Being a family of mixed nationalities, we make sure we alternate which country we spend Christmas in. This year, we are going to France. And my eldest is always pleased to know that our traditional French Christmas meal has not changed for three generations.
I must admit that I am pleased with that fact too. Indeed, without tradition, one could not be excited in anticipation of all the good things to come.
Unlike in England, Christmas Eve is of paramount importance. The celebratory meal starts at about 9pm and lasts until about 11pm or until it is time to go to midnight mass. Clearly, it is a celebration for the adults, during which young children are tucked in bed so Father Christmas can deliver safely.
In my family, the meal we have on Christmas Eve consists of large and plump oysters served with my grandfather’s ‘crépinettes’, a kind of flat sausage seasoned with cognac and death trumpets mushrooms. It is a local way of serving oysters, where the earth and the ocean meet once more (see August).
This is followed by my grandfather’s kind of Gravilax, a cured salmon with dill which he cures himself a month or so ahead of time. This is served with crème fraiche and a squeeze of lemon.
For the main course, even though we are pretty full by then, we always have a roast beef in the fillet, one which is so tender that you can cut it with a fork. This family tradition comes from the fact that my grandfather was a butcher and deli maker, and as a result, the best cuts of beef seemed to take centre stage at every important family gathering. It is served with cep mushrooms, picked in my grandparents’ woods in Autumn and then preserved so they can be enjoyed all year round. Those are often accompanied by preserved green beans grown in one of the family members’ garden.
Inevitably, this is followed by a cheese platter including a camembert (always, because it is the only cheese that my grandfather eats), something very smelly like an Epoisse, and something light and fresh like a fresh goat cheese which we eat with butter and salt and pepper – a delicacy from the region my paternal grandmother comes from.
For anybody who can still stand up at this point, we serve an exotic fruit Pavlova. It is my contribution – small I grant you – and a must since it is the favourite dessert of all the ladies in my family. The national tradition however, is a chocolate and/or chestnut log.
After that (no, we’re not quite finished yet), there is always an array of sweets or nutty delights, from ‘pate de fruits’ (fruit cheese), to plain nuts and dried fruits, to chocolate and marzipan. This is because my maternal grandmother has always been adamant that there should be 13 desserts for Christmas. The only explanation I ever got as to why was that it had something to do with the last supper. Personally, I think she just has a sweet tooth…
I could not possibly attempt to cover all aspects of this gargantuan dinner in this post, particularly items such as the crepinettes – although now you know that sausages are sumptuous with oysters so if you have the opportunity, go for it!
However, I will give out the French way of roasting meat ‘French style’, as per my grandfather’s recommendations and which I follow when I roast a meat. It is a family guideline that we have followed for three generations. It is simple but every one coming for dinner at my house always asks how I cooked it – so here it is.
However, it is so simple that I feel I need to add an alternative to the main course. And I chose quail. The little delicate birds are brilliant for special occasion, never fail to impress, are easy to cook and can be prepared in advance, even the day before. Each guest can have their own – in fact my youngest, 6, loves them and has a whole one to herself. Quails marry very well with seasonal vegetables such as sprouts, which my youngest also loves (she calls them baby cabbages…I used to work in PR and I felt that sprouts somehow had a bad name) – and no, I do not boil them.
Desserts are an absolute must on Christmas dinner and this year, I decided to tackle a paleo meringue – Pavlova and Mont Blanc, here we come!