with sauerkraut or red cabbage. The desserts are either ‘’bredle”. special cookies flavored with aniseed, cinnamon and almonds, Kugelhopf a nicely clock-shaped cake, or Bierawecka, a spicy fruit cake, as well as cherry soup. The fish dishes can be enjoyed with a good Riesling, the foie gras with Tokay (a pinot gris), the goose with Pinot noir, rosé or red, or a Riesling Grand Cru and the cake and pastries with Gewürztraminer or an Alsace Grand Cru Vendanges Tardives, that can also produce a good match for Foie gras en brioche. Some of the best wines from Alsace are not exported to the United-States, the level of their production and a lack of exporting structures would not allow it. But a few reliable more “commercial” Alsatian producers that I like whose wines can be found in the U.S. are: TRIMBACH, Domaines SCHLUMBERGER, KUENTZ, HUGEL, Domaines WEINBACH.  

In Brittany, special Christmas crepes are of course part of the meal.  

In Provence, families would have sort of a “thanksgiving supper” before leaving for church. It had some kind of religious connotation and was used to thank God for all the good things that happened during the year. This “Gros Souper” (Big Supper) would consist of 7 meatless dishes. It could include, after a pumpkin or squash soup, several cooked vegetables like artichokes, cauliflower, fennel or celery, sometimes served with a garlic (or anchovy) based mayonnaise (aioli). Another popular dish was cod fried in olive oil, or in a ”brandade” (cooked in milk and then mashed with olive oil and a touch of garlic). Sometimes you would eat snails boiled in a broth or grilled in the fireplace. And various salads like celery salad would be also served. After the table was set up with 3 separate fine white tablecloth, and the family’s best silver, the oldest of the children would walk around the table three times carrying a very large fruitwood log. It would be doused with spiced cooked wine by the Grandpa and placed in the fireplace. Then the family would eat this relatively frugal but copious dinner. At the end they would eat some of the “ Treize desserts” (13 desserts), that were a symbol of Jesus-Christ and his 12 apostles
The 13 desserts were essentially fresh fruits like pomegranates, tangerines, apples, pears, winter melon. Dried fruits like figs and dates and sometimes late harvest grapes. Nuts, like almonds and walnuts. This special mix of dried fruits and nuts is still called “Le mendiant” (the beggar). And of course there would be some typical regional sweets and candies, including white or black Nougat (a special candy made of sugar, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, and candied fruit,) that is a specialty of Montélimar, Calissons d’Aix (a semi-soft candy made of melon and almonds paste. Pâtes de fruits (candied fruit paste), and some pastries like mini fruit tarts and the traditional ‘’Pompe à l’huile”, a special soft sweet bread made with olive oil. The adults would drink “vin cuit” (spiced cooked wine) with these desserts. Some of these desserts would be set aside on a separate small table in case the house would have the visit of some poor people from the village, beggars, or ghosts of the ancestors of the house. Then some more spiced wine would be put into the fire, the log would be removed from the fireplace, and put on the side where it would slowly consume itself until New Year’s Eve. Or sometimes it would be wrapped and saved until next Christmas as a good luck charm. The formula for the “Gros Souper” was different from one city or village to the other according to the type of vegetables and fruits produced in the family’s garden or by the local farmers. In some families, this was the only meal on Christmas Eve. But in many others the “real thing” would be served after the midnight mass under the form of a “Repas Gras” (fat meal). It would be the ultimate “repas de réveillon”, as described in “Lettres de mon moulin”, and include game, fowl, roasts (goose, turkey, or capon, stuffed or simply roasted), and a vegetable baked dish of blets or cardoons, quite often “au gratin”. A cheese course would sometimes follow, essentially made of regional goat cheeses.  

The meal would end with the famous “ bûche de Noël”. 

The “ bûche de Noël” is in fact inspired by the traditional Christmas log mentioned earlier. It is still served traditionally at the end of any Repas de réveillon de Noël all over France. It is basically a rolled sponge cake in butter cream completely covered with a chocolate or vanilla cream coating. Some plastic figurines, dwarfs, Santa Claus, angels, reindeers, or little mushroom-shaped meringues, are implanted on top. Nowadays, lots of families prefer an iced (refrigerated) version called “bûche glaçée”. Needless to say, the next day, on December 25, cooking for lunch would be a little less elaborate. If there were guests perhaps a home-made rabbit terrine, or a “brouillade de truffes” (a truffled omelet with “crème fraiche”) would be served as a first course, followed by a roasted capon with some simple vegetables (peas, green beans, carrots, sautéed potatoes) and a salad. For dessert ,some left-over from the bûche and the “treize desserts” would be brought back to the table. And for dinner, “aigo-boulido”, the traditional simple but very tasty provençal garlic soup, would soothe overstuffed stomachs.  

