Christmas is one of those special occasions in France where you have what most closely resembles a “repas gastronomique français,” the traditional grand French meal. What makes it traditional and grand at the same time? Hint: It’s not just the food.
3 Key Characteristics of a Traditional French Christmas Dinner
1. Table decoration is important in France
First, I would say that the French value the way a table is set: there is the attention paid to the decoration and quality of the dishware. Also, the color harmony is also taken into consideration for a holiday table.
The dinner table is set beautifully with linen tablecloths, linen napkins, and fine china. I decorate my table with pine tree branches or pine cones to add a natural touch.
There are also many more courses served in a traditional grand meal than in a regular, everyday meal, so the cutlery and glassware will reflect that.
Why is this important? The French value gathering the family around the table, uninterrupted, for a good meal (no jumping up to watch your favorite sports team’s playoffs, or to send a text message, for example).
So, in France, for a special occasion like Christmas, the decoration of the table is considered as important as the food.
They believe a well-decorated table is an important element that contributes to enjoying the meal. And the guests are expected to be well-dressed too!
2. The quality of the food and the harmony of the flavors are important
Of course, the quality of the food is extra special for a grand meal, so attention is given to:
-the selection of top seasonal products
-the harmony of flavors amongst the different foods
-the harmony between the food and the wine that accompanies it
3. The order of the dishes served
The order dishes are served is fixed in French tradition and part of France’s cultural heritage. This meal structure and its characteristics have been recognized by Unesco as a “world intangible heritage”.
The various dishes are brought out separately, and not served all at once. Hot dishes are served separately from cold dishes so that everything is served at the right temperature.
The recipes, however, can vary according to different families and their own traditions, their regional cuisine, and financial means.
What is a Traditional French Christmas Dinner Menu?
If you were invited to a grand, traditional French Christmas meal, it would, in general, look like this:
L’Apéritif: (Before-Dinner Drinks)
You would start off with an “Apéritif,” or before dinner drinks. There would be:
- champagne or sparkling wine
- red and white wines
- fruit juice
- sodas (if there are children)
Snacks are also served with drinks. I usually serve the following:
- small leaves of endive with Roquefort and walnuts
- smoked salmon blinis
- blinis with caviar
- toast with foie gras (if we’re not having that as a starter).
Other examples of apéritif snacks the French serve at Christmas are:
- gougères (savory pastry puffs) made with Comté cheese
- slices of parmesan
- parma ham
- speers of dried prunes wrapped with bacon.
The Starter or “Entrée”:
Some meals have a cold starter followed by a warm starter (foie gras can be served in either).
The Starters are all accompanied by white wine. Or the entire meal can be served with Champagne. Water is also served throughout the dinner and bread accompanies the meal:
- Panned foie gras
- Seafood: langoustines or oysters (served raw on the half shell)
- Sea Scallops
- Caviar or Salmon Roe
- White sausage or “Boudin Blanc” infused with black truffles
The “Trou Normand:”
This is served between a fish and meat course to cleanse the palate so you can continue on and enjoy the rest of the meal. It supposedly helps your digestion after the Starters (for adults only!)
A “Tou Normand” consists of apple or pear sorbet in a small wide-rimmed cordial glass served with a small spoon.
Before serving, an apple brandy, such as a Calvados from Normandy or another strong alcohol like an Eau de Vie is drizzled over the sorbet. Fresh mint leaves are added as a garnish.
The Main Course or “Plat Principal”:
The Main course is accompanied by red wine. Vegetables like green beans or a celeriac purée accompany the meat course. Examples of meat served for the main course of a traditional French Christmas dinner are:
- Christmas turkey stuffed with chestnuts and accompanied by a classic sauce
- Capon with apples
The Cheese Course:
– A variety of cheeses is served accompanied by a green salad with a vinaigrette sauce.
A selection of cheeses for a traditional French Christmas Dinner Cheese Platter would be:
- a goat’s cheese
- a blue-veined cheese
- a soft cheese (like a Brie or Camembert)
- a hard cheese (such as a Comté or Beaufort)
- a fresh soft cheese.
The Dessert Course:
-The “Buche de Noël” or Yule Log is the traditional buttercream cake served for Christmas. Coffee or chocolate are the traditional flavors for this dessert.
Coffee and “Tisanes” (herbal teas)
Coffee and “Tisanes” or “Infusions” (herbal teas) are served after – not with – the dessert course.
Chocolates or other traditional holiday candies are served with hot drinks.
My French in-laws serve dates rolled in sugar and stuffed with walnuts. There are traditional spice cookies served in the Alsace region, some of which are produced only for the Christmas holidays.
Wait! The meal isn’t over yet – there’s more!
Digestifs and Eau de Vie:
France has a long tradition of producing “digestifs” or “eau de vie. ”
(Some are still produced in monasteries, such as Chartreuse).
Here is a shortlist of the main digestive alcohols that would be served after a traditional Christmas dinner:
- Eau de Vie: Poire William (Pear), Prune, or Mirabelle (Mirabelle Prunes)
- Bas Armagnac
- Grand Marnier
- Aged Rum
An Example of a French Christmas Dinner at a Paris 5 Star Luxury Hotel:
If you find yourself in Paris in December and would like to try a traditional French Christmas dinner, 5 Star Luxury hotels offer the opportunity to try an extraordinary holiday meal.
This was the Christmas Dinner menu offered at the Paris Ritz Hotel in 2019:
- FOIE GRAS with Passion fruit & toasted brioche
- SEA SCALLOPS Creamy fennel and Imperial caviar
Sea Food Dish
- BLUE LOBSTER Macaroni and bisque with verbena
- DUCK FROM CHALLANS « À la royale », black truffle and confit quince
Cheese & Salad
- CHEESE: Mont d’Or thin tartlet with black truffle, leaf lettuce
- THE CHRISTMAS DESSERT: The Ritz Paris Christmas Log with hazelnut and chocolate
I’ve outlined above the general structure of a grand traditional French Christmas dinner. As you may have guessed by the number of courses served, the meal lasts for hours!
It’s elaborate and costly. Not all French families want – or have the means – to serve such complicated meals.
And the dishes served at Christmas can, of course, vary according to a family’s own traditions and their regional cuisine.
A French Christmas dinner in Alsace will not be the same as a French Christmas dinner in Provence.
However, the general structure of the meal is the same.
Would you like to create a traditional French dinner for your friends and family?
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Photos courtesy of the author and of Unsplash.com