My Christmas in France this year was the first Winter Christmas I have experienced since my forced (by English parents) emigration to Australia in 1969. Christmas in the Australian Summer seems like something dreamed up by the Red and White Queens in Alice Through the Looking Glass: it’s as if we are all pretending it’s winter, with our roasts and puddings, not to mention the Christmas trees and icy-sparkling decorations.
Even after nearly forty years, I can’t get used to it. These were the feelings behind my choice of an early December start to my seven months’ work in France. Not only would that starting date get me out of most of the Australian heat (very wise, as 43 degrees Celcius—about 106 Fahrenheit—were recorded in Melbourne not long after I left!), but would also enable me to have a proper winter Christmas, I reasoned. Looking back now on my French Christmas nearly two weeks ago, it was a perfect plan.
My 2006 Christmas preparations had started much earlier than in other years: in mid-November in Melbourne. I wanted to take Australian gifts to my friends in France, and so I had to buy them well ahead of my November 30 departure date. The upside of this was that I was able to avoid the frenetic Christmas-present buying that everyone else seemed to be doing in the week before Christmas in the rue St Antoine, the main shopping street closest to my Marais apartment, as well as in nearby BHV. Because my son Rohan was joining me from the UK, however, I did venture out to buy a miniature sapin and some decorations, and of course on the morning of his arrival I just had to buy a buche de Noel from my local boulangerie, little realising this would be the first of three buches that we would share in the following week!
In Australia, the traditional Christmas pudding and fruitcake (the former complete with hot sauce or custard) must have been brought with the English invasion in the late eighteenth century, and rarely seem particularly appetising with the mercury in the 30s (above 90F). In contrast, a buche glacé, an ice-cream log, would be an ideal Australian Christmas dessert instead of the hot puddings we seem unable or unwilling to give up.
On the Veille de Noel, Rohan and I took the TGV from Paris to Lyon to spend two days with an Anglo-French friend of mine, Helen, and her French family (it takes under two hours—those trains are not called Grande Vitesse for nothing). Helen’s elder son, Martin, is a chef in Lyon, and had offered to cook us a traditional Lyonnais Christmas dinner at their home. But our first meal, on the 24th was roasted pintade, or guinea fowl, cooked by Helen, who told us that many French families will typically choose different types of poultry to cook at Christmas, traditionally serving several festive meals from December 24th onwards, and including the famous foie gras, as well as oysters, as these are in season in winter. The pintade, with its delicate texture and flavour—evocative of chicken, turkey and very young pork, yet more delicious than all three—was perfectly complemented by the chestnut stuffing, and the accompanying whole roasted chestnuts.
In Australia, turkey, pork, and ham start filling up the supermarket meat cabinets from late November. I usually choose a turkey because I enjoy the taste, and also for novelty, as it’s not something I eat at any other time in the year. But my Australian friends and relatives tend to serve a selection of pork, ham, beef, and even lamb, with roast potatoes and a wide selection of hot vegetables. On hot Australian Christmas days, in homes without air-conditioning (that is, most homes, at least in Melbourne), in which ovens have been blazing away for hours, Christmas dinner, traditionally eaten in the middle of the day, is frequently something to be endured, yet no one will say so!
This is why the traditional Christmas feast makes a lot more sense to me now that I’m in France. After all, long before it became a Christian festival, the mid-winter feast was the time when people in ancient times broke open the reserves of food that had been stored for the long winter months ahead; it provided a chance to brighten up the short dark days with a period of feasting and making merry. No wonder it usually seems incongruous in Australia. I say ‘usually’, because just before lunch on Christmas Day in France, I learnt that Melbourne had experienced its coldest Christmas Day on record!
Meanwhile, in Lyon we opened our presents on Christmas morning, not at midnight on Christmas Eve as many French families do. After a lunch of prawns and salad, we went for a walk around beautiful Lyon to leave the culinary artist in peace to work his magic. Using traditional as well as local ingredients, with a few exotic additions, he did indeed create a work of art. The entrée was centred around a type of mushroom much prized in French cooking—the black sponge mushroom, or morille which was cooked in lightly scrambled eggs, accompanied by coriander salmon on slices of starfruit; alongside this was a melange of salad leaves with balsamic vinegar dressing. The main course featured the famous foie gras, baked on thin grilled slices of gingerbread—also a French Christmas delicacy—with a caramel ginger sauce, accompanied by caramelised fresh figs, and tiny delicate swirls of duchesse potatoes. Dessert was a chocolate fondant with a warm mocha sauce. Our verdict? Formidable!
It’s well known that Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, and everyone has heard of Paul Bocuse, born near Lyon, who has established his famous brasseries in that city. I haven’t been to one of his establishments yet, but our astounding Christmas meal testified equally well to Lyon’s formidable gastronomy. I will never forget this French Christmas, and only hope there will be more of them.