Hello and Welcome to Part 1 of the French Holiday Challenge! I am your host in Paris, Nancy Conway. Thank you so much for joining me!
Today we set the stage with an overview of what we’ll be discussing during the Challenge and defining the focus of your French Holiday meal experience.
There are two elements in today’s discussion: a video from me and this blog post.
Please watch the Welcome video below:
Part 1: The Three Characteristics of a Traditional French Holiday Meal
Let’s go over what elements make a French holiday meal special and give it that special French style.
Though food is very important in France, a traditional French Holiday meal isn’t just about the food.
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.
Here are three elements that make it traditional and grand at the same time:
1. The quality of the food and the harmony of the flavors
Of course, the quality of the food is always a consideration for the French. But extra care is taken during the holidays to create a grand meal, so particular attention is given to:
–the selection of top seasonal products, in as much as possible:
How do we determine what will be on the menu for a French Holiday Meal? It all depends on what products are in season.
The season will determine the contents of the holiday menu and also influence the quality, as seasonal products generally taste better than products that are out of season and not at their prime.
For example, during a Christmas meal in December, there won’t be any fresh strawberries served, because they’re not in season. If they’re on the menu, they would be strawberries that have been frozen when they were in season.
–the harmony of flavors amongst the different foods:
The French are mindful that flavors can clash: For example, foods with strong spicey flavors aren’t served next to milder foods that might be overpowered by the stronger dishes.
–the harmony between the food and the wine that accompanies it:
Wine pairing is an art in itself. But there are general rules that apply to what wines are served with what types of dishes. Everyone can follow them easily to make a meal more enjoyable.
2. The order of the dishes served
The order in which dishes are served is fixed in French tradition and has been a part of France’s cultural heritage for centuries. This meal structure and its characteristics have been recognized by Unesco as a “world intangible heritage”.
During a French Holiday meal, various dishes are brought out separately, and not served all at once. Hot dishes are served separately from cold dishes, for example, 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 of course their financial means.
A holiday meal in the eastern region of Alsace will not have the same recipes as a meal in the Provence region in the south, for example.
3. Table decoration
France is known worldwide for its fine china from Limoges, crystal houses like Baccarat, and silverware by Christofle, to name a few.
France is also known for its exquisite table linens. The finest of them are still embroidered by hand, like those from D. Porthault, which was a favorite brand of Grace Kelly and the Duchess of Windsor.
So I would definitely say that the French value the way a table is set!
Attention is paid to the quality of the dishware. The fine china that French families save for special occasions comes out of storage for the holidays.
The color harmony is also taken into consideration for a holiday table. Colors and style need to be harmonious. The tableware doesn’t need to match perfectly or all be from the same pattern, but it should just go together nicely.
The dinner table is set beautifully with linen tablecloths, linen napkins, and fine china. Other decorative elements are included to represent the season of the meal. For example, during the winter, I decorate my holiday table with pine tree branches or pine cones to add a natural touch.
There are also many more courses served in a traditional French Holiday meal than in a regular, everyday dinner. So the appropriate cutlery and glassware for the different courses will reflect that.
Why is attention to table decoration important for the French?
The French, like so many people, value gathering the family around the table, uninterrupted, for a good meal. There’s no jumping up to watch a favorite sports team’s playoffs, or to send a text message during dinner!
They believe that you can’t enjoy a meal, no matter how good the food, if the table is a mess and unattractive. And if everyone is distracted, looking at their phones, or checking game results, no one is truly present and enjoying each other’s company.
So, in France, for a special holiday occasion like Christmas or New Year’s, the table decor is considered as important as the food.
The French believe that a beautifully decorated table keeps the family at the table, enjoying the meal and their time together.
Think about the seasonal ingredients you have in your area that you could include in your holiday meal as the French do. Are there certain ingredients that go together well?
Also, think about whether or not you’d like to have both fish and meat on your menu or just one or the other. This will affect the order in which the dishes are served.
And decide whether or not you want to serve wine with the meal as this will affect how the table is decorated.
Lastly, think about your decor and what fine china or utensils you’ve been saving that you might want to bring out to decorate your table in an extra special way.
Once you’ve thought about these aspects of your holiday meal, then: