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09/12/2010Preparing a French Christmas: It's all about the food
Like most French holiday traditions, the focus of Christmas and New Year's celebrations in France is on the table. Here are some tips for preparing a French-style Christmas meal.
A good portion of a French family's Christmas budget is devoted not only to presents but to a long list of culinary delicacies. Traditionally, a French family attends mass at midnight and then comes home for the Christmas Eve dinner, le réveillon (or 'wake-up!' meal). Nowadays, even for families that skip the church-going, Christmas Eve dinner is still known as le réveillon and is still the principal event compared to the meal on Christmas Day itself.
Confusingly, the New Year's Eve dinner is also called le réveillon. Younger people often choose to celebrate this night out with friends, but it also very common for families to get together and repeat a variant of the same meal to usher in the New Year.
If you're spending this holiday season in France, then you still have a few days to plan and prepare the perfect réveillon meal. The menu varies region to region and family to family but the common attributes will be special-occasion foods served over multiple courses.
Here's a shopping list of some of the most traditional fare plus links to sure-fire recipes.(We saved you the Googling! Most of the original recipes we link to here are in French and use French measures to allow for maximum authenticity.)
- Champagne or Kir Royal
- Cocktails, the fancier the better, are also now very fashionable to serve for special-occasion apéros.
- Amuse-gueules, of course, include everything from peanuts in a bowl to an assortment of elaborate canapés.
Here are two not-so-hard canapé recipes sure to impress that feature traditional indulgences of the season.
A traditional and easy way to start the feast is simply to serve that most loved and hated of French delicacies, foie gras, on sliced bread with a sweet wine. This is especially favoured in Paris and the south-west.
Escargots, known in some parts of the south as cargouille, and oysters (especially in Brittany) are also common choices.
This site is devoted entirely to the many variations on the preparation of escargots although the easiest way would be to buy them pre-prepared in the frozen-food section.
If you serve escargots in the shell and are going for total authenticity, don't forget to make it easy on your guests by setting the table with fourchettes à escargots.
Oysters are a relatively easy and always correct choice for an entrée provided you learn how to shuck them properly. We recommend wearing gloves—French emergency rooms do indeed fill up on Christmas Eve with oyster-shucking victims!
For those who cringe at raw oysters, here is a recipe that combines cooked oysters, caviar and champagne that crams maximum indulgence in bite-size packages.
Oddly, this part of the meal is the least traditional, or at least has the most variations.
Goose and turkey are common main dishes, goose being preferred in Alsace and turkey in Burgundy, for example. Both often appear with chestnut stuffing; the French are particularly fond of chestnuts.
Duck, ham and fish also often make the menu as well as lobster, crab, or game meats such as venison or boar.
Cranberries also often appear in sauces and relishes on the réveillon menu if at no other time of the year. If you're cooking this year for a small family group, magret de canard with cranberry sauce will produce fewer leftovers but still appeal to French tastes.
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