Fabulous French feasting during the holidays is an almost impossible marathon for even a foodie such as me! Too much, too delicious and too rich!
Christmas Eve feasts are just the beginning, with a second even more elaborate at New Years.
Try as I might to keep up, I can’t! I have always prided myself for stepping up to the plate with courage, but I just can’t muster the challenge to include for example foie gras at each feast!
Some things you just have to concede a defeat, and this is one of them! It’s not that I haven’t had years of training, because I have.
But, you have to draw a line somewhere. Yes, sometimes too much, however fantastic and succulent and worthy of a bite is still too much!
Each pastry shop proudly displays their own unique Buche de Nöel creations. Every year there is tough competition amongst them to produce a masterpiece of this traditional French pastry that is a must on every Christmas table.
Some deviate into the wildest of forms and flavours, but all from the famous pastry chefs are worthy of praise!
Those from the best known pastry chefs are very expensive to buy, but you have to take into consideration the amount of time and labour that goes into making them with the finest of ingredients.
I have always preferred to make my own and I can certainly testify that they are a labour of love! My favourite is my traditional classical one with praline buttercream, decorated with my own crisp meringue mushrooms and adorning squirrel.
Daughter Aimée, who has had a lot of experience in seeing me do it year after year, insisted on making the buche this year, though it wasn’t finished till two days later past Christmas.
This year our holiday festivities were dimmed and clouded with grief, so frankly it didn’t matter much.
Her rendition came off wonderful though with rum soaked biscuit roulade filled with a deeply rich praline of almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, adorned with her splendid squirrel almost as big as the buche.
The pecans were from north Louisiana, lovingly shipped to me my lifelong friend Ann. Nothing like Louisiana pecans!
Along the Cote d’Azur you will find the monumental tradition of treize desserts, or 13 desserts. These multiple confections, fruits, nuts and orange flower cake represent the 12 apostles and Jesus Christ.
If you come to Paris at any time, be prepared to be dazzled by all of the fabulous food markets all year round.
The French are prepared to spend an inordinate amount of money on holiday feasting, first with Christmas Eve, then the last huge blast a New Years.
Both feasts are served one course after another at a very leisurely pace, as they should be considering all the preparation that goes into them.
They often take hours, and can well go into the wee hours of the morning. Needless the say, Champagne flows freely both in the beginning, and the end and sometimes throughout the dinner!
The finest of wines the family can afford, each picked out for each course is served throughout, with usually a more powerful red reserved for the inevitable cheese course.
Armagnac, Cognac and other digestives are passed around for those still standing!
Christmas Eve is generally reserved for family, both immediate or extended, whereas New Years is more open to inviting friends as well.
Both are tremendous splurges in terms of foods and preparation, but New Years can be more expansive and expensive as there generally will be more invited ones.
One holiday speciality you will find on both tables is foie gras in all forms. The French have grown up with this treat and they haven’t shown any trends at giving it up.
You will find foie gras for all budgets, but the only ones worthy of eating in my opinion are the artisanal ones hand gavaged from small farms.
I prefer raw goose or duck foie gras, that I quickly sear and serve hot with a complimentary condiment of apples, pain d’epices or a chutney that has little sugar.
Oysters on the half shell are a must as well for the majority of French tables. The French consume more oysters than any other European nations and with good reason.
French oysters are just superlative in flavour! Take you pick where they come from, either Normandy, Bretagne, the Atlantic coast from the uppers reaches of Bretagne to Bordeaux and from the shores of the Mediterranean.
My personal favorites are those from Cancale and les fines de claire from Ile d’Oléron.
The Romans were the first oyster cultivators in France along the Atlantic and the tradition has continued to expand to the present day.
Besides being the largest consumers of oysters in Europe, they are the largest producers and exporters of these prized bivalves.
Having grown up eating Louisiana oysters, from the murky waters of the Gulf wetlands, which are huge and milky(laiteuse) and doused with ketchup and hot sauce, I immediately fell in love with French oysters, which need nothing but a little squirt of lemon.
I spied some very expensive ones for 46 a kilo, along with some high class clams as well.
The difference has to do with the conditionment of the oysters, and the waters they come from which determines their tastes.
Smoked salmon is also a strong favorite after the oysters, served thinly sliced with a little sprinkling of red onions or shallots, dill, olive oil and lemon juice or made into a lovely hors d’oeuvre.
The star of the French table at Christmas is generally a bird, farm raised and free range. Turkey and capons are favored, specially fattened for the Christmas markets preferably coming from the southwestern part of France.
This year I decided on returning to goose, which usually graced my Christmas table before I moved here. Yes, there is always guilt about sacrificing these beautiful birds; therefore I offer my gratitudes to their soul.
By the time it is a golden brown, the poor bird rendered a vast pool of melted fat, which I meticulously save, as well as duck fat, to oven roast potatoes and use in other recipes.
The Réveillon on the eve of New Year’s is called Fête de Saint Sylvestre, as the 31 day of December is Saint Sylvestre’s name day, still very much honored here.
Along with several amuse bouches and smoked salmon, foie gras returns in all sorts of variations.
The center of focus is generally huge platters of all sorts of crustaceans: lobsters, langoustines and giant crabs, gambas and shrimp. These are surrounded by oysters, clams, sea snails, and sea urchins.
Those huge langoustines were going for a whopping 246 euros a Kilo! Of course you could get blue lobsters from Brittany for less at a still very steep price of 90 euros/Kilo and up. The imported ones from the US and Canada were cheaper at 30 euros plus.
A huge fancy bird or roast of boneless duck breasts stuffed with a thick layer of foie gras is popular too afterwards.
The galettes or king cakes go back to the medieval times to represent the gifts given to the new born Jesus by the 3 Magi.
The majority of central and Northern France prefers the crispy crunchy delight of puff pastry filled with almond creme or various other very imaginative fillings that start flooding the pastry shops even before New Years.
Around Bordeaux and in Provence, the still love the brioche type king cakes, either filled or decorated with candied fruits.
These older version were brought over to Louisiana by French immigrants. Sadly the king cakes commercialized there now are a vulgarized sugar laden version made with hydrogenated fats, processed ingredients and preservatives that bear little resemblance to the ones in France.
My favourite neighborhood baker had a fabulous version filled with the 13 fruits and nuts this year. His galettes are one of the pastries I allow myself to buy occasionally In January.
Unintentionally my own holiday festivities are prolonged every year beyond Epiphany because Aimée’s birthday is Jan 10!
That translates with another birthday pastry made with love by me and another special celebratory dinner!
Oh well, it won’t be long before all these excesses will be but a memory with Lent coming in February!