With Christmas just around the corner, it’s time to start shopping and preparing for perhaps the most important meal of the year: Christmas dinner. In France, it takes places on Christmas Eve and lasts well into the small hours of Christmas morning. Known as Réveillon, a traditional French Christmas dinner always includes good company, a table dressed for the occasion and groaning with lots (and lots) of rich and delicious food. Read on to discover what’s on the plates and in the glasses.
Festive recipes for starters
Christmas and oysters are practically synonyms in France, especially in Paris where no discerning host or hostess would dare entertain for the festive season without a sizeable platter of huîtres. They’re served on a bed of ice and with a twist of lemon, and the French consume kilos and kilos of them at Christmas.
Serving suggestion: some connoisseurs claim that the only drink for oysters is brut champagne. Others opt for a dry white Sancerre. Bubbly or not, perfect pairing is guaranteed.
No respectable French table at Christmas would be without foie gras either. Some families go for the extremely rich pan-roasted fresh foie gras, but it’s more commonly served as a terrain with toast and an onion confit.
Serving suggestion: while iodine-rich oysters cry out for something dry on the palate, foie gras craves a touch of sweetness serve yours with a sweet wine such as Sauternes.
Scallops, known under the much more glamourous Coquilles Saint Jacques in France, also make a grand entrée at Christmas. The bigger the better and they usually come with a creamy sauce.
Other types of seafood – lobster, langoustines and crab, along with smoked salmon, are favourites for a Christmas meal in France. Smoked salmon is usually served on blinis while the seafood tends to come on platters.
Serving suggestion: as long as it’s not red, you can’t really go wrong with wine for scallops and seafood. Sauvignon blanc pairs a treat as does champagne. If you’ve gone for a herb and garlic sauce with the scallops, try pairing them with a Rhône Valley rosé.
French Christmas main courses
After several rounds of starters, it’s time for the main course. Poultry takes centre stage in most French households for Réveillon. Top favourite is chapon (capon), although turkey, chicken and duck make the list too. Traditionalists buy a capon wrapped in cloth, which is left on while the bird cooks. The delicate, tender result is more than worth the extremely high price tag.
But whatever your bird and whether you cook it clothed or unclothed, the stuffing can only be chestnut. The chapon, dinde, poulet or canard must be aux marrons. Some recipes mix the chopped chestnuts with pork, others leave out meat and combine them with herbs, but chestnuts rule the roost in this dish. Traditional festive recipes also add roasted chestnuts and mushrooms as a side to the meat.
Cheeses for Christmas
In most countries, you’d be thinking about dessert at this point in the Christmas meal. But not in France. Next up is the cheese. And in true French Christmas spirit, like the seafood platters and plates of dinde aux marrons, the cheeseboard too is groaning.
Serve a minimum of three cheeses – one soft, one hard and one blue or goat’s cheese. Although French families tend to go for five or six for Réveillon. Don’t forget to put out one knife per cheese type – use the same one for all and risk ruining everyone’s Christmas.
Serving suggestion: cheese and wine are a match made in heaven and nowhere pairs them better than France. The good news is that the best pairings are often down to personal preference so experiment before you serve. As a general rule, a mild cheese needs a robust wine while a strong cheese goes best with a simpler wine.
For some inspiration on what kind of cheese to put on your festive cheeseboard, read our dictionary of French cheeses.
Christmas desserts in France
Several hours and copious amounts of food and wine after you sat down for your huîtres it’s time for dessert. Just as they agree on chestnuts, the French are pretty unanimous on their festive pudding choice too. Bûche de Noel is it and almost countrywide.
The Yule log comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and is usually topped with plastic figurines – reindeer, Christmas trees, Santas… Made of rolled sponge cake, it comes filled and covered with a butter cream filling. Vanilla, chocolate or, again, chestnut are traditional favourites but nowadays, almost anything goes. Patisseries sell bûches with pistachio, raspberry, brandy or violet-flavoured filling.
Bûche de Noel is anything but light on your stomach so some French families go for a slightly less rich version known as bûche glacée. This Christmas log uses ice cream instead of butter cream.
You’ll find bûche on your dessert plate almost everywhere in France except for Provence where traditionally they serve not just one dessert at Christmas but a full baker’s dozen. 13 dishes make up the traditional festive pudding in this part of France, supposedly representing Jesus and his 12 disciples.
Not all 13 components need a recipe – nougat (dark and light), dried fruits and nuts make up most of them. Pompe á l’huile, a flat round bread made with olive oil, also joins in along with typical Provençal pastries such as Calissons d’Aix, made in Aix en Provence with almonds.
Serving suggestion: if there’s any left, champagne or Crémant if you’re in Burgundy, and Sauternes work well with chocolate log. If not or you fancy something different, crack open a Burgundy Pinot Noir. It combines nicely with white and dark chocolate. Or if you’re feeling the need for a digestif at this stage, it’s time to reach into the drinks cabinet and get out the Cognac.
Tempted to host a French Christmas somewhere else in the world? Bon appetit!
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