Letters from the Loire: New Year's in France
Teresa Dolan looks at French New Year traditions, presents a typical French New Year's menu and prepares a few treats.
Each year people are unsure what to do on New Year's Eve, but I hazard a guess that it will involve some delicious food and drink. In France the 31 December is known as the eve of la Saint-Sylvestre. Not quite sure why – as far as I can see there is no particular connection between this former Pope and the ringing in of the New Year. But the feast is called le Réveillon de Saint-Sylvestre so there must surely be some connection.
Celebrating New Year's in France
Traditionally the evening kicks off in France with a glass of champagne to drink and foie gras to eat. Here in Fontevraud it is more likely that locals will be toasting the new year with a glass of Crement de Loire or one of the delicious ‘pettilants’ from the caves of Gratien et Meyer, Vouvray or Ackermans of Saumur and eating oysters or moules à la marinière. The accompanying party generally ranges from an intimate dinner with friends and family to ‘une soirée dansante’ in the form of une Grande ball. Having always been a bit of ‘a legend in my living room’, I imagine before the night is out, my family will be do some Auld Lang Syne moves across the floor beside me.In the past I have sung with our local gospel choir at the abbey restaurant in the grounds of the Abbaye Royale in Fontevraud. I know that over at our local hotel La Croix Blanche they sometimes put on a special ‘do’ featuring gastronomic delights and degustations.
Imagine for a minute that you are in one of the finest restaurants in Paris, at Maxim’s perhaps or the Café Royale. A small band is playing the blues or a little jazz, or perhaps a Palm orchestra plays gently in the background a Viennese waltz. Towards midnight, paper hats and confetti will be distributed, and everyone will count down to the New Year together. Next watch out for your hats because literally everyone in the room will exchange kisses and wish each other a Bonne Année. Literally thousands of French people will eat out on New Year’s Eve and also New Year’s Day and theirs will be an elaborate feast of sometimes up to as many as 15 courses, though around eight are more usual.
We’ve done it in the past, when we all agree that a lavish dinner will be in order and thus we may have a fish supper featuring Sandre or maybe some crab from La Rochelle. Sandre tastes heavenly, if prepared simply, such as grilling, and paired with a ripe Chenin Blanc or Muscadet.
We normally keep some Christmas crackers nearby and pull one or two with our dinner. At midnight, we will in accordance with French etiquette share a kiss under the sprig of gui (mistletoe) and offer best wishes to each other.
Unlike in the UK, and the rest of the world I suspect, the French kiss under the ‘gui’ on New Year’s Eve and not before, so you have been warned. Next we might let off a few fireworks from our roof terrace.
Le Jour de l'An
On New Year's Day, we plan to share our resolutions, but unlike our French friends we do not usually exchange gifts or cards. In fact in France you are more likely to receive a New Year’s card wishing you Bonne Année then you would ever receive a Christmas Card from a French friend or neighbour.
According to Clement A Miles who wrote a book in 1912 on the subject of New Year traditions, it is on this day in France ‘that presents are given, family gatherings held, and calls paid’. ‘In the morning’ he goes on ‘children find their stockings filled with gifts, and then rush off to offer good wishes to their parents. In the afternoon the younger people call upon their older relations, and in the evening all meet for dinner at the home of the head of the family’.
Maybe some families do carry on this New Year tradition, but our French friends tend to exchange presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, so times and traditions are definitely changing.
For our New Year's Day, I can be pretty certain that following a delicious and extravagant meal, we will be going for our annual long and winding walk at one of the most picturesque spots along the riverbanks at Chouzé sur Loire.
On 6 January in honour of the Epiphany (the day when the Three Kings visited the Baby Jesus), we will be sharing with our neighbours a slice or two of La Galette des Rois. This is a rich puff pastry case filled with an almond cream paste, in which if you are lucky you will find a little china treasure or ‘feve’. If you do you will then be entitled to wear a golden crown and become the King or Queen of the party who can then also choose someone to be their king or queen and lead a traditional dance.
A golden crown is usually attached to the cake and at this time of the year, a profusion of the kits for these galettes fill the shelves of the French supermarkets, though, I might have a go at making one this time.
La Galette des Rois
- Two large rounds of rich puff pastry called feuilleté in France (you do not need to buy the most expensive, but do not buy the cheapest either) or you can make your own with loads of butter and flour, but the bought varieties are excellent.
- Good quality apricot jam – homemade or Bonne Maman is a favourite make of ours.
- Eight ounces of ground almonds
- One egg white for the almond paste
- Use the egg yolk to brush over the pasty before baking.
Combine the almonds and sugar, and add egg white while working the mixture vigorously. The paste should be firm and smooth when ready. Sandwich one side of the pastry with a generous slathering of apricot jam. Next do the same with the almond paste onto the second round of pastry. Place on top of each other and brush over the beaten egg yolk. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a pre-heated oven (180oC) for around 15 minutes or until it is a rich golden brown colour.
When you make it, you can choose to put in your own special 'fève' (tokens). The cake is traditionally served with a plain top, but you can adorn it with candied fruits and fill it with a chocolate paste if you prefer this to the Frangipane one. You can also make your own crown with card, foil, stickers, faux jewels, glitter etc. and perhaps get the children involved and organise your own mini workshop dedicated to the theme of the Epiphany and La Gallette de Roi.
Let your imagination express itself or not as the case may be. Afterwards you could play a game of carefully taking down the decorations and putting them away for next year.
La Galette des Rois in the south, which differs in the north
For a taste of Paris
La Menu pour le Jour de l'An
- Quails egg mousse, raw and cooked green asparagus, black truffle paste soldiers
- Homard (lobster) Thermidor with nori, and a crustacean broth
- Line-caught sea bass with imperial caviar, green cabbage and whipped lemon butter
- Thon St Remy (tuna cooked in tomatoes and fresh herbs), served with seasonal vegetables, celery root and mushroom stuffed conchiglioni pasta
- A ripe Brie de Meaux with walnuts
- Pink Champagne granité, grapefruit and hibiscus jelly gilded with gold leaf
- Soft coconut cream, strawberry and wild strawberry elixir
- Bon bons, stuffed fruit and chocolates
What was it that Sir Walter Scott said about New Year? ‘That each age has deemed the new-born year the fittest time for festal cheer’. Well certainly in France according to tradition December 31 and January 1 can be even more ‘festal’ than Christmas.
Teresa Dolan / Chez Teresa / Expatica
Teresa Dolan was brought up in 1960s Britain. With her husband Tony and son Jay, she runs a Chambre d'Hôtes and Salon de Thé next door to the historic Abbaye Royale in Fontevraud where Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard the Lionheart are reputedly buried. She has written for a number of publications over the years and also writes short stories for children. In addition, Teresa runs creative writing and themed workshops for expats and tourists to the Loire. Published 2012; updated by Expatica 2016.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.