From Living Within, December, page 19.
A Christmas issue, and what to write about food and drink for this festive season when we are all probably reaching journalistic saturation point about now? I could give you some tips for the turkey or the spuds or try to persuade those of you who are not keen that sprouts are a treat but I have a confession to make; I have not spent too many Christmases in England as an adult and have chosen to be in France for the last few years instead. Although I am normally a staunch traditionalist, I have even stepped away from the turkey and its trimmings in the last couple of years and gone a bit native.
Now don’t get excited, I haven’t stepped too far into the abyss, we still eat our Christmas lunch on Christmas day not being able to get as enthused as the French about Le Réveillon, or Christmas Eve, (at least it is when it attaches to Christmas - there being another one that brings in the New Year just a week later which is a much grander affair in France); it would be cheating, after all, to start the feasting a day early by our British reckoning. But I have, with the blessing of my family, chosen other birds for the main feast and, just the once, ditched le pudding in favour of a very French bûche or yule log and one that I didn’t make myself.
Perhaps I should explain myself. In the corner of South West France that I have become familiar with, while looking similar to ours - pine trees, street decorations (albeit a bit more cellophane than twinkle), cards, snow scenes, Father Christmases (so many Father Christmases: municipal live ones who come to the house and drop presents for children; robotic ones that dance frenetically, and dare I say, a little suggestively, in the supermarkets, and the ones that dangle helplessly from shuttered windows like thwarted burglars - small, immobile and a bit the worse for wear) - Christmas, is in fact quite different there.
Climbing up drainpipes;
skiing down the guttering;
even the police station is not a safe haven.
The French of my acquaintance are well aware of our British traditions but do not really embrace them and take their own very seriously; these do not include bread sauce, or parsnips or heavily fruited anythings and, importantly, they do not contain crackers (which incidentally have no direct French translation and whose value cannot be explained with any sense of conviction to interested French parties; I know, I have tried - well, two people pull it, and there is a small explosion and inside a joke, that isn’t funny, to read aloud, and a paper hat …., you can see the basic problem). Crackers also need to be imported, which, while not impossible, may cause some problems, given the explosive element.
The French Christmas Eve dinner is likely to contain numerous courses, to have oysters as an hors d'oeuvre, a capon at it centre and cheese and good wine at its tail and, of course, there will be a bûche - a special log shaped seasonal cake which serves as traditional symbol of the ancient yule log that dates back to pagan times when a log was burned to celebrate and give thanks for warmth, life and the return of the sun.
The French do not typically wonder how to fit a 20lb turkey into an oven or how long it will take to cook safely because a 20lb bird is unthinkable to most of them; I have fought long and hard with the butcher to persuade him that I need a bigger bird but he remains unmoved and implacable and does not deal in super-sized poultry. So, over the years, I have come to join him in his way of thinking. The bird is a bit bigger than a large chicken and, arguably, has been treated somewhat harshly in surrendering its manhood in order to gain a little in girth and flavour. Capons, no longer much seen in the UK, are emasculated cockerels and are much prized by the French on feast days for the superiority of both their tenderness and flavour and, in SW France, beat the turkey hands down as the bird of choice on the Christmas table.
As for the year without pudding, it came as a surprise to me too that I was capable of such heresy; the stirring of the pudding is a family tradition that I have long preserved but I was persuaded by the modernisers in the family that an expertly crafted bûche made by a master pâtissier might be a superior way to finish the meal than a pudding which, while a favourite of mine, is admittedly decidedly rich. The yule log cake varies in France from the simple Genoise sponge, rolled and covered in buttercream and decorated in suitable loggy fashion, through parfaits of chestnut and chocolate to ice creamed confections - but, when in the hands of a French master in such matters, it would be hard to go wrong and I didn’t regret my decision to forgo our English favourite - it was a pretty fabulous alternative.
But I have it on good authority that there are those amongst the French who covet a few of our traditions too. Those who rather like the English penchant to decorate with more than a little zeal, those who quite like the extra (not to say, on occasion, excessive) time and care we put into the preparation and, in spite of the superior reputation of the French in this arena, those who have quite taken to the English mince pie (or tarte aux fruits secs as it is more properly known over there). In honour of this I have included a picture of my first batch of the year - mince pies with a macarooned topping - the sweetness and richness of the pie readily adjustable with the choice of pastry (short, flaky and buttery, or sweet and crisp), the brand of mincemeat and how you may have doctored it (with citrus - juice or rind - additional alcohol, for example) and how you choose to top them. If I were spending Christmas here, I would, of course be booking my Christmas bird about now with Paul and his team at the Game Larder in Claygate whose books are already open for business.
It remains only for me to wish you all joy in a celebration whatever traditions or customs you follow at this time of year, perhaps to throw in a Joyeux Noel or Joyeuses Fêtes, or more simply, my best wishes for this season of goodwill and festivity, to all, wherever you may be and whoever you may be with.
“that martyr to the cause of cooking, the capon” ~Richard Olney