The French are known for their attention to seasonal ingredients, and they have a huge variety of recipes as a result: the ingredients savvy French home cooks shop for and the dishes they make with them change from season to season, just as we change our clothes.
This was a surprise to me: I grew up largely on packaged food and was clueless about what was in or out of season from one month to the next. But adopting this cultural tradition after moving to France was enriching: I learned to live a bit more with the rhythms of nature – even in a big city like Paris. And I expanded my food repertoire too.
I’ll bust one myth for you, though. All French people don’t follow the seasons regarding food: I’ve spotted a few Parisians buying strawberries and tomatoes in December!
Not only do fruit and vegetable sellers in France adjust what they offer according to the seasons, but even various cheeses, meats, and seafood are at their best during certain months.
French Seasonal Foods in December:
Jerusalem Artichokes or “Topinambour,” Chinese Artichokes or “crosnes,” and cardoons add variety to French winter menus. Pumpkins are ripening in warehouses at this time of year. The French home cook will use them in soups or serve them “au gratin” (see my sweet potato/pumpkin au gratin recipe here). All members of the cabbage family are available at the market in December.
Menus in French homes are simple at the beginning of the month to prepare for the heavier, more elaborate holiday meals to come.
Early on in the month, the French place orders with local butchers for their holiday menus: turkeys, capons, and poulardes from Bresse.
So let’s go down the list – from surf to turf, orchards to vegetable gardens, all the way to cheeses – and see what arrives at a French market in December, what’s still in season, and what’s past its prime.
What’s arriving at French markets in December:
From the sea:
- Lobster – Strangely enough, the French don’t have their Brittany lobster at this time, as he’s gone to hibernate in the depths of the Atlantic. Instead, they’re ordering American or Canadian lobster for the holidays as the fishing season there is still open.
- Langouste or Crayfish – They call it “Langouste Breton” but it’s rare: most langouste at this time of year is actually from Ireland where fishing is still open in December – and the prices are astronomical.
- Sea Bass: – Winter is its season and sea bass is abundant in December before the holidays.
From the butcher:
- Goose – Not as well-known as turkey, but a goose is sometimes still ordered for the holidays in France. It’s becoming rare to see them offered today because the conditions required to raise them are costly and the consumer demand hasn’t followed suit.
Fruits & Vegetables:
- Truffles – December is the beginning of the truffle harvest. They’re even better in January and February, but with the holidays approaching why wait?
- Pears: – The Passe-Crassane is the last of France’s numerous pear varietals to be harvested. You’ll find it at French markets end of December, but its best period is in January.
What’s on its way out at French markets in December?
From the sea:
- Herring: – This is the last month to enjoy herring at its peak. Once it has spawned, it’ll have less flavor.
Fruits & Vegetables
- Salads:- Green salads that require sun and open ground to reach their full flavor are pale during these cold months and on their way out. Only lamb’s lettuce and endive remain since they don’t require a lot of sun to be cultivated.
- Turnips – There are still many on offer at markets around France, but the Winter varietals aren’t as good as the Fall ones. They’re still good for soup or the typical French Beef Stew called “Pot au Feu.”
- Pears – The “Beurré-Hardy’s” season is coming to an end, like the “Williams.” Avoid the latter if they’re still offered.
- Grapes – If they’re still being offered this long after harvest, it’s because they’re very expensive.
What’s in High Season at French Markets in December?
From the Sea:
- Oysters – there’s a large choice of varietals and calibers which is why you find oysters served on traditional menus during the holidays.
- Praires & Palourdes – (types of Clams) – one of the components of a French seafood platter, along with oysters
- Sea Urchin or “Oursins“
- Shrimp or “Bouquet”
- Sea Scallops or “Coquilles St. Jacques“- quality and price are at their highest in December
- Whiting or “Merlan”
- Mullet or “Rouget-Barbet“
- Bream or “Dorade“- the “Griset” is still in season but the “Dorade Royale” is also available and even better. The bigger the better.
- Salmon – It’s not really the season for salmon, so it’s the smoked salmon that’s available.
From the butcher:
- Turkey – the AOC from Bresse is exceptional due to the rigorous conditions and care required to raise it.
- Poularde – the AOC/PDO of Bresse is the best
- Capon or “Chapon“
- Lamb’s Lettuce or “Mache“- this is one of the typical winter salads eaten in France along with endives.
- Cardoons or “Cardons”– it has a slight taste of artichoke (its botanical cousin) and the French cook it “au gratin” with beef marrow or “moelle.”
- Apples – Boskoop, Granny Smith, Reinette Grise of Canada: These varietals are used in cooking and make excellent compotes, pies or crumbles.
- Pears – Conference, and Beurré-Hardy varietals are still excellent (try drizzling some hazelnut oil over them)
- Citrus fruits – oranges, clementines, pomelos grapefruits are abundant
- Exotic fruits – mangoes, physalis (“cape gooseberry” or “Peruvian groundcherry”), persimmons (“kakis”)
- Kiwis – Surprisingly, France is the 2nd largest European producer of this fruit, after Italy.
- Le Mont d’Or (also called “vacherin du Haut -Doubs“). This creamy cheese is at its best in December and is served in its traditional box after cutting off just the top layer of the cheese
- Roquefort: this cheese is at its best in flavor and rich creamy texture throughout the winter. (Try it in an Endive, Roquefort and Walnut Salad with a Walnut Oil Vinaigrette).
So there you have the French market in December. As the seasonal offerings change, so do the recipes.
The French like to live with the rhythm of nature and the food they serve changes with the seasons. I’ve found this way of eating has pushed me to widen my scope of recipes and to be more aware of what nature has to offer at different times of the year.
And now you: How does this compare to what’s on offer at your market or grocery store? Do you change your ingredients and recipes according to the seasons?
Photo courtesy of Peter Wendt at Unsplash.com