Contributors: Hélène Vergé, Annie Hubert, Valerie de Garine
The main Christmas meal in France remains a succession of many classical dishes and a choice of several wines. However, as with other nation states in this Christmas collection of traditional foods, there are regional differences. While in this selection there is some reference to such diversity, the detailed information given is uneven due simply to the regional distribution of contributors, who all live in different parts of the far south and south west of France. Even where the French Catalan information has significant similarities with its Spanish counterpart, the editor has decided to keep the main sections of this book as nation states in order not to seem to make any political statements. However, there is rich information about Christmas customs from the contributor in Port Vendres, which has been merged into this Introduction for France.
In all parts of France, Christmas traditionally is above all a family celebration, which brings grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren together around a copious meal of many courses. In some families the tradition of the main meal, the reveillon, being after midnight mass on the 24th December is retained, but in other families the main meal is on Christmas Day itself. Local wines, of which there exists a big choice, are preferred with each of the courses of the main Christmas meal. In the Catalan area there are the dry white wines of Collioure or Taïchac, the red wines such as Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon-Villages, as well as special family reserves and very old sweet wines to sip with the desserts.
A typical first course might be foie gras of goose or duck, or oysters might be on the menu where available, or perhaps other shellfish. These would be accompanied by a white wine - a mellow wine with the foie gras or a dry wine with shellfish. The meal might be preceded by an aperitif providing an opportunity to nibble on olives, etc. while sipping an appropriate wine. The sweet regional wines, such as Banyuls, Maury or Rivesaltes, would be typical in the Perpignan area.
The main dish is probably most often roast poultry of some sort with sweet chestnuts and perhaps salsify. As elsewhere nowadays, however, a turkey has become common. Yet, there are regional differences within France, not only from South to North, but also from West to East, and a goose is considered more traditional in the east of France. However, family as well as locality differences exist and roast beef or a haunch of venison served with vegetables au gratin may be served, accompanied with one of the great red wines of France. For a recipe of roast capon see below, while for roast turkey see under Great Britain, for roast goose see under Germany. However, poultry is not necessarily the main dish in all families and below are two beef recipes. One is a roast beef en croûte and one is a rich beef stew typical of its Pyrenean locality near Pau.
There may well be a light salad next, but then there should be a plate with a grand selection of cheeses to linger over with a red wine, preferably a well-aged wine.
The most traditional sweet dessert throughout France is the Buche de Noël (Christmas log), a 'swiss roll' cake, thick with a rich cream filling between the rolls and all over the outside, which is usually of dark chocolate, but may sometimes be made with coffee, sweet chestnuts, Grand Marnier or some other flavour. A slight variation found in French Catalonia might be the 'Bras de Gitan' or 'Bras de Venus', which is a sweet sponge cake rolled around one firm and sweetened centre of whipped cream or egg custard. The family of the Port Vendres contributor traditionally has an orange fruit salad in a local muscatel wine. With any of these desserts Champagne might be served or some other sparkling wine.
The meal would end with coffee, and there would be an assortment of chocolates, nuts, etc. Among these in French Catalonia would be tourons (a kind of nougat with almonds or hazelnuts or pine nuts typical of all parts of Spain), as well as mandarin and other types of oranges, nuts, dried fruits such as figs and dates, which might be stuffed with almond paste. These can be accompanied by a small glass of cognac, armagnac or other local speciality. Because these Christmas food traditions are relatively easy to follow, they seem to be preserved and are passed on and retained within the younger modern families.
* (c)Copyright 2008 Hélène Vergé, Annie Hubert, Valerie de Garine, Helen Macbeth. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute copies of this Introduction to recipes for France solely for the purposes of non-profit domestic use or non-profit educational purposes in either case provided that copies are distributed at or below cost and that the author's source and copyright notice are included on each copy.