Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christmas in France

The past couple of months have been a whirlwind, I have no idea how the new year snuck up on me so quickly! I have to admit my mindfulness practice has been suffering of late, and with the holidays things got a little hectic.

While K and I had originally talked about going to the US for Christmas, in the end I just wasn't feeling up for it, and the tickets were just too expensive anyway.

Instead we stuck pretty close to home for the Holidays.  Kevin's sister, who also lives in Lyon, hosted the Christmas Eve dinner at her place (dinner on the 24th is just as important as the Christmas meal for a lot of French families, and many even exchange presents that night so they can sleep in the next day!).  And Kevin and I hosted Christmas lunch at our place.

I realized this year that this has only been my second Christmas in France, since I was in the US in 2007, and last year I went to Plum Village on a meditation retreat over Christmas and New Year's.  So I had forgotten that the holidays in France are bit different than in the US, as you might expect.  And the key word is FOOD.  You could even say Slow Food.

For any given meal, you can be almost certain that your average French person will spend much longer at the table than your average American.  This is true for lunch, where many people typically take a 1.5 to 2-hour break and often go to a sit-down restaurant.  But it's especially true for dinner, when an invitation for 8 pm means that you won't likely get to dessert before midnight.  I still have yet to fully adjust to this schedule, since I'm usually starving by the time our host offers us hors-d'oeuvres.  So I stuff myself with the snacks and am totally full by the time the main dish comes around a few hours later. Or if I'm really worried about eating late, I'll sometimes even grab a bite at home before we head out.

Other than the later dinner times, the other part of eating in France that I haven't quite adapted to is the famous French moderation.  Since there will be many courses and the meal with last for hours and hours, people take their time and eat relatively small quantities.  And they drink.  Because for every course there is a specific wine to go with it.  Kevin claims that the alcohol helps to make room for all the food, which is why it flows so freely.  I haven't been able to test that theory myself, because I'm such a lightweight that I would be under the table before the main course if I tried to keep up with the French drinkers!  So instead I continue to scarf down the hors-d'oeuvres in a hunger craze, despite knowing full well that there will be more food, and lots of it!  And later I just feel stuffed and miserable, because of course you have to eat what the cook has prepared so as not to offend them...

If a regular dinner with friends can take hours, just imagine a Holiday meal!  It's the summum of the gastronomic experience, and French amateur cooks everywhere will pull out all the stops to impress their families.  For example, I remember Christmas 2006 at Kevin's grandparent's place, they served foie gras with a lentil sauce and whipped cream in wine glasses. I just had the lentils and cream, and I must admit I felt very chic eating out of a wine glass!

This year we had the big Christmas meal at our place, with Kevin's mom, k's sister and her partner, k's brother and his partner, plus her mom and sister. Luckily Kevin and I weren't expected to cook everything, so it was a bit of a potluck - which is not typical, since the hosts are usually responsible for most if not all of the food.

I believe we started snacking around 1:30 pm, with Foie Gras, the traditional French Christmas treat (the liver of force-fed geese, which is actually illegal in some parts of the US!).  Since I'm a vegetarian I always make something for myself, and went all out American/Tex-Mex:  black bean dip with tortilla chips (a friend had brought over the beans from the US since they're hard to find here). Not exactly a traditional x-mas dish, but the French don't know that!  It was the first time any of them had tasted it, and they all seemed to enjoy it.  Not as much as the foie gras, but what can you do. And Kevin's sister thought of me and made some spinach and goat cheese/ewe's cheese puff pastries that everyone wolfed down (I wasn't the only hungry one....).

With the snacks, which they call the 'apéro' or 'apéritif,' there was Champagne, of course.  While Champagne is obviously much cheaper in France than in the US, it's still somewhat pricey and so considered a drink for special occasions.  For a lot of French families, including Kevin's, it's part of their tradition to drink Champagne with the Christmas meal.  Unfortunately, I actually hate Champagne, much to the shock of any French person I admit that to.  But they get over it quickly, since they realize that it means more for them! Instead I drank an organic bubbly apple and blueberry drink, which I thought tasted much better, but which was much ridiculed!

