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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas menu - French style - try it!

(Edited and republished by "mr le marquis in November 2010)
Menu for Christmas.
(the photo is from the town of Arles, showing the Christmas Eve meal called "Treize Desserts" - 13 desserts - traditional stuff)

Since we are at the end of November, and this menu is intended for the month of December, I thought maybe a little account of how Christmas passes in France (mainly) and what is eaten and when, could be interesting!
Basically the ingredients have changed over the years, becoming very “Americanized” with the arrival of the Turkey. A strange bird, called after a country where it does not exist, attributed as a native of the USA or the Americas, and called, by the French, “dinde”, which is (or should be) spelt d’Inde, which means “from India”.  Decidedly a cosmopolitan birdie.A few years ago, the turkey made it’s entry into French public life, being considerably cheaper than it’s French counterpart the “Pintade” and almost as tasty! This was the comedown of the turkey, its price falling and falling (as it did everywhere in the western world) until it became cheaper even than chicken, and fell to the rank of “staple diet” food.
There are still people who buy a turkey and prepare it like the Pintade,  for Christmas, but socially it is rather “frowned upon”.
I won’t waste time telling you how to roast a Turkey, or a Pintade (if you can get one in your neck of the wood ) with all of it’s accompanying items, except to say that I have always found the roast Turkeys in UK far too overcooked, and therefore very dry. Try roasting for 30 minutes less, and uncover only to brown the skin for around ten minutes, before covering and leaving aside to cool a little for around 15 minutes, before carving. Your turkey will only be the better for it.
I won’t comment, either, on the multiple ways that Turkey “remains” can be used, they are so varied, in salads,in white sauces, in cheese sauces, gratinated in the oven, as minced meat for rissoles,or even turkey-burgers, thousands of possibilities!
Let your imagination run riot, but always follow the golden rule of “rewarmed remain food dishes” which is that they ALL require much more seasoning or stronger tasting additions (like curry etc) than in the raw state.
So – back to France.
The fact of the matter is that one can, and one does, eat so well all the year in France, that it is quite difficult to arrange something “special” for Christmas.
The tendency nowadays therefore, is to tend on the “expensive” side, and purchase items which one would not normally buy during the year, unless one is a millionaire, and then the majority of millionaires are too ignorant to know what good food is all about!
Caviar has still held itself mainly OFF the Christmas and New Year's menus, it is firstly not French (although they have started reculturing in the Seine delta, and sell “Seine caviar” every bit as good as the Russian/Iranian version, but ¾ times more expensive) - it is, secondly, extremely highly priced, and thirdly it would only be used with the aperos, and Pastis kills the taste of everything, and often the person drinking it!
Dogfish eggs (lompe) are often used in it’s place for the canapés, or in any other dishes which require the presence of caviar, and - of course - does not give the required taste, but does give a friendly smile at the bank instead of a scowl....!
Crab Lobster On the other hand, those items which used to be so cheap in Britain (particularly North-East England, and Scotland) and are now beyond the reach of the average UK citizen, things like crayfish, lobster, crab, (all of which I recall vaguely eating in Scotland as a kid, on rare outings to the coast) although relatively expensive, they find their way nowadays, onto the French Christmas Menu.
The fact that they actually are imported, mainly from Scotland, just annoys me!
Smoked salmon, although now an almost daily product, due to farming methods, is still included, and certain, discerning people (!) will try to find the rarer varieties like smoked halibut, eaten like smoked salmon, or smoked sturgeon.
Another item which has become a luxury, is smoked herring! In fact the humble herring has become a luxury, and almost impossible to find in it’s natural state (called “green herring”).
These smoked herring are not quite the “kipper” - well known and still well-loved, but pricey, these are just the filets smoked, boned, and ready for eating without further cooking, often surrounded with other luxuries of the sea, all smoked like smoked eels, halibut, and all the rest.
Personally, I would throw the turkey away and just eat these smoked fish things...!
All this richness from the sea, mainly imported, binds together with the home grown articles, like fresh oysters (in France not a luxury at all)- mussels, sea-snails, whelks,barnacles,St. Jacques scallops, Amande scallops, and all the thousands of other varieties such as the wild oyster called a “couteaux” because it resembles a knive blade, or “eponge” - an oyster, wild, which resembles a multi-coloured sponge, but hides a delicious little fruit inside, or sea-urchins, prickly but delicious. ALL of these items are eaten in the natural state, raw, with a touch of lemon juice, or absolutely at the limit a touch of home made mayonnaise.
This enormous dish is sold already done, for those who can’t open oysters etc, in all versions, and will be served, normally, as the opening Christmas meal course, just after the aperitifs.
I say Christmas “meal”, because the normal hour of eating this enormous meal is around 10pm on the 24th December, until somewhere around 5 to 6am on the 25th December.
