Ten years ago, I spent Christmas with my extended family in France. I do not remember what presents I gave or received. I do, however, remember the food and the wines that accompanied each course. The culinary experience was extraordinary beyond any measure.
I also remembered that taking a second helping of any offering, however delicious, was dangerous because more courses would be coming, and holiday meals lasted several hours. What a shame to find oneself prematurely full!
Did My Memory Play Tricks?
As I approached my second Christmas in France, I wondered if perhaps my memory had played tricks on me. Had my recollection of such extraordinary food been embellished over time?
Had I inflated the number of courses, overrated the wine selection, or exaggerated the gorgeous desserts that looked like works of art and were far too beautiful to eat?
The gathering was hosted by Attenderella’s parents, who lived in a small village called Sainte-Anastasie near Nîmes. Their second daughter, her husband, and their child (who all lived on the parents’ property) were present along with two great-grandparents, aged ninety and ninety-four. Expresso, Attenderella, and their two boys brought me with them from Castelnau-le-Lez outside Montpellier. That made us a party of twelve.
Let the Eating Begin!
Christmas in france Eve dinner began around nine in the evening after presents had been opened. Champagne corks were popped and finger foods were passed around.
Although I was determined to limit my sampling of the various appetizers, I couldn’t resist having a second baked prune filled with melted Roquefort cheese and wrapped in bacon. I’m glad that I stopped there, given what was to come.
Christmas Eve dinner was intended to be a light meal so the guests could save their appetite for Christmas day; hence the courses focused on seafood when we finally sat down at the table.
We began with oysters, raw for those who liked them that way and cooked for the rest of us. A sweet Gewürztraminer accompanied this course.
Next came tiny sea snails, which I passed on but the great-grandparents ate with gusto. Next came a big platter of pink, full-bodied shrimp. Each was seven to eight inches long. I tried not to look at the black eyes as I peeled mine. At this point, our host served a white wine.
For the next course, a huge, grilled salmon was presented to the table. The wild salmon had been cooked on an outdoor wood stove. Risotto was passed around to accompany the salmon.
No Stopping until the End
Although I should have stopped at this point, I enjoyed the salad that followed; then a course of bread and a variety of cheeses; and finally, dessert.
I chose the baked Alaska—the other option was a nutty ice cream with a dark exterior. The meal ended with coffee and a small piece of chocolate for those who still had room for one more bite.
When I retired to bed, I wondered if my pants would still fit in the morning.
The next day, I limited myself to toast and coffee for breakfast because I knew another big meal was coming in about three hours.
The Noel Feast
Once again, we began with champagne and various appetizers, including bright green (local) olives. After we sat down at the table, we were treated to the dramatic entrance of a large capon that had been cooking all morning, again in the outdoor oven over charcoaled wood.
The hosts served roasted chestnuts, two kinds of rare mushrooms that are found in the area, and green beans with bacon as the side dishes. White wine accompanied this course. Various cheeses and bread made up the next course.
Dessert included sugared chestnuts, incredible individualized chocolates, and even more beautiful cupcakes—each one individually decorated by a professional baker at a boulangerie.
Although I swore I would never eat again, I found the pumpkin soup irresistible by suppertime. Bread, butter, cheeses, fruit, chocolates, and red wine completed the wonderfully satisfying meal. Some of the men enjoyed a small glass of cognac afterward—I passed!
You would think, as I did, that the eating orgy was over—but we would both be wrong.
One Last Encore
The day after Christmas, we sat down to a table with two large raclettes topped off with two large bowls of steamed whole potatoes. Each raclette served about six guests.
The table also featured an oversized platter of charcuterie that included dried ham, blood sausage, and other cold cuts. A second huge platter contained slices of raclette cheese, a special Swiss melting cheese.
At each place setting was a miniature pan (a coupelle) and paddle. Following my tablemates’ lead, I put a cheese slice on the coupelle and stuck it under the heat in the raclette. After the cheese melted, I used the miniature paddle to scoop it onto a steamed potato that was surrounded by charcuterie.
Other guests mashed their potatoes and mixed everything together, but I was content to eat a little potato, a little cheese, and a little ham without mixing them on my plate.
Eating this way reminded me of a fondue party. If I were ever to return to the United States, I would definitely import a raclette and serve such a dinner to my guests. This was such a fun and sociable way to eat.
Of course, no meal in France would be complete without bread and a cheese selection—and some red wine in the case of this Christmas dinner. Chocolates and candied chestnuts satisfied our sweet tooth and ended the meal.
Food and Wine = Longevity?
The two great-grandparents held their own throughout the meals—they even ate raw oysters and drank wine with each course. Maybe their longevity results from their gusto for food and drink. If so, then I should live to be one hundred here in France!
I concluded that my memory did play tricks on me but in the opposite direction—I had forgotten how wonderful the food tasted, how beautifully the meals were presented, and how sitting and eating and laughing and talking with loving family members nourished me on so many levels.
As you might guess, I’m already looking forward to Easter.