French Christmas food has to be seen, and experienced, to be believed. The supremely gourmet nation pushes the boat out over the festive season, providing one lavish meal on Christmas Eve. As much of the meal takes place after midnight, it does extend into Christmas Day.
Most people don’t get this kind of table! It’s at Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Paris, which puts on a splendid show leading up to the festival season.
The Christmas meal is the most important one of the whole French year, and a mighty grande bouffe it is.
If you’re invited to one, here’s what to expect. My first was in the Auvergne with friends who run a spectacular chambre d’hôte. It started at 7.30pm and went on into the small hours as dish after dish appeared on an already groaning table. The impromptu dancing around 1am helped the digestion but not my head the next morning.
Special French Christmas Food
You might not get all of these French Christmas foods, but some of them will certainly be on offer.
This is traditional, and there’s a reason it’s called Black Gold. Caviar is expensive and not to everybody’s taste. Paris is, not surprisingly, the capital of French caviar where shops like Petrossian sell it in beautiful tins, making great gifts if you can afford them.
Caviar is the roe, or eggs, from female sturgeons and traditionally comes from a variety of fish native to the Caspian and Black seas. Hence the Russian connection.
Caviar can come from the roe of other species including salmon and trout though the real afficianados look down on that type.
Caviar became the rage in France in the 1920s particularly after the restaurateur, Madame Emile Prunier established caviar centers in the Dordogne and Garonne rivers where a native species of sturgeon, the Sturio, flourished.
In the 1980s the Sturio was overfished and a ban was introduced. But ever resourceful, around 15 companies began farming sturgeon in the south west of France. It happened after the former USSR did a deal with France in which a hardy species of sturgeon found in Siberia, the Baerii, was introduced to France. But it’s still expensive; female sturgeon have to be 10 years old before you can start harvesting the eggs.
Expect caviar to be served chilled, using a plastic of mother-of-pearl spoon (metal will effect the taste) on a blini, topped with sour cream. Serve with vodka if you’re eating the Russian variety. Otherwise pour the Champagne and enjoy it.
If that’s all too much, start the evening with smoked salmon on blinis, but stay with the bubbly.
The French love oysters. The country is the number one consumer and exporter of oysters. Around 150,000 are produced each year and 90% of those are eaten within France. The French were the first in Europe to produce them on a large scale. In the 1800s Napoleon III introduced oyster farms as wild oysters were being overfished.
You’ll definitely find oysters on everybody’s French Christmas food menu. If you want to buy them there’s always an oyster stall at any of the markets around Christmas.
You can cook them (like many people I prefer them this way). Wash them down with a dry white wine.
Oyster Producing Regions
Normandy’s oysters come from Isigny, Saint-Vaast and even the Normandy D-Day landing beach at Utah.
Many of Brittany’s oysters come from Cancale, Saint-Brieuc, Morlaix and the Bay of Brest. The taste of the famous Brittany ‘Belon’ comes from the south coast of Finistère where salt seawater meets fresh water from rivers and springs. And oysters farmed around Quiberon and in the Gulf of Morbihan with their distinctive flavor from tidal streams are particularly popular.
Along the Atlantic Coast, the islands of Ile de Ré and Noirmoutier produce great oysters. The most extensive oyster farming area in the world is in Charente-Maritime at Marennes-Oléron, where the ancient salt marshes give the oysters a special aroma and colour.
Probably the most famous area is the Arcachon basin in Aquitaine which has produced oysters since Roman times. It’s now vital as a breeding centre providing spats (oyster larvae) to most of the rest of France’s oyster farms.
No expense is spared for French Christmas food, hence the appearance of lobster. And at this time of year it’s particularly expensive as the high season for French caught lobster runs from April to August when lobsters cost around €30 per kilo on market stalls and in fishmongers.
Lobsters from Brittany here, sometimes called petit bleu, are considered some of the best. But confusingly, they might be labelled Bretagne and they may well have come from England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland; there are more here than along the west coast of France, and Normandy.
The American lobster is about half the price and comes mainly from Canada. The lobster fishery there is the largest in the world, exporting huge amounts of live and frozen lobsters to Europe. French who want the proper native version get their lobsters direct from various companies like Les Ligneurs de l’île Vierge in Plouguerneau in Brittany.
Whatever you may think of foie gras, it’s an integral part of Christmas food in France. As French law states: “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France”.
It was first farmed by the ancient Egyptians around 2,500 BC who found that before the autumn migration from high pastures, their ducks and geese had gorged themselves on maize which had enlarged their livers.
As always, it was the Romans who recognized it as a food in its own right. The food writer Apicius is credited by Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) with discovering that dried figs enlarged the liver. If the methods were dubious, the end was rather more humane: “when they are fat enough, they are drenched with wine mixed with honey, and immediately killed.”
It passed into Jewish cooking as Judaic culinary law forbids cooking with lard or butter (the latter because it was forbidden to mix meat and dairy). From there foie gras was taken over by the population outside the Jewish communities.