Our family Christmas dinners in Reims in the late 1950’s

You Grand Maman Maes, my mother, like her mother before, was quite a good cook. In fact I learned a lot from them just watching them in the kitchen. Since we were not catholics, but calvinist protestants, there was no midnight mass for us to attend on Christmas Eve. We all went to listen to my father’s (a minister) beautiful Christmas service on Christmas morning around 10:00 AM. So the ‘‘réveillon” dinner would usually be served at around 8:00 PM. First we would drink some very good ‘’brut’’ Champagne as an aperitif , most often from KRUG, with home- made ‘’friands” or ‘’feuilletés au jambon et au fromage”. These were delicious amuses-bouche made of a delicate and slightly crunchy puff pastry interspersed with tiny flakes of ham or bacon, or laced with gruyère cheese. Then we would sit down for the first course that was often either Coquilles Saint-Jacques gratinées or Vols-au-Vent aux ris-de-veau. She baked the fresh Saint-Jacques (sea scallops) in their own shells with their beautiful red coral still attached, in a velvety butter, cream, and mushroom sauce, and covered with a light breading and a touch of melted cheese which got slightly “gratineed”. The Vols-au-Vent, delicate puff-pastry shells, were filled with tiny pieces of ris-de-veau (sweetbreads), mushrooms, and sometimes tiny shrimps, in a delicate and light béchamel sauce enhanced by a touch of white or sherry wine. A few times we had instead some very good “foie gras” as a first course. Next came the main dish: The dinde rôtie farcie au marrons (Roasted turkey with a chestnut stuffing). These birds were not as huge as their American counterparts, maybe 7 or 8 pounds at the most. But they were very juicy from both a frequent basting and the internal stuffing. That stuffing was composed of cooked peeled chestnuts, the sautéed chopped liver of the turkey, some pork sausage, tiny cubes of soft stale bread softened in a little milk, parsley, sautéed chopped onions, shallots and garlic, a little cream, cognac, thyme, sage, and of course salt and pepper. I do not remember if she put celery in it. But since I hate celery and I have a beautiful memory of that stuffing, I doubt that she used celery. I believe that sometimes she might have added an egg yolk. The whole thing was mixed in a bowl with some broth or water. The result, after around 2 or 3 hours of roasting in the oven was delicious. The accompanying vegetable dish was often a “gratin de cardons”, a very typical dish from the area of Geneva, Switzerland where my mother was from. The cardon (cardoon) belongs to the same family as artichokes. The leaves of Its long prickly whitish stalks need to be removed. Then thorough peeling, cleaning and brushing, is necessary, before cutting the stalks in small pieces and boiling them in salted water with some lemon juice. Then they are baked in a hot oven in a dish covered with béchamel sauce, lightly spiced up with nutmeg, topped with a little grated Swiss cheese, and tiny nuts of butter. The taste and the texture of this dish, which I found out was imported by the colonists of New England in the 17th century, but never became popular in the U.S, are quite unique. Then we would have a salad of lettuce and Belgian endives, with walnuts and a classic vinaigrette. Followed by an excellent cheese platter, that would always have some specialties from my mother’s region of origin, Vacherin, Reblochon, and authentic Swiss Gruyère, as well as more pungent cheeses like Pont-l’évèque, Roquefort, and Camembert, that my father preferred. And of course we would finish with the “bûche de Noël” , accompanied by sorbets and “tuiles aux amandes” (a crusty buttery cookie with almonds that my mother was famous for). The bûche and sorbets came from a very good pastry shop. As for the wines we drank:My father in these days was very “Bordeaux-oriented”. So, as far as I remember, we drank essentially Pauillac and St. Estèphe wines with the turkey and the cheese courses. For the appetizers, I think that we might have occasionally drank some white Bourgogne (Burgundy), but I do not remember what kind,. But most probably we continued with Champagne during the first course.
What is served in contemporary “diners de réveillon” in big cities like Paris?