Here's Kevin's mom getting ready to open the Champagne, in front of our festive table setting (yes there were nine of us squeezed around that tiny table!  Luckily the French are not large people as a general rule):

And here's me drinking my faux Champagne, while kevin scoffs (or maybe he's just making a goofy face, since he hates pictures):

After a Christmas toast and the gift exchange, we finally sat down to lunch around 2:30pm.  This was when the 'entrée' was served, but unlike what you find on American restaurant menus, in France the entrée is actually the appetizer or starter.  Logical, since it comes from the verb 'entrer,' to enter.  So I'm not sure how we manged to adopt that word in English to describe the main dish...

In this case our first course consisted of an onion pie Kevin made, as well as my all-time favorite grated carrot, beet, garlic and parsley salad.  This was another discovery for my French guests, since they typically don't eat beets raw.  In fact, it's pretty hard to buy raw beets, since regular grocery stores only sell them cooked and packaged, and even at the farmer's markets most of the beets are cooked as well.  I thought this was really odd, but Kevin's theory is that beets stain and the French don't like to get their hands dirty...

At some point the Champagne was put away and we switched to red wine, but I can't remember when. During the second course (or what Americans call the 'entrée') we definitely had red wine, which was meant to go with the rabbit stew brought by Kevin's brother's girlfriend's mom (got that?).  Apparently it was farm-fresh, killed-for-the-occasion, and everyone said it was very tasty.  To avoid thinking about the poor bunny I concentrated on my dish, which was the famous 'gratin dauphinois' (basically 'potatoes au gratin' - layers of very thinly sliced potatoes with tons of just about every dairy product imaginable).  It's really time-consuming to prepare so people tend to save it for special occasions, and since it supposedly went well with the rabbit I decided to give it a try with a recipe I found.  Not sure it was the best gratin ever made, especially since I couldn't help but use soy milk/cream and margarine instead of the full dairy versions which gross me out a bit (I did use real eggs and cheese though).  But people ate it all up so I guess it was good enough.  And then we also had a yummy carrot puree with herbes de provence.  So that part of the meal was pretty traditionally French, with no american oddities thrown in (unless you count the soy products, which are a fairly recent arrival in France, though they do cultivate their own non-gmo soybeans).

After the main course there is always cheese and bread, and often a salad as well, and then another kind of wine to go with the cheese.  But everybody seemed too full for the cheese so they just drank the wine and waited a while to make room for dessert.  And that is the key to a French meal.  Waiting.  Food is eaten slowly, forks and knives are put down while people talk; and they talk a lot.  And they eat a little more, and then they talk.  And even after the course is finished, they wait a bit for the next round, to work up an appetite.  And to talk.  And to drink (to make room for more food).   And eventually the next course is eaten, slowly.  I think it was past 6 by the time we had the dessert, a beautiful black forest cake with gooseberries that Kevin's sister made:

When the cake was served the red wine was removed and another bottle brought out:  Clairette de Die, a somewhat sweet sparkling white dessert wine.   I didn't like it either, since I'm really just not a big fan of bubbly wines, and I don't much like white wine in general (though I have come to appreciate a few whites that I've tasted here, namely some Alsatian sweet wines and Muscat de Rivesaltes - for those who may know their wines a bit...).  There was actually a second dessert as well, the traditional 'bûche de noel' or christmas log, but we were too full so I just cut myself a piece and put it aside for later, since I do love it so.  

So there you go, a French Christmas meal spread out over about 5 hours, with many courses and 4 different varieties of wine.  And we managed to get through all that food and drink with no disagreement of any kind, quite the feat for a family gathering!  Afterwards we played pictionary and charades for while, and then everyone went on their merry way, bellies full and spirits high. 

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