Where is Foie Gras Produced?
Today, the main region for producing foie gras in France is Périgord (Dordogne), Aquitaine in the southwest, and Alsace in the east. You’ll find it in local markets where it’s sold whole, or as a mousse, parfait or pâté.
There’s an annual 3-day Fest’oie festival held in Sarlat in the Dordogne on the first weekend in March. The celebration of the goose takes in cooking demonstrations, stalls groaning with goose products, stalls selling food that fill the streets with the cooking smells, children’s activities and yes, the stars of the show, geese waddling through the town.
More Food Festivals in France.
For a rich dish, try ‘Strasbourg Pie’, a pastry filled with goose liver. It’s had its moments in literature. In Patrick O’Brian’s 1988 sea adventure novel set in the Napoleonic wars, The Letter of Marque, Capt. Aubrey and Dr. Maturin tuck into a ‘Strasbourg pie.
T.S. Eliot included it in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats:
And you might now and then supply
Some caviar or Strasbourg pie.
Snails are eaten throughout the year but they have a special place in the grand French Christmas food tradition.
The main snail types are Petit Gris, wild native snails or garden snail, Gros Gris, whose body grows to around 3 inches long, and the Roman snail which has made Burgundy the capital of the snail world. It’s quite right; Burgundy is one of the great food centres of France, competing with Lyon and the surrounding area. While some snails are still gathered in the wild in France, the vast majority come from snail farms.
Snails are cooked in the oven and served with a creamy garlic butter; or cooked and put back into their shells with that garlic creamy butter sauce, or cooked in a meat the white wine broth then put into puff pastry cases.
Coquilles Saint Jacques
Scallops appear at the Reveillon feast as part of the seafood dishes. They’re as fresh as can be as Christmas comes right in the middle of the scallop fishing season which lasts from October 1st to mid May.
This year (2020) fishermen have pulled in a bumper crop along the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. Scallops have been increasing since 2000 as the French authorities promoted careful fishing, so good news – you might find this delicacy slightly cheaper than normal.
Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing
You might not equate turkey with French Christmas food but they’ve been part of French culinary tradition since the 16th century when the first turkey arrived in France. Eating turkey at Christmas has been a French tradition since the 19th century. Stuff the Dinde de Noël with chestnuts that you’ll find throughout France.
The most sought after are the relatively rare black turkeys from the Bourbonnais, Bresse, Gers, Normandy and Sologne. The most expensive, considered the best, comes from Bresse in Burgundy, the only bird that carries the prized Appellation Controlèe distinction.
The small and otherwise unknown town of Licques in north France has a particular and peculiar tradition. The Fête de la Dinde (Turkey festival) sees the birds herded through the town by the Confrerie de Licques, the local bigwigs. It takes place each year in December.
Other Birds and Wild Fowl
Rejecting turkey in favour of another bird or wild fowl depends as much on the region as personal preference. You might come across guinea fowl (pintade), quail (caille), pheasant (faisan), or goose (oie) – particularly in the Alsace region of eastern France.
Capon, which is a castrated rooster is the most popular substitute and as you’d expect, the best ones come from Burgundy.
Whatever the main dish, you’ll get one or two vegetables and a sauce or gravy with it.
At every meal the French eat cheese before the dessert and le Reveillon is no exception. This will often feature regional varieties although the one traditional Christmas cheese remains the glorious creamy Vacherin Mont d’or.
This AOP cheese from the Jura mountains is only produced in the autumn and winter when the cattle have come down from the high pastures, fat from the rich grass.
So what’s left?
Possibly Thirteen Desserts
Don’t worry, this is only served in Provence. The 13 desserts represent Jesus and the 12 apostles and some of them are more like biscuits than desserts. They’re the sort of delicious items that are left out over the Christmas period and you just take one when peckish.
Bûche de Noël
Outside Provence it’s the Bûche de Noël, a decorative and delicious rich chocolate cake shaped like a Yule log. Towards Christmas the windows of every pâtisserie in every town in France are full of these Christmas delights.
In Paris, of course, chefs create their own signature log making it a status symbol.
And to drink with French Christmas Food?
Champagne is a must at Christmas, and it has to be Champagne or possibly a respectable sparkling French wine. No Prosecco! You start Le Reveillon with the bubbly before going on to wines, then the inevitable digestifs at the end of the meal.
See what the Champagne houses in Reims have to offer.
And a Gift to your Host?
If you’re wondering what on earth you could take to somebody who has invited you to dinner and money is no object, try something different. Perhaps macaroons from Ladurée?
Or push the boat out with Fouquet’s chocolates. A limited edition box signed by the illustrator Laurent Seroussi is a mere €100. Or perhaps go for the smaller box of marrons glacé at €40 or for a bargain, the smallest truffle box at €32. Seriously, this is the best confectionery in the world.
I wish you all a very Joyeux Noël.
More to enjoy
Other December Events (yes, there are many!)