Nowadays, the French who attend Midnight Mass have become a minority. The catholic church has lost a lot of its past influence on the daily life and on the traditions of France. In any case most churches celebrate “Midnight mass” much earlier in the evening so that parishioners can go home and eat the traditional diner de réveillon. As a first course, most Parisians eat either Oysters on the half-shell, smoked salmon, (preferably wild, not farmed-raised), lobster (steamed, cold, with a home-made spicy or lemony mayonnaise) , boudin blanc, but most often the all time favorite: duck or goose foie gras. My brother Luc serves usually both oysters and foie gras. Foie gras is served in all kinds of forms and preparations: warm or cold, fresh pan-seared with a reduction of Banyuls wine, in terrines, sliced from a can and served with an exotic preserve or condiment, fully cooked “au torchon”, half-cooked, etc.. Many people order either a foie gras, whole or half, from their local butcher or “Charcutier-traiteur” , already prepared and pre-cooked. Some go through the extensive labor of love of buying a fresh one and cook it themselves. Some buy “sous-vide” (vacuum packed), or “confit” in its own fat in a jar, or simply in a can. The canned one has to come from a reputable company, generally from Alsace or the South-West of France (Dordogne or Gers, for example) and be really a “bloc” of pure foie gras, rather than a mixed kind of pâté or ballotine that could contain very little foie gras but all kinds of different ground and pureed pieces, including some pork products. Fresh foie gras is very expensive. A good quality canned or preserved “bloc de foie gras” from a good supplier can also be very expensive. In the U.S. the best foie gras one come from the Hudson River Valley in the state of New York. As you probably know, the sale of foie gras has been banned in Chicago restaurants following a stupid law voted by the City Council some months ago. Boudin blanc is one of my favorite Christmas first courses. It is a very delicate soft sausage encased in a very thin natural casing. It is made of finely chopped good quality white meat from veal and chicken, mixed with some veal fat, eggs, cream, a touch of flour, soft bread soaked in milk, seasoned with pepper, nutmeg, salt, possibly chives and parsley. Sometimes it can be flavored with a little wine or brandy, and, for the more fancy one, flakes of sliced black truffles and/ or crushed hazelnut. It is gently pan fried and can be served, warm, with mashed apples. Recently, Chapon rôti (roasted capon) has become a favorite main course. But many people stick to the traditional roasted turkey, or less often goose. The most popular stuffing, or served separately as a side accompaniment is “ marrons” (chestnuts). You can find them fresh, shelled or not, peeled and pre-cooked in jars, or even canned. In the last case one of the most well-known French producer is Faugier. But fancy small vegetables like midget potatoes, peas, mini-carrots, cooked lettuce or cabbage, turnips and salsifis (oyster plant), are also served as an accompaniment. Sautéed mushrooms of all kinds are still very popular. A fancy salad of “Mesclun” (various types of lettuce and greens) is often served after the main course, usually dressed with a special vinaigrette, based on champagne vinegar for example, and spiced-up with exotic ground pepper. Some nuts, pieces of smoked duck magret, or cheese, can be added. Next is a cheese course (see my article on cheese trays on this blog). A basic good platter should at least include a camembert au lait cru (see my post on this blog), a non-refrigerated Roquefort, a Reblochon, a Cantal (“entre deux” aging), a Sainte-Maure (goat), a Livarot, and a good Comté. And as usual, the meal ends with either a traditional bûche de Noël or, more and more often, a “bûche glaçée”, which can be composed partially of ice cream and sorbets. In fact various “sorbet towers” made of scoops or blocks of sorbets of sophisticated natural flavors (exotic fruits and liquors) made by famous “glaciers-pâtissiers” (like Berthillon) are increasingly popular as Christmas dinner desserts.  

Wines: What should you choose?

That is the most difficult part, because everybody has his own theory about what the most perfect match should be. I will give you some entirely personal suggestions: With foie gras: Most people used to say: SAUTERNES. I would prefer a relatively young red GRAVES (Chateau Ferran 2003 would be a good but not too expensive choice) or a GEWÜRZTRAMINER (2002 from Kuentz). But a good CHAMPAGNE ROSE (Gosset Celebris or Lassalle would be good decently-priced choices) can be very enjoyable with a seared foie gras. If sliced warm with a Banyuls wine reduction, a good slightly chilled BANYULS would be a natural choice. With saumon fumé (smoked salmon): Either CHAMPAGNE brut (Alain ROBERT or GIMMONET, both good quality-price ratio)or POUILLY-FUME (Michot or Domaine de Riaux 2003) With boudin blanc: Either a Roche- aux- Moines from SAVENNIERES (a very fragrant white from the area of Anjou-western Loire Valley), or an ARBOIS ( white from the Jura area). With oysters: Without hesitation, a MUSCADET DE SEVRE et MAINE sur lies . With dinde aux marrons (turkey with chestnuts): a SAINT-JOSEPH (Domaine COURBIS 2002 cuvée spéciale or GUIGAL) a very elegant Côtes-du-Rhône from the Ardèche (chestnut producing area) or a MERCUREY 2003 (Chateau de Chamirey) a very pleasant and flexible red Burgundy from the Côte Chalonaise. With chapon rôti (roasted capon): a CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET 2002 (white or red Burgundy) With salad: Sparkling mineral water With cheese: It is difficult to have a wine for each cheese. if I had to limit myself to one wine I I would go with a SANCERRE ROUGE (from the center of France), or a SANCERRE BLANC to go with goat cheese With the dessert: The accepted choice is CHAMPAGNE DEMI-SEC. But I do not like it. I would rather have a CREMANT d’ ALSACE.