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.
Table decoration is important
First I would say that the way the table is set is important: the attention to the decoration, harmonious colors and quality of the dishware – all these details are taken into consideration.
The dinner table is set beautifully with linen tablecloths and napkins and fine china. My table is decorated with branches from pine trees or pine cones to add a natural touch.
There are 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 team’s playoffs, or to send a text message, for example). So the decoration of the table for a special occasion like Christmas is 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!
The quality of the food, the harmony of the flavors
Of course, the quality of the food is extra special for a grand meal, so attention is given to:
-the selection of top products which reflect the season
-the harmony of flavors amongst the different foods
-the harmony between the food and the wine that accompanies it
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 recipes, however, can vary according to different families and their own traditions, regional cuisine, and financial means.
However, if you were invited to a grand, traditional French Christmas meal, it would, in general, look like this:
You would start off with an “Apéritif,” or before dinner drinks. There would be champagne or sparkling wine, red and white wines, whiskey, and fruit juice and sodas for children.
Snacks are served with the drinks:
I usually serve small leaves of endive with Roquefort and walnuts, mini smoked salmon blinis, mini blinis with caviar, and small toasts with foie gras (if we’re not having that as a starter).
Other examples of snacks the French serve are little gougeres with Comté cheese, slices of parmesan, parma ham and speers of dried prunes 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 and bread accompanies the meal:
-Panned foie gras
-Seafood: langoustines or oysters (served raw on the half shell)
-Caviar or Salmon roe
-White sausage or “Boudin Blanc” infused with black truffles
The “Trou Normand:”
This is a sorbet drizzled with a strong alcohol like an Eau de Vie which supposedly helps your digestion after the Starters (for adults only!)
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
-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 would be a goat’s cheese, a blue-veined cheese, a soft cheese (Brie or Camembert) a hard cheese (Comté or Beaufort) and 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 or “Tisanes” (herbal teas)
Coffee and “Tisanes” or “Infusions” (herbal teas) are served along with chocolates.
(Wait! It’s not over yet – there’s more!)
Digestifs & Eau de Vie:
France has a long tradition in 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 dinner:
-Eau de Vie de: Poire William, Prune, or Mirabelle
An Example of a Christmas Dinner at a 5* Luxury Hotel in Paris:
If you find yourself in Paris during Christmas and would like to try a traditional French Christmas dinner, 5 Star luxury hotels offer the opportunity to try an extraordinary meal for Christmas.
This was the Christmas Dinner menu offered at the Paris Ritz Hotel for Christmas 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
As you may have guessed by the number of courses served, the traditional French Christmas dinner lasts for hours!
This is the general structure of a traditional grand meal. But as you can see, it’s elaborate and costly. Not all French families want – or have the means – to serve such elaborate dishes.
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 structure of the meal is the same.
And now you: Have you ever had a traditional French Christmas dinner? How does it differ from your family’s traditional holiday meals? Leave a comment below and let me know!
Photos courtesy of the author and of Unsplash.com