Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, as the song goes – if you do not live in France, where it could be a guinea fowl or a wild boar that puts on weight. This year, with Covid-19 playing Scrooge and the World Health Organization recommending limiting holiday gatherings to the nuclear family (with masks on), what is there to look forward to if not a sumptuous, delicious party?
Every year in France, as elsewhere, the whole country prepares excitedly in good time for the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Already in November, the main roads all dress up in glitter and wreath lighting and the streets are full of holiday shoppers.
But this year’s preparations were hampered by some government measures to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Nevertheless, the caterers (delicatessens) and butchers have been busy taking orders for delicacies that will soon be placed on the dinner tables, with people ready to take care of expensive foods that are usually, and especially now, reserved for the end of – annual semester.
France’s Christmas and New Year parties are anything but lean. Since the Middle Ages, the midnight mass was preceded by a lean meal: it was common to eat only a little bread, fish or vegetable broth and drink a glass of water. Christmas dinner was the great traditional meal served to worshipers after a long night’s sleep.
Although fewer French people today participate in the midnight fair, the tradition of a large Christmas and New Year meal has survived. Here are some of the most important dishes in a French winter holiday party:
Throughout December, supermarket shelves are stacked on the ceiling with jars and pots of foie gras, a French specialty of fertilized duck or foie gras, often served as an appetizer as a pâté on hot toast with a little jam – or chutney – generally of onions or figs.
Although many have stopped eating foie gras due to the way artificial birds are artificially fed by tube feeding or force-feeding, it is still one of the most popular foods for a French Christmas meal, and France is today by far its largest producer.
Foie gras is a staple for French Christmas and New Year parties. © Eric Risberg, AP (archive photo)
Literally translated as “fatty liver”, foie gras originated in ancient Egypt before spreading across the Mediterranean and being adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans. Later, during the Middle Ages, the tradition of probing the Jewish population continued, as goose meat was considered a good source of nutrition and its cooking fat complied with Jewish dietary laws.
The popularity of foie gras grew during the Renaissance, when it became associated with the kings of France. The term “foyes gras” was coined during the reign of Louis XIV and served at royal banquets during Louis XV, but it was Louis XVI who explained it as “the king’s dish”.
Foie gras is often also served roasted in a pan, or sliced over a piece of meat or as a sauce. It is produced in the winter and its high price makes it a luxurious holiday product that is perfect for the festivities at the end of the year.
For those who do not eat foie gras, other common starters at a French Christmas or New Year’s dinner are smoked salmon, scallops (coquilles Saint-Jacques), shrimp or oysters.
The French are among the largest oyster consumers in the world, with more than 100,000 tonnes of oysters served in France each year, a large proportion of which reach the Christmas table.
Oysters displayed on the Ile de Ré in France. © Regis Duvignau, Reuters
Oysters are easy to find in France, with their long coastline, and are relatively inexpensive for a holiday dish. They are usually served fresh with a vinaigrette with red wine and shallots or simply a lemon press.
It is French custom to eat oysters only during months that have an “r” in their names – September to April. This is not only because they taste best during this period but because of habit. Long before refrigerated transport methods were invented, oysters could only be transported inland from the sea during the cold winter months if they were to stay healthy and not spoil before being served.
For the same reason, salmon, lobster, crayfish and other shellfish are also traditionally eaten in the winter. But unlike oysters, these are relatively expensive and again a perfect luxury to spend on at the end of the year.
Duck, duck, goose (or turkey, capon or any other stuffed bird)
Just like in the US or the UK, a real, traditional staple for a French Christmas dinner is the stuffed turkey.
Before turkey arrived in Europe from America in the 17th century for the French stuffed goose. But turkey has usually replaced the goose as an optional holiday bird because it is cheaper, but still bigger and meatier than a regular old chicken.
The turkey’s biggest advantage is its size (it can weigh up to 18 kg) for large family parties. This year, with Covid-19 measures limiting the number of guests recommended at the table, other birds may have fewer leftovers.
A smaller but at least as juicy chicken that is very popular in France during the winter holidays is capon (chapon in French), a cockerel that was neutered to make the meat fatter, usually weighing three to four kg; or the even smaller guinea fowl (tortured).
Regardless of which bird is chosen, it is generally roasted and served with a special Christmas filling that traditionally contains chestnuts and mushrooms.
Other classic holiday dishes in France include roasted meats, such as lamb or beef, and even venison, such as toe, wild boar, game or pheasant, which is not usually eaten year-round by most non-hunter-gatherer Frenchmen.
It may not really be the light dessert your gut might ask for after a meal of foie gras and stuffed capon, but no Christmas meal in France is complete without a buche de Noël, otherwise known as the Yule cake.
Bukche is a detailed creation that consists of a rolled sponge cake filled with cream – or ice cream – and frosted to look like tree bark or a log. It is a reminder of an earlier tradition dating back to the Iron Age when people in Europe would gather to welcome the winter solstice. Families burned large woods, usually from fruit trees, smeared with wine and salt and decorated with cones, holly or ivy. The wood kept the house warm, and the ashes were said to have medicinal benefits and protect against evil.
Other Christmas desserts in France include gingerbread (pain d’épices) and chocolate. Traditionally, well-behaved children received chocolate and other sweets on December 6, the day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Gradually, Saint Nicholas’ tradition disappeared in most French regions except in the east, and the ritual of chocolate and gingerbread was incorporated into Christmas.
A small price to pay
After a meal with stuffed goose or coat or other roasted meat, not to mention champagne flowing like water, good wine and a wide range of rich desserts and chocolates, it is not surprising that the French complain about crise de foie – literally translated as a “liver crisis”, but more precisely as a digestive problem – at the end of the winter holidays.
But a small crise de foie is a small price to pay for a great feast with the family during these difficult days of coronavirus.