I take umbrage with the French for this practice (in Germany it is the same, but more frugal) because, in general, everybody is so tired, that the benefits of such a meal are rather lost.
If the 24th December (Christmas Eve) is not a Sunday, it is a full, normal, working day, in France, not in Germany..!
The only comparison I can think of is the tradition at a Church in Bolton, Lancashire, where my father was minister, of going out on Christmas Eve from 10pm onwards, until around 4 or 5 am, waking church members (and their neighbours) with our wailings of Christmas carols!! 
In times gone bye, it was, in a way, even worse, with the Festive meal (Repas estivale or gros souper) following the midnight mass!
Fortunately, the meal, at the epoch, was much smaller, consisting (here in the Provence/Sud de France) of the famous 13 desserts, representing apparently Jesus and 12 disciples.
I’ll give you quickly the 13 desserts which are still served nowadays, except they are served all the time and “topped up” over the period roughly 20th Dec to Epiphanie (in January):These should be products of the area, so make up  your own in your corner of the world! 
Pompe a huile ( a sort of bread/croissant mixture, made with olive oil) nougat, Candied fruits, dried fruits, figs, nuts, chestnuts, dates, amandes, raisins, marzipan, honey, biscotins (biscuits from Arles) and more recently a yule-log.
Tradition is that everyone must be served at the same time, and everybody must taste something of everything!
Anyway, our first course is served and eaten, normally washed down with champagne, or other sparkling wine, and we can proceed to the fish course. Fish Fish
This can consist basically of anything fishy!
Whole fish (like the delicious turbot- whole and grilled/roasted in the oven- you need a big oven) served whole or pre-cut, with various sauces, normally cold variations of mayonnaise, through to the complicated fish sauce dishes – it’s normally the sauce which is complicated. For this course, I would recommend either a simple thing, like grilled Sole, with parsley butter, or (if rich and complicated in sauce) small portions, depending on your numbers at table.
Smaller, or controllable individual quantities mean that the people at table MAY just appreciate the things to come a lot more. Champagne or sparkling wine accompanies a marvel, but for a change try a “Sancerre” (a dry white from the Sancerre area) a little expensive, but it’s Christmas!
Following this comes what I once heard a British grandma describe as a French nonsense – she actually thought the meal was over and this was the dessert. As she said – “French don’t eat a lot – do they!”
Trou Normande: (Normandy hole!) Traditionally apple sorbet/iced water, surrounded with Calvados, making a sort of castle with moat. This is strictly for the digestion. The cold sorbet pushes the eaten food down, and the Calvados digests it! Believe me – it works!
This can be done equally well any acidy sorbet and any alcoholic digestif.
I have no replacement for non-drinkers, except you can try the sorbet on it’s own, but don’t be surprised if you are not as gay and care-free as the others around the table!
! Turkey Chicken 2Coming up next is whatever you have chosen as main course. Mainly, in France, it does consist of some kind of poultry, but the choice is so wide that I won’t go into it. Sometimes (if the guests are manifold)a whole animal will be spit-roasted, either in the garden, or in the hearth place (most private French homes have their own built in fireplace with wooden fires and grills/spits) This is a most agreeable sight, and it is a great shame that in UK and USA most such hearths have been replaced by central heating
After the main course, may possibly be the moment for a simple green salad, with a coarse vinaigrette (for the digestion again), and a glass of cold, sparkling or still water, to prepare the palate for the cheese course, and it’s heavier red wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux. Salad
French Wine Bread And CheeseThe cheese course I will not waste time on, having already described in “menu 1” what is required.
Here we pass to the dessert, and in general, nowadays, sorbets, ices, fresh fruit, stuffed pineapples, small but intensive in taste and quite rich in nutritional value, are on the order of the day.
Iced “yule log” concoctions are also very popular.
I once had the misfortune to be invited (together with a certain “ lady” ) to her family in Paris, for Christmas, and being of the “bourgeois” or “nouveau riche” variety, they always bought their “bouche de Noel” from a special patissiere.
I had to drive and pick it up, and pay for it (that was the arrangement – everybody paid for something).
When I found out that the price of this poor thing (a sort of ice cream in mandarin taste, shaped like a yuletide log and decorated as such) was 560 french francs (around 56GBP or 75$usa) I went berserk. Not that I didn’t get my money’s worth over the 2 days, but it just seemed ridiculous to me to pay so much for that particular thing! Pie
So – the expensive dessert has been eaten, now the nuts come out on the table, together with port wine or the SquirrelFrench version “maury” and people (or at least those who have teeth) munch away for hours, stopping only when the last course appears –
  Café-digestif. Expresso, obviously, and as large a selection of digestifs possible. Liqueur Coffee
It is now around 5 or 6 am, you’ve got a similarly rich meal at 12 noon – together with the message on the TV from Mr. le President (the French version of the Queen!) and you mustn’t fall asleep at table!
Where do you go?
To bed!   

Hope you have a nice one!

Cheers           And have a     ............   Happy New Year !!!
iwmpop (mr le marquis)                  -       Vauvert, France    -         Decembre 2010

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