Like everything in France, commercial Christmas fashion changes each year. Last year, window and other public displays were filled with black-flocked Christmas trees decorated in white and silver. It was stylish, in a depressing, macabre kind of way. This year our town has chosen turquoise and silver which is, in all honesty, a more cheerful option.
No matter the color or the fashion, though, Christmas in France is, like everything else here, really all about food and those trends don’t change. Of course people make a stab at decorating their homes, and most people I know go to midnight Mass. But it’s all a prelude to the real moment of importance – one of the biggest feasts of the year.
As I’ve grown fond of the traditions here, I’ve fallen in love with the foods of the season. Always an oyster fan, here I’ve become oyster-obsessed. My Christmas season includes as many of them as I can reasonably consume, always washed down with a highly chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet. My favorites this year will be the lean, hauntingly briny oysters from St. Vaast, just off the coast of the Cotentin peninsula. Easy to open, easier to slurp, I serve them neat, no lemon or shallot and vinegar concoction to dilute their purity.
Along with them, in my household, will be the noble scallop. I bring them home in their shells rather than ask the fishmonger to shuck them, preferring to pry them loose myself. I slice the first few very thin to serve raw, with a little “filet” or drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some fleur de sel. These I offer to the guests who populate the kitchen, and they are often greeted with caution – the French don’t tend to eat a lot of raw seafood. Once sampled, however, the slices disappear in a haze of favorable commentary.
The remaining scallops I leave in their cupped shells, drizzle with butter, and bake quickly so they emerge just warm in the center. Sublime.
This year I’ve introduced a new dish to my family and friends. It consists of raw lobster meat extracted from the shell of the elegant blue beasts that live all along the northern coast of France. I cut the translucent, red-tinged meat into thin “escalopes,” or angled slices. These I arrange in buttered dishes, drizzle with a bit of intensely flavored fish stock, sprinkle with tarragon from the garden, and bake in a hot oven for less than five minutes. The lobster emerges with an unparalleled, conversation-stopping purity of flavor and texture that is almost holy. I serve it with a gently chilled white Burgundy. We’re still in the kitchen which is a-light with candles and a fire burning in the fireplace. It speaks of celebration, and is a wonderful way to begin a festive meal.
Leaving aside the briny realm for a moment, the Christmas season also ushers in chestnuts, which abound in our local forests. We gather them – this year’s harvest has given exceptionally large and meaty ones – and I roast them in the fireplace, or boil them in water scented with star-anise. Apples are at their utmost during this season, too, and I take a nice, tart variety like Cox Orange Pippin, peel it, and slice it very thin. I brush the slices on both sides with butter and sprinkle them lightly with a mixture of ground cinnamon, cumin, and fleur de sel. These I bake long and slow and they emerge sweet and salty, crisp and scrumptious.
For Christmas we always make a bûche de Noel. I don’t care for the typical light, airy kind, and instead use a recipe I got from a Basque farmer. The cake is dense and cinnamon-scented, the filling a beguiling blend of chestnut paste and chocolate, the frosting a semi-sweet ganache. I make meringue mushrooms, and we create a little forest scene on the top of our “bûche.”
All of this is memories-in-the-making, which is one of the best parts of Christmas, whether it be enjoyed in our country of origin, or our country of choice. From briny beginning to sweet finish, I wish you your own memory-filled moment, and leave you with a recipe to duplicate. Bonne Année!