I love Christmas in Europe! It’s filled with bright storefront decorations, wonderful crafts markets, warm and busy food halls with local vendors selling specialty foods. In France, much like in Canada, Christmas is the perfect time to reconnect with friends and family over good food.
And that’s exactly what my parents did last year: reconnect with some of their long-time friends. I tagged along to their gatherings to enjoy the delicious food.
The night of December 24th is called le réveillon (derived from réveil or “waking”). In the olden days, people come home from the midnight mass and would start having this dinner. Nowadays, the dinner starts much earlier and people would stay awake a few hours past midnight. This dinner is meant to last you through a few hours so expect at least 5 courses, if not more. Here are some dishes you might find at the table.
- First course
- Second course
- Main course
- After main course: round 1
- After main course: round 2
- After main course: final round
- When the clock hits midnight
Seafood is a staple during a French Christmas dinner. If you go to a local market or the nearest Carrefour, you will see a long line up of people waiting to be served at the fish counter. That’s because, on Christmas Eve, the first appetizers are usually caviar or smoked salmon on bread.
They would continue with even more seafood on the second course. You might be served scallops or fresh oysters with lemon wedges (the more popular choice).
What’s a French celebration without this delicacy? During the holiday season, not only will grocery stores have more quantity of foie gras, and sales on it, they will also have more flavours to choose from: classic flavour, infused with champagne, with herbs and peppercorn, etc. To go with the foie gras is usually a loaf of bread that leans on the sweeter side.
But, if your host prefers to serve something light in between two rich dishes, a soup might be a good interlude between the seafood and the foie gras. There’s no limit on how many courses you can have on Christmas Eve dinner. The French would just serve less of everything. It’s variety over quantity!
For those who are big fans of seafood and wouldn’t mind having an entire dinner of it, the typical choice is lobster. Another option to simplify things is to opt for jumbo shrimps. I was spoiled and went to two Christmas dinners so, for the first one, we had grilled jumbo shrimps.
At the second dinner, this time a réveillon type of dinner but on Christmas Day, I had a more unique French delicacy as the main course: capon or in French, chapon.
A capon is a cockerel that has been castrated and fattened, most likely force-fed (French cuisine isn’t really known for being cruelty-free). Castrating a young bird is meant to avoid the gamey taste while fattening it makes the bird juicier when slow-roasting.
An easier-to-find alternative (and less cruel option) is turkey. Yes! The French do have turkey on Christmas. I didn’t get the chance to eat this, but I was told a popular stuffing for turkey is chestnut. Definitely, something I want to try next time I cook a turkey.
If you’re not served turkey or capon, there’s a variety of poultry options your host would choose from: duck, guinea fowl, pheasant, quail, goose or chicken. As long as they have a bit of fat and taste good when roasted.
This is the time of the year to indulge! After the main course, you will find dried fruits like dates and dried plums, and candies like nougat on the menu. The traditional dessert in Provence is the thirteen desserts or les Treize Desserts de Noël. Thirteen to represent Jesus and his twelve apostles. However, my host chose the healthy version of it: tropical fruit salad with chopped fresh mint.
A French dinner must have a cheese platter. The ideal is a good mix of soft and hard cheeses with some slices of bread. You might even find some limited edition festive flavours.
I’m not entirely sure why this was served after the main course rather than as an appetizer. Either it is a Christmas tradition I wasn’t aware of, or my host decided to be creative. I must admit, the cheese was a great counterbalance to the sweet fruits that preceded and prepared us for what came next.
For the final round of dessert, at both the Christmas dinners I attended, we had a yule log (bûche de Noël in French).
The classic bûche is a sponge cake with a frosting layer in between, rolled then topped with ganache and even more frosting, and finally decorated with Christmas-themed candies. Nowadays, the popular choice is an ice cream bûche, the same concept as the traditional one, but instead of a sponge cake, it’s ice cream.
Even though I’ve lived in France as a kid, I’ve never celebrated Christmas following French traditions until that dîner de Réveillon. That’s when I learned of this meaningful custom: when the clock hits midnight, go find everyone at the party and give them bises (kiss on the cheeks) along with a ‘Joyeux Noël’ and the best wishes you have for them.
The long French Christmas feasts reminded me a lot of the big Vietnamese dinners, with a huge variety of food and meant to drag out so you can enjoy each other’s company as long as possible.
I also noticed a beautiful mix of Vietnamese and French cultures at both dinners: the capon marinated in Asian flavours and served with Asian white rice, the random Vietnamese-style beef stir-fry dish, the parents singing karaoke (typical of Vietnamese gatherings) while the kids’ table is in a different room.
Both evenings were an interesting mix of French and Vietnamese cultures. It’s what happens when you live in one culture but try to hold on to another. The result is a beautiful mix of both, something that I love replicating in Canada during Friendsgiving and Lunar New Year 🙂