Ah, the holiday season. In the States the season begins, appropriately, on Black Friday, the kickoff to the shopping Superbowl, or, to continue the sports metaphor, the “gentlemen, start your engines” to the Indianapolis 500 of consumption. Such competitive shopping may be part of the seasonal scene in Paris – although, since we are nowhere near Paris, we really have no idea – but here in the countryside the season is dictated by traditions as old as the hills. Here, the season of Noël, the French word for Christmas, centers on something more quintessentially French than spending money on gift giving. What is more important than frantic shopping for expensive gifts, you may ask.
Food. Quelle surprise!
By now, sprawling our way into January, we are up to our eyebrows in champagne, our blood has devolved to a cholesterol transportation system moving globs of foie gras from one organ to the next and even Harvey, whose car mysteriously broke down at every Dunkin Donut shop within twenty miles of home, has to force himself to enter a boulangerie-patisserie for anything as simple as a baguette. We are sated with Noël. Full to the brim, but the past month has been, to paraphrase the Maine lobsterman’s greeting as we sailed past into the fog, a mind-boggling experience . . . if we survive. Here’s a summary of the past month (leaving out the rain, fog, cold, wind, clouds, floods – yes, the river did a bit of rising – and Mordoresque gloom that overhangs France around the winter solstice).
The motif of Noël is not saying “no.”
Winter is dark here – keep in mind that northern France is as far north as Newfoundland. The toasty Cote d’Azur, where we are heading in a week to warm up, is north of our home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, which is covered in snow. To brighten the darkest, longest nights of winter French cities have evolved a tradition of les lumieres, illuminations, lighting up their downtowns in competitive megawatt displays. Northeastern France, where we are spending the winter, is particularly known for its Christmas markets. Strasbourg supposedly has the oldest, at 451 years. The lumieres light up these Christmas markets.
We started with a train ride to Dijon for a combination of the lighting of its lights with the opening of the last of its new tram lines. Added in was a dinner with a couple of French families that turned into a grand crepe feast, initiated, as with seemingly every other activity this time of year, from solemn pageant to taking out the trash, with champagne and foie gras. The official color of the new Dijon trams is pink, exceptionally pinkish pink. Dijon’s version of the Arc d’ Triumph, rebuilt after a fire in 1137, was illuminated in pink.
The city’s mascot polar bear, called Pompon after the sculptor François Pompon, whose bust is mounted below the bear, was similarly pink. Our initial holiday foray to Dijon merely placed our feet over the seasonal threshold.
Dijon was such fun that we decided to visit the highly touted Noël marche in nearby Montbeliard. We’d visited that city, located in the region of Franche-Comte, for just a day on the barge. It was our turnaround point on the Rhine-au-Rhone Canal. The Montbeliard marche de Noël is a big one with 140 booths selling food and crafts. We spent three nights there, in a hotel carefully researched by Sandra to ensure the room had a bathtub. Food in Franche-Comte is basically different combinations of cheese and meat. Our first lunch, ordered at random from the menu, turned out to be round wooden boxes of Mont d’Or cheese, a pungent local cheese sold only in winter. The cheese was melted in the spruce box and surrounded by local sausages, a regional winter specialty. Sort of a fondue de cholesterol. Not surprisingly, Harvey’s cardiologist has a thriving practice in Franche-Comte.
Waddling home on the train from Montbeliard back to the boat, the social season continued. Christmas was spent on a neighboring boat owned by a French couple. Sandra trades language lessons with Françoise; they just finished a biography of Amelia Earhart, translating French to English and English to French. Françoise prepared a Noël feast, starting with caviar and smoked fish, continuing through a traditional entre (what Americans would call the appetizer) of oysters, crevettes (shrimp) and snails (sea snails rather than land snails). Oysters at Christmas, you may ask. Christmas oysters are as essential to this French holiday as elves and Santas. Wooden crates of oysters line the sidewalks. Shops that normally carry no food items have stacks of oyster crates. Our local tabac, which sells newspapers and cigarettes, lined its sidewalk with wooden boxes filled with oysters. And they all disappeared. The French love their oysters, harvesting 287 million pounds per year; half that harvest is eaten between Christmas and New Years. We also had tournedos de boeuf, filet mignon, which, since it lacked that certain fatal level of cholesterol by itself required for this season, was topped with foie gras.
