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.  



  1. Anonymous7:47 AM

    Wow! This is great! I'll let people know on my blog that this is out there.

  2. Anonymous8:37 PM

    I wish to thank you for taking the time to write out all this beautiful information and share it with everyone. A recent family geneological research report gave over that my family was in fact French and not Scottish as we had always believed. Upon learning of this, my sister went to Paris for a week where upon she did nothing but send me phone pics and texts of all the meals she ate! Once returning to the states, she demanded that for Christmas, I her little sister and cook of the family, make a traditional French Christmas dinner. I have been overwhelmed with the information out there but your blog has given me such a direct look at not only your memories but of the general countryside as well that I feel much better armed as I prepare for this holiday feast. Thank you for your words and memories.