Festive French Fayre
It’s an exciting time of year, that time when we all start to get prepared for all the festivities. Christmas in France is huge on food when the finest and best of everything gastronomic is beautifully prepared, cooked, and presented.
The main event for the French is Le Réveillon, a traditional late night feast held after families return from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Traditions do vary from region to region, but the meal is loaded with lavish gastronomic treats! Here are some of the dishes that would be served:
Le Réveillon starts off with some tasty luxury bites! Delicious caviar and smoked salmon topped blinis. Originating in Russia, blinis are very light, yeasty pancakes which have become popular in Paris and elsewhere in France. As an alternative, sour cream and dill also help to make Blinis a lovely start to the festive meal.
No French Christmas feast can go without foie gras, it’s a must! The traditional way is to serve it on toasted bread or served on a bed of salad leaves with some fruit.
The inclusion of seafood such as lobster, oysters, crab and scallops is also customary.
They say Oysters should only be eaten in any month that contains an ‘r’. So, December is a great month for oysters when they are seasonally large and juicy to be served as an appetizer to whet the appetite.
Coquilles Saint Jacques, the combination of scallops, wine and cream, served in the scallop shells also make a very attractive dish. They are topped with breadcrumbs and cheese then grilled to provide the perfect finish.
For a luxurious Réveillon supper, many enjoy lobster accompanied by crab and king prawns as part of the festive menu.
Escargots are probably not eaten as much in France as we think, but Christmas is the time when they are more likely to appear on the menu.
It is crucial to clean and purge them of anything toxic so there’s a complex routine of washing, boiling, cleaning and cooking – usually a 3-day procedure! This probably explains why the best escargots are a little expensive. However, they are readily available in the freezer section of supermarkets in France.
The Main Event
Roast turkey is still a popular tradition for the main course. Chestnuts are available everywhere in France at this time of year, so Turkey is usually accompanied by chestnut stuffing which brings a toasty nuttiness to the dish.
Other birds and wild fowl including guinea fowl, quail, pheasant or goose are also popular main courses served with vegetables.
It’s traditional, particularly in Provence, to share no less than 13 desserts! This is the representation of Jesus and the 12 apostles and this sweet extravaganza usually includes the following:
The first 4 are “les quartre mendiants” meaning 4 beggars that represent the colour of the robes of the 4 religious orders:
- Walnuts: Augustinians
- Figs: Franciscans
- Almonds: Carmelites
- Aaisins: Dominicans
Along with these, fougasse or pompe à l’huile may be served. This is an olive oil flatbread which is eaten with jam. It’s traditional for it to be broken into individual servings by hand rather than a knife. It is said this practice will protect wealth in the coming year.
Next 2 nougats are served. One is white to symbolise good and is made with pine nuts, pistachio and hazelnuts. The other is dark to symbolise evil made with caramelised honey cooked with almonds.
Depending on the region, the remainder will vary but may include:
- Stuffed Dates
- Dried plums
- Quince fruit paste or jam
- Candied melons
- Casse-dents of Allauch – a biscuit made from a paste of ground almonds, candied melon and orange peel on a thin layer of wafer. Each biscuit is covered with royal icing.
- Buche Noel- Yule Log
- Cumin and fennel seed biscuits
- Fried Bugnes: Doughnut-like pastry sprinkled with icing sugar originating from Lyon.
- Pain d’epice – a spiced bread made with rye flour and honey
- Fruit tourtes – fruit tarts
- Oreillettes – Thin light waffles
- A platter of fresh seasonal fruit is always served counting as one dessert.
Champagne is a must. Not Prosecco! The feast starts with bubbly followed by a selection of quality wines. To help make the meal last longer and to help digestion (!) ‘trou normand’ is served. This is a citrus sorbet added into a glass of liqueur or bubbly.
Here at the Gascony Cookery School we will show you many French traditions important to French dining experience. When visiting local French markets in Gascony you will see many of the fresh ingredients mentioned here.