23 December 2009 – It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and the food frenzy in France is nearing its peak!! Preparing for the year-end family feasts is an important of the holiday culture here ... every grocery store, every caterer, every take-out food emporium has holiday menus to offer those who don't cook themselves. How does this menu sound - it's from my local grocery store ...
FIRST COURSE: scallops in their shell with mushrooms OR duck foie gras with two peppers and Champagne
SECOND COURSE: an apple/foie gras tart with Port OR a ragout of monkfish, shrimp, and bacon
THIRD COURSE: filet of duck with a choice of sauces OR a trio of tropical sole, Atlantic salmon, and scallops with Hollandaise sauce – accompanied by a choice of potatoes Dauphinois, rice, or chestnuts
FOURTH COURSE: cheese platter
DESSERT: chocolate pyramid OR nougat with red fruits
When I first moved to Brittany, I had a hard time getting used to these major marathon meals, where you're at the table for six or more hours – I'm not a very good sitter. Every year, my younger brother tells me that he really wants to experience one of these meals where you just go on eating. Well, the French don't actually just go on eating – they take their time, they relax between courses, and they eat fairly small portions. Still, Christmas is a feast.
As much as the take-out menus can be tempting, I enjoy the cooking. One of the things that I like about the French culture is that there is an appreciation of a quality product and a willingness to pay for it. We get our turkey or capon directly from the farm – it's excellent, and it's expensive: about $75 for a 5-kilo bird (around 12 pounds). At our house, the menu looks fairly traditional:
FIRST COURSE: oysters (the round flat ones), foie gras (duck), smoked salmon, galantines
SECOND COURSE: roast capon, chestnuts (some years from our own trees – one year, I detached my thumbnail from its nail bed shelling chestnuts), mashed potatoes (from our garden), gravy, green vegetables (I continue to have this misguided notion that vegetables are an important part of a balanced menu – I gave up on stuffing some years ago when it was clear that I was the only one interested)
THIRD COURSE: cheese platter (at least six different ones), large green salad
DESSERT: bûche de Noël or a baked Alaska (called a Norwegian omelette in French), fresh fruit (including our own kiwi)
WITH COFFEE: home-made cookies, lots of chocolates, brandy (particularly very old Calvados!)
This all takes about 6 or 7 hours to consume – lots of conversation and NO hurry!
Here's my French turkey story: a number of years ago, I thought it would be fun to do a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for my French friends. Every day when I went to the market in Quimper, the poultry lady had turkey thighs for sale. So in early November, I went to her and asked to order a whole turkey for the end of the month. She said to me "Il n'y en a pas" – "There aren't any." There aren't any?? I was standing there looking at the thighs. What did she mean, there aren't any? Are they sending the turkeys back to the farm in wheelchairs? If there are thighs, there have to be turkeys somewhere. But no, the French only eat whole turkeys for Christmas, ergo the rest of the year, there aren't any.
Wherever you find yourself for holiday feasts this season, I wish you "Bon appétit!"