The first official sign in France that the Christmas season has begun is the arrival of Advent calendars. However hard you try to stick to the schedule — removing one chocolatey treat from its cardboard square for every day before Christmas — invariably about ten days in, you have the feeling that time has skidded past you. “Is it the 23rd already?” you squeak, rooting around for wrapping paper while festooned in glass tree ornaments. “No, no, it’s only the 12th, I don’t know how this happened,” says your partner in crime, snacking on the calendar’s last toffee truffle.
As you eat through the calendar, other seasonal signs appear: chestnut sellers, oyster shuckers, reindeer and other Nordic fauna in shop windows, and butchers who are suddenly the most important in the market — and know it.
Christmas Eve and Christmas day are family affairs, and most restaurants remain shut. The main Noël celebration is usually the réveillon, Christmas eve dinner. This decadent meal was originally timed to allow people to go to midnight mass, but now it’s a long, indulgent dinner that can go six hours or more.
The meal traditionally begins with champagne and hors d’oeuvres, then it’s on to the oysters, cold, slick and succulent. Though no longer the protein-rich poor person’s meal they once were, oysters are still an affordable indulgence, and over 1.8 billion are eaten in France every year. For Noël, they are served with dry white wine, lemon wedges, and a shallot-vinegar mignonette sauce.
A side of cured salmon is a common next course, served with thin rye bread and lemon. The centrepiece of the meal is whatever the butcher or the volaillier (poultry butcher) has bestowed on you: turkey, capon (a castrated chicken), guinea fowl, goose, duck, quail, or if you feel like Obelix, venison or wild boar.
But my favourite part is the foie gras. Rich, velvety fattened goose or duck liver, foie gras is served raw, seared, poached or as a mousse or pâté. Duck foie gras is considered less refined than goose, but you’d be hard-pressed to complain while slicing the fatty, unctuous stuff into bits atop toasted brioche bread and topping it with a sweet, tart chutney of apple, cherry, fig, onion or quince — distinctly gamey, voluptuously perfect mouthful.
The region of Provence has its own Christmas tradition, le gros souper and les treize desserts de Noël, or The Great Supper and the Thirteen Desserts. The Great Supper is supposed to be a meatless, ascetic meal of seven dishes symbolising the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, with only vegetable and fish dishes such as spinach, cod, artichoke, snails, omelettes and sausages. Complicated rules abound — three tablecloths, three candles and three plates of wheat, symbolise the Holy Trinity, while the Thirteen Desserts represent Christ and the 12 Apostles.
Of these, the quatre mendiants, or “the four beggars,” are dried fruits and nuts that apparently represent the four orders of Christian friars via the colours — raisins (Dominicans), dried figs (Franciscans), hazelnuts (Augustinians), and almonds (Carmelites). The pompe à l’huile is a flat, light brioche cake sweetened with orange and lemon, and sprinkled with orange flower water. Black and white nougat represent good and evil, and the other desserts might be fruit, nuts, marzipan petals, fruit tarts, candied citrus, almond cookies or glacé chestnuts.
Paris, however, is bûche de noel territory. The Yule log became fashionable in the 19th century, and harks back to the yuletide tradition of burning a huge single log over the feast days to signal the triumph of light over dark winter. A rolled sponge cake with jam or cream filling, shaped like a Yule log, is frosted in bark swirls with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly and fondant animals. But Paris patissiers have taken the bûche to another level, with elaborate works of art that look nothing like logs. This year, chef Pierre Gagnaire’s bûche is an angular bear inspired by Richard Orlinksi’s sculptures, in vanilla mousse and marmalade, while patissier Adrien Bozzolo’s is a snowy mountainscape filled with birch sap syrup, pecan and citrus, topped with silvery white chocolate firs. Finally, a cheese platter closes the meal.
Christmas day itself unfolds in a haze of sleepy grazing: while in the afternoon metros are filled with people going home, others curl up in their pajamas eating oranges, and making sandwiches out of weird combinations of leftovers — the essence of Noel, in fact.
Naintara Maya Oberoi is a Paris-based writer