Season’s eatings

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on March 10, 2018

Par for the course: Coffee and liqueurs provide a little respite before dessert, which is the traditional bûche de Noel, or a Swiss roll Yule log (representative image)   -  Shutterstock

The heart of Christmas for most French people is the réveillon, the long, languorous, alcohol-fuelled Christmas Eve dinner

The start of winter in Paris is signalled by the appearance of chestnut sellers at metro exits. The nuts are adroitly roasted atop supermarket shopping trolleys jerry-rigged to house a metal tin full of hot coals, the chestnuts hopping and popping on the metal lid.

Next to arrive are oysters. At bars or outside the fishmongers’, a shucker prepares the shells for people to eat standing up, while at more refined establishments, customers sit down with bread, butter, white wine, vinegar, lemon juice and other accompaniments.

The third augury is the butchers’ windows, where festive gibier (game) — hare, deer, partridge, woodcock, goose, pheasant, and quail — starts crowding more everyday fare out.

And the final sign that Christmas is near? The bakery displays, which overflow with mountains of fruit tarts, macarons, chocolate thins, orangettes, petits-fours, Yule logs, and star-shaped bredele cookies.

Noël in Paris gives me the warm and fuzzies every year, in a low-key, old-fashioned way. The city gets even busier, overrun with both tourists and residents, out ice-skating at the Eiffel Tower or on the banks of the Seine, gazing at the store display windows on the boulevard Haussmann or browsing the garish “Christmas village” at the Champs-Élysées, featuring wooden chalets selling mulled wine, foie gras sandwiches, waffles and tacky ornaments.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are family affairs though, and most restaurants and bars are closed. The heart of Christmas for most French people is the réveillon, the languorous, alcohol-fuelled Christmas Eve dinner (for the more religious, it’s dinner and church).

Regional traditions differ: in Provence, the meal is rife with complicated religious symbolism. The first part takes place before midnight mass, and is a simple, meatless meal of seven dishes symbolising the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, mainly fish and vegetables — cod, snails, shellfish, savoury pies, chard, spinach, celery, artichokes. Traditionally, after attending mass, the family returns for les treize desserts, 13 desserts symbolising Christ and the apostles. The quatre mendicants, or “four beggar” desserts — dried figs, raisins, almonds and nuts — represent the four mendicant religious orders, Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite and Augustinian monks. Dates symbolise the arrival of Christ from the Middle East. Fruit, tarts, quince jelly, and candied chestnuts make up the other offerings.

In Paris, however, there is no such thing as a simple, austere Christmas meal. Christmas at my partner’s family home in Paris, for instance, is something of a marathon, necessitating planning, training and endurance. A nap in advance is advised, as are stretchy pants.

There are rillettes, pate, gougères and the like as we wait for everyone to arrive. Since they are Champagne natives, the bubbly is already flowing, as it will for the next 48 hours. The meal begins with cold oysters, shucked right at the kitchen counter. Last year I learnt to open them too, holding the oyster in a tea-towel and prising it open with a sharp knife, in one or two quick passes. (I’m told the hospital emergency rooms on Christmas Eve are full of oyster-shucking accident victims but I haven’t witnessed such a catastrophe.) We slice and pass around bread — rye, chestnut, walnut — and spoon shallot vinegar or lemon juice into our shells.

Next up is an enormous slab of cured salmon, and foie gras, a thick block of duck liver ringed with yellow fat, served with a dry and a sweet white wine respectively. This is my favourite part of the meal, a little slice of chestnut bread, a spoon of onion jam, a wedge of foie gras.

Then comes the roasted bird, served with chestnut stuffing; it’s traditional to have capon, turkey or goose, but even duck, guinea fowl, or tiny quails are common. Cheese closes the meal — which means cheeses in the plural, generally one each of blue cheese, soft cheese, hard cheese and spready cheese, swished down with red wine.

Coffee and liqueurs provide a little respite before dessert, which is the traditional bûche de Noel, or a Swiss roll Yule log. These could be homemade, but in Paris, the patissiers sell such intricate works of art (decorated with leopard print, or Jackson Pollock-ed, or crowned by a tribe of penguins) that it would be a shame not to buy one. This year, celebrity baker Eric Kayser’s “tsarina” bûche de Noel is a snowy chocolate skyscape of a Russian palace in winter, with a hazelnut biscuit and Russian tea mousse, while chocolatier Pierre Marcolini’s offering is a minimalist row of chocolate moons.

The family tradition is that everyone opens a present after each course. After a few courses, and a few bottles of champagne (never try to keep pace with a native Champenois; they are genetically immune to the aftereffects of fizz), the evening starts to dissolve in a blur of toasts, dancing, presents, crackers, hunting for batteries for new toys, silly hats, sillier jokes, and swatting the cat away from the salmon. And a haze of warm contentment settles over you as you take another slice of cake and thank the stretchy pants you remembered to put on.

Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer currently based in New Delhi; @naintaramaya

Published on December 22, 2017

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