Christmas dinner ended, of course, with la bûche de Noël, the Yule log. Nothing wooden about this log. We’d been working our way up to the full bûche experience for a couple of weeks by buying a practice bûchette at the boulangerie to split for dessert. In French, a bûche is a log. A bûchette is a twig. We would love to see the forest where these babies are harvested. Bûche de Noel is a big deal here. Harvey was at the patisserie when the Maître carried out the first tray of them, with a line of customers out to the sidewalk. It is a spiral of sponge cake, chocolate buttercream, and secret stuff, frosted to look like a log, sometimes topped with powdered sugar snow. It sells in units of “persons:” 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 persons. A high-end Paris bûche designed by Givenchy goes for 160 euros. The high-end item at our Auxonne patisserie was the chocolate sanglier, a wild boar. But even the bûche de Noël is modest compared with the traditional dessert in the south, in Provence, where they end the meal with “treize desserts,” thirteen desserts.
Then came New Years. We were invited to share New Years Eve with three French families in town, seventeen people all together. The email invitation began with the words “do not be afraid.” We sat down at 8:00 p.m. and tried to stand up at 2:00 a.m. We vaguely remember about six bottles of different champagnes, interspersed with the appropriate local red and white wines for different courses, and won’t ever forget the homemade foie gras on ginger and fig bread, a life changing experience in itself. It was an interesting walk back to the boat.
The next day, New Years Day, was an interesting bargee party on neighboring Virunga for all the folks overwintering at the marina on New Years Day. This pot luck gathering of us and a bunch of Brits lasted, for us, from noon until 9 p.m. Virunga has framed limited edition prints of the artwork from two Patrick O’Brien covers. It doesn’t get more nautical than that.
As you could tell from that recitation, the holiday season in France is rich in tradition. There seems to be a specific baked product for each holiday.There is no saying “no” on holidays in which champagne and foie gras are prominent on most every menu. One tradition that is not readily apparent, however, is a religious one. Back in Harvey’s days of working with the American Civil Liberties Union the surest signs of the holiday season were the law suits over placement of creches on public property and the question of whether they violated the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. These cases were determined by applying a bizarre yet appropriately seasonal legal standard: the angels-to-elves ratio test. If the crèche was dominated by elves, it was secular and permissible. If angels played the lead roles, it was religious and constitutionally prohibited on government property. We’ve yet to see a crèche in public in France. They are common inside churches, we’re told, but public holiday decorations consist of trees, lights, colored balls and Santa.
French Santa looks just like American Santa (because he’s the same person, right kids), although French Santa travels without any reindeer. And he is displayed climbing rope ladders. Sometimes he travels incognito under the name of Père Noël, who has a donkey. Children leave out shoes filled with carrots for his donkey and get oranges back in the shoes in the morning. Unlike American Santa, whose job description includes deciding who is “naughty or nice” and awarding either toys or coal, a job that requires extensive year-long surveillance of American children, French Santa is a complete good guy. Punishment duties are carried out by Santa’s evil twin, Le Père Fouettard (the Bogeyman), who, covered in black coal, spanks naughty children. In neighboring Franche-Comte, Santa has a competitor from pre-Christian days, Tante Airie, who travels around with her friendly ass Marion. Both of them – Aunt Airie and Marion – showed up at Montbeliard.
All that left for us was this Sunday, Epiphany, when we get together on our boat with a French family to eat our galette des rois, a flat round cake with a charm baked inside. Epiphany, or Twelth Night, is celebrated with this special cake, a pastry shell stuffed with frangipane, a mixture of butter, sugar, eggs, and ground almonds. A child is supposed to hide under the table and decide who eats which slice of cake. Whoever gets the slice with the charm becomes king or queen for the day and wears the paper crown that comes with the cake. Sandra ordered our galette des roie at the boulangerie and Harvey picked it up this morning, standing in line with all the families picking up their galettes. We won’t have a child available, but Rep the neighboring Airedale will likely be lurking beneath our table.
Late breaking news: our neighbor Phillipe found the surprise in his slice of galette. But wait, there’s more news: Sandra’s slice also contained a prize, a tiny statue of the Virgin. We awarded her the crown and she was queen for the day.
Spending this holiday season in France, especially in small town France, has been a treat. We are so thankful to all the people who opened their hearts and their homes to us. Without a doubt, the best gift we could have received from this season was the gift we gave ourselves: France.