Feasts of the Century

photo: in center; chapon

Chapon - the 'Mercedes-Benz of chickens; in the centre.

Only One Location For It: France

Paris:- Friday, 10. December 1999:- I am starting to think I missed out on something important about France by living in a suburban village for so long. It had a small supermarket and a boulangerie; its only butchershop got mutated into a hair salon.

Quite naturally, in the course of several years of reporting about Paris, I have been in quarters where there isn't much obvious food. But, almost by chance, I find I'm living in an area where food seems to be half of everything.

What Parisians and the French eat all year long is a bit like the village I left. What they eat for Christmas is like the corner of Paris where I live now.

While the well-off may take the trouble to head for the fancy food palaces in the Place de la Madeleine or the Bon Marché's new Grande Epicerie de Paris, I can save a 11 franc round-trip métro fare by shopping within 300 metres.

Yes, folks, every time I walk around the block, all this Christmas food stares at me from polished display windows, all year long.

There are three ordinary supermarkets too - none of them 'super' - and these are full of food in packages. Some of this is more package than food; if what's inside can even be called food.

Peasant leader José Bové would probably ignore about 85 percent of the content of the best-stocked local supermarket. Since my budget is tight, I ignore 98 percent of it and the resulting garbage is not bulky at all.

Most of what the French would like to eat on Christmas Eve - the evening of the big 'bouffe' - isn'tphoto: assortment of cheeses packaged. Oh, there may be a little devil-may-care experiment with crackers - one box of mixed - but since there are few prepared dips in packages, bottles - dips are either home-made and bought from the Greek place.

Charles De Gaulle thought there were more French cheeses than French voters.

The delicatessens around here outnumber the supermarkets: and these are Greek, Italian or Asian. Even the boulangeries are delicatessens because they have - in addition to the usual baguettes and cakes - their extra-special specialties. A couple of them have specialties exclusively.

'Bio' food places outnumber the supermarkets too. Their drawbacks are slightly higher prices and, believe it is not, minimal packaging. 'Bio' food packaging tends to be monotonous and is usually grey or 'green;' certainly recycled.

Even if you eat simply all year round - as many French do - the coming holiday season is traditionally a time for letting all restraint go. The French have the best of what France offers. Since it is tradition, it is on the calendar and in the budget. In this case, it is a special and well-stocked Christmas budget.

A Typical Christmas Eve Dinner

Along with the crackers and their 'dips' you must have Champagne. Champagne grows in France - just east of Paris in fact - so having this may sound as humdrum as drinking Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

Champagne costs somewhat more than Coke, starting at about 75 francs for an ordinary bottle; with a magnumphoto: the wine dealer of Veuve Cliquot's Cuvée Prestige 'Grande Dame' rosé of 1990, inside its own Murano glass 'bucket,' going up to 25,000 francs, cork included.

Drink - Champagne Dom Perignon, 1992, brut; 459 francs.

Not only everything you want, but home delivery as well from this modest wine dealer.

Foie Gras is more traditional than crackers and is something you have if you are not 'adventurous.' Foie Gras is something invented no doubt by the devil, because you can pay a modest amount for some or you can pay up to 1,500 francs a kilo. At this price, it is not purchased by the kilo unless you are a Minitel millionaire.

Drink - Sauternes '98, 49 francs.

By now the crackers or foie gras have been replaced by smoked salmon or oysters, or both. A lot of salmon comes in packages. The thing to look for is 'bio' salmon. This is salmon that has been caught far out in some deep, cold sea and it has a price in relation to the difficulty in getting it.

Oysters come from closer seas. They also come in their own 'packages' and you have to be very careful if you open these yourself. Christmas Eve is no time for this kind of risk, so it's best to have the oyster dealer open them for you - shortly before you eat them.

Salmon may be strong fish from deep waters, but oysters - once you get past their defenses - are sexy. You want to try about three kilos of the 'Fines de Claire' from Oléron.

Drink - Chablis '98; for 36 francs a bottle.

The most expensive oysters are 'fat.' These can be a huge mouthful and very cold if served on ice. Oysters are eaten raw - swallowed whole - as a rule, and their seawater tastephoto: two kinds of oysters gets boosted with some onion and vinegar sauce, washed away with dry white wine mixed with side helpings of rye bread and salted butter.

There are a great variety of birds available for Christmas Eve. These include turkey, geese, ducks, pigeons, little chickens, 'farm' chickens, and wild birds.

Oysters of every size and quality, for every pocketbook.

The Mercedes-Benz of French birds is the chapon, which is chicken. But not just any kind of chicken. Hand-fed luxo chapons are fed on corn and sometimes milk. They live outside and have their special diet for at least 100 days, and they are no less than 150 days old when capped.

The best chapon come from the central districts of the Landes, Loué, Gers, Challans and Janzé. Chapons are also sold in supermarkets and carry labels like AOC and conformity certificates. The marché chapon shown here costs 358 francs.

Fixing this up might be done with a two-kilo bird in honey, with stuffing of pine nuts, bacon, chicken liver, and topped off with marinade of figs, kumquats, grapefruit, onions and oranges. If you do it yourself, it takes 35 minutes to prepare and about two hours to cook. For some of the spices, you have to go to Chinatown.

Drink - Claudine Deschamps domain '97, AOC Gevrey-Chambertin, at 100 francs the bottle for this wine from the Bourgogne.

The main dish is followed by cheese. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, and prices can match almost everything except the price of caviar. Like everything else here, the cheese is an experience.

Drink - Chambolle Musigny '97 AOC, at 98 francs.

If you are still able and willing, the Christmas log is rolled out - the 'bûche.' You can get industrial ones from the supermarket and you can also get them from a patisserie. A made-at-home recipe for a bûche can run to several pages, so here again we have a heavy-duty item.

Drink - Try a high-end Banyuls, which is for deserts.

After the bûche, it is time for goodies - such as fancy biscuits, chocolates, and/or 'truffles.'

Real truffles - 'truffes' -should come in before the fish or oysters as an entrée. A serving might be 60 grams, which is not much. With a kilo price running just under the best caviar range, truffles are not eaten by the kilo anyway.

Café-chocolate 'truffles' are not the same thing, but are a wicked concoction of tasty sweet stuff that would make a deep-fried Mars bar seem like pure lard in comparison.

By this time your head may be confused by aromas and tastes - and possibly by drink - so you can quietlyphoto: chocolates 2000 finish off with a few nuts. France has some walnuts available about this time; which will make you wonder what those other things that looked like walnuts were.

The '2000' is made from the platinum of chocolate, while the trucks at bottom are just solid chocolate.

About this time somebody should have made some extra-special very strong express-café, and served it in thimble-sized cups. This is when the really old and very fine cognac or 100-year old armagnac is produced, to put a mellow end to it all.

While you are in the mellow frame of mind, let me give you the good news. This has been a sample festive meal for Christmas Eve - you remember? - one identical to it takes place on Christmas Day.

If you have the same host, or if you are the host, this 'identical' second round should have the same format with about the same basic ingredients - but! - all of them must be different.

If you had salmon instead of oysters, this must be reversed; and the wine must be different, but the same basic types.

Meals like these are also available in restaurants. The scale of them depends on the strength of your plastic card or capacity for carrying large wads of cash.

For New Years Eve, the menu is about the same - perhaps with lobster instead of mere oysters. You get some Champagne included and you get a funny hat. Later you get the bill, and it is twice as much as Christmas' - because of the particular ambiance of - New Years Eve 1999 in Paris.

You can only do this one - once in your lifetime.

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Waldo Bini