A French Christmas Dinner

I recently saw a post on Facebook discussing the origins of the many items typically found on a French Christmas Eve dining table. They got a lot of points right, that many items did not originate in France, which made it a rather fun read! I wanted to share many of those Christmas meal items and some of the history behind them, so you can prepare a French Christmas meal.
Something that is really different for me was that in many French homes the big meal is on Christmas Eve…Santa Claus or ‘Papa Noel‘ even comes then (not on Christmas day).

If you are coming to France for the holidays, do keep in mind that it is still considered a very family oriented period of time. Many stores and restaurants are closed, so it’s a lot of meals at home or at hotel restaurants if you’re traveling. The Christmas markets are generally over after Christmas, so if you want to see them you’ll want to arrive before. After the Christmas holidays, many people go to the mountains to ski.

French Christmas Starter

OYSTERS – Oysters are incredibly popular this time of year, Christmas and New Years. We even have problems with thieves who go to the oyster farms in the Arcachon Bay and steal them in the winter. So, they hire security to protect the beds! Oysters in France have been around for millennia, but you’d be interested to know that around 80 percent of them are all the same species of oyster, but take different flavour profiles due to the ‘merroir‘ or the water environment that they grow in. Mainly eaten ‘au nature’ or raw with no additions, or with some lemon, in the SW.

FOIE GRAS with Spiced bread and fig jam – Geese started to be fed figs to fatten them up before slaughter in the Egyptian era, and has spread all over Europe since. Generally the majority of foie gras in France is made with ducks, a hybrid, sterile, male duck to be specific. Ducks tend to be much easier to work with than geese and the males have more ‘space’ inside for growing their liver in during the final couple of weeks during ‘galvage‘ or the forced feeding of corn. The foie is then seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked in a terrine or kitchen towel (tourchon in French) to eliminate some of the fat and create a solid, sliceable foie gras.

Smoked or cured FISH – of course salmon is a classic which does grow locally wild but we also have a lot of cured trout in Gironde which is equally enjoyable! France is the second largest consumer of salmon in the world and we get a majority of it from Norway.

CHAMPAGNE – it was recently said that sparkling wines originated in England and was stollen by the French. Regardless, the method ‘champenoise‘ was created in Champagne around the same time. I need to research more into this. Either way, you’ll want a glass of champagne to start your meal (or crement, a sparkling white from outside of Champagne). Choose a drier champagne (brut) to start and save a sweeter champagne (extra dry) for with dessert. A blanc de blanc is great with fish and a blanc de noire with meats.

French Christmas Main

CHAPON or a castrated rooster – will be stuffed with any assortment of items, then roasted much as we do a turkey for Thanksgiving in the USA. Side dishes are also similar, with potato dauphinoise and green beans. The chapon, or male chicken, was made a popular meat back in the Roman era due to how quickly (and more cheaply) they fatten compared to female hens.

GOOSE with truffled stuffing – nothing like a Christmas goose! I had it once and loved it, but I have yet to have enough people over to justify making one!

French Christmas Dessert

Bûche de Noel or Yule Log – this is a tradition from hundreds of years ago when we celebrated the winter solstice. As a dessert, it has many possible origins, but really became a proper dessert in the 1940’s in Poitou-Charentes. It is classically a genoise cake, rolled, then decorated with butter cream. Today you find all sorts of creations, the one we made last year was light with a genoise, fruits, fruit cream and whipped cream.

Christmas Cookies are always are American addition, which we usually make for the teachers gifts at school as well. They’re delicious and fun to make! I’d also recommend making a gingerbread house, kids have so much fun! At the end of the day, each family and region has their own individual additions, what are your favorites? aquitaineguide@gmail.com

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