This will be our sixth Christmas in Provence. Hard to believe! We always miss Germany at this time of the year. No one does Christmas like the Germans with Advent wreaths, sparkling, tasteful decorations and those fabulous Christmas markets with hot mulled wine, tasty sausages, spicy cookies and delicious Stollen. But, we've come to appreciate Provencal Christmas.
In these parts the big celebration is Christmas Eve with a grand meal amongst family. If children are involved, Santa usually makes an appearance after the meal to distribute gifts to all. We've been honored to share the festivities with the family of a former neighbor, Veronique, on two occasions. Her sisters, their families, mother, grandchildren — all gathered at her home and all contributed something to the meal.
The Reveillon (Christmas Eve) meal is a very special feast of numerous courses. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres mark the start, usually at 9 p.m. or later. Then there's a seafood course with oysters, as well as other delicacies such as shrimp and smoked salmon. Foie gras is another favorite (more on that later). At Veronique's one year we had a stew of wild boar for the main course. Pere Noel (Santa) arrived shortly after midnight. After the gifts, eating resumed with dessert, and the party continued until 3 a.m.
In Provence, it's a tradition to have 13 desserts, symbolizing Christ and the 12 apostles, following the Reveillon meal. Dates, figs, raisins, hazelnuts, almonds, nougat, fresh and crystallized fruit and fougasse (a type of flat bread) are among the selections, usually accompanied by a sweet wine.
Two years ago British friends invited us to celebrate on Christmas Day following British traditions.There were 10 of us for an extraordinary multi-course meal with, in deference to the French, foie gras, followed by roast beef, numerous vegetables and that fantastic British Christmas pudding. The Brits put fun into Christmas with "crackers" — everyone gets one at his/her plate. You pop the ends of your firecracker-like cracker to find a prize inside — a tiny toy, pen, mini note pad. And, to add to the fun at that party, we all were given Santa hats to wear. A jolly good Christmas.
Last year I invited French and British friends for a Reveillon chez nous. They all arrived with contributions. I special ordered a large turkey – a la Americain – 18 pounds. French turkeys are usually much smaller. They were all impressed.
I also prepared foie gras (oversized liver from a duck or goose that has been force fed). This is a very controversial subject as many contend the poor birds suffer during the last weeks of their lives when tubes of corn are put down their throats. As an animal lover I feel guilty, but foie gras is a wonderfully sinful pleasure — smooth, silky, rich and exquisite in taste. As it is such a staple in the French diet, at least at festive meals, years ago I worked for a weekend at a foie gras farm in the Dordogne in western France to learn more about the delicacy. The geese led happy outdoor lives until they were brought indoors for the period of forced eating, but they did not resist the feeding, and they did not seem tortured. They were humanely butchered and every part of the carcass, not just the enormous liver, was put to culinary use.
Is this any worse than stuffing American cattle, which are grass-eating animals, with corn in disgusting feed lots? Or crowding thousands of chickens in dark pens and fast feeding them to the point that many are unable to move their fat bodies more than a few steps. See the documentary "Food," then decide.
French love to discuss food. Everyone is eager to give tips on foie gras preparation which is very tricky lest the liver get too hot and melt. Even my veterinarian felt obligated to relate his method The recipe I followed last year called for the addition of Calvados and apples. Everyone was pleased.
New Year's Eve means another Reveillon feast. The menu may be similar to Christmas Eve. This year we've been invited to celebrate with French friends. As food is foremost, we even had a pre-party meeting to decide who would bring what, which wines would be needed, etc. I just completed a foie gras cooking course, so I'm bringing the foie gras with two wines, Sauterne, a sweet golden wine which is recommended with the rich liver, and a dry Jurancon.
Wishing all a joyous holiday season and a very prosperous 2010 — and Bon Appetit!