How the French Do It

This boulangerie looks good enough to eat.

Not Like the 'Old Days' - 20 Years Ago

by M-R Erickson

Paris:- Wednesday, 10. December 1997:- I've lived for more than half of my life in France, but I'm still an 'étrangère' in so many ways...

When I first came here, I was fascinated by the food and its importance in French life. Then gradually, we developed our own lifestyle which is fairly eclectic - read: eccentric.

I am out of touch with what exactly run-of-the-mill French people do for Christmas. On one hand, I remember Christmases in Ireland as a mixture of carol singing, midnight mass and gentle serenity

On the other, I remember my mother frantically Coquilliages at marche stuffing the turkey well into the late hours on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, when 'the Herbert Parks,' as we called our cousins who lived there, would arrive.

Oysters! No Christmas is complete without them - and each year you open them with a 'new' tool, acquired for this very purpose.

Being out of touch, I decided I would ask three 'typical French people' - I work in a French bank so most of the people I work with are typically French - how they celebrate Christmas.

If memory serves me correctly, no expense would be spared to eat the rarest delicacies and the occasion, as many French occasions still are, would be centered around the sacrosanct 'famille.'

I was in for a bit of a surprise, because things have changed somewhat in the last twenty-odd years.

Annick lives with her husband and three boys aged 17, 14 and ten in a southern suburb of Paris. She works four days a week and her husband also works for a bank.

Annick has given up 'traditional tradition' and is constantly making her own. This year she bought Christmas crackers to decorate her table!

She and her family have a 'réveillon' - Christmas Eve - at home where they eat a little foie gras, smoked salmon, oysters and scallops.

She also makes a 'snowball' from melted chocolate mixed with crème de marrons - chestnut purée - half of this mixture is put in a bowl in the fridge to set and then she matches them up to make the ball part. The lot is smothered in chantilly - whipped cream! - calorie counters are prohibited.

They don't, however, open their presents until Christmas Day - before her family comes. Normally, presents are opened after the réveillon; which may well be at two in the morning.

She explained to me, "you can't have your family contribute to the meal - it's not done. Then again, you don't have the priciest things to eat when you do the cooking for them. We eat those the night before!"

She does however stick to the tradition of two entrées -smoked salmon and oysters for example - followed by a 'poularde,' which is a kind of chicken more boucherie- viandes succulent and much less dry than turkey; with vegetables, green salad, a variety of cheeses and two desserts.

The snowball is brought out again if there's any left. All of this, of course, is accompanied by good wine, which she leaves to her husband to get. All in all, it's a nice time of year all around.

The roasting chickens are today's lunch; the meat in the window is for somebody's special Sunday lunch.

Fanchette lives in our village in a western suburb of Paris and has three grown-up children and one fifteen year old. Fanchette gives lunch to some children from school - children who have health problems and cannot eat the food at the school's cantine.

I asked her how they spent Christmas. From her height of 1.62 metres and with her 15 year-old figure, she told me that her family hated all this business of eating for the sake of eating - not surprising she has that figure! - and that they were opposed to it.

She is very 'croyante' - practicing Catholic - though, and to her, Christmas is spiritual. They go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. They eat a few 'goodies' - a half dozen oysters, a slice of smoked salmon - and then head off to bed.

They too open their presents on Christmas morning, before going to spend Christmas Day with her parents. Though she wouldn't give details, I suspect she and her family may have been subjected to a large family meal in Normandy rather like Annick's.

Then there is Cyrille's Christmas. He is a father of three children - ages ten, seven and three - and lives in an eastern suburb of Paris. His wife has taken time off from her work to look after the children and Cyrille is very careful with his money.

Their celebrations are just the same as Annick's and Fanchette's, except the ingredients are more simple - Cyrille no longer buys Hedidard shop foie gras offered at a special rate in the office; he figures it is too expensive. He will instead buy a mousse de canard which will only cost 70 francs instead of 700 francs a kilo - prices of foie gras vary greatly.

Hedidard is not where Cyrille will get his foie gras, but he might pick up a couple of kiwis here.

On Christmas Eve, Cyrille's family eats prawns and mousse de canard, sole meunière, a great selection of cheeses and a commercial ice cream version of Bûche de Noël, or Christmas log.

As his wife's parents don't live far away, they go to them for Christmas dinner. It is served around lunch-time with smoked salmon, roast turkey and vegetables, green salad, a selection of cheese and this time, the traditional Bûche de Noël.

There was a time when 'the French' all tended to do the same thing. In the same way, our 'foreigners-in-France' family have adopted certain parts of French lifestyle into our own. I wonder just how different we all really are.

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