From foie gras to bûche de Noël: The essentials of a French holiday feast

·6-min read

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, as the song goes – unless you live in France, where it might be a guinea fowl or a wild boar putting on the weight. This year, with Covid-19 playing Scrooge and the World Health Organisation recommending limiting holiday gatherings to the nuclear family (with masks on), what is there to look forward to if not a sumptuous, mouthwatering feast?

Every year in France, as elsewhere, the whole country excitedly prepares well in advance for the Christmas and New Year’s festivities. As early as November, the big avenues get all dressed up in tinsel and garland lights and the streets are packed with holiday shoppers.

But this year’s preparations were somewhat hampered by the measures imposed by the government to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Nevertheless, the traiteurs (delicatessen shops) and butchers have been busy taking orders for delicacies that will soon be set out on dinner tables, with people ready to splurge on expensive food products that are usually, and especially now, reserved for the end-of-year holidays.

France’s Christmas and New Year’s feasts are anything but lean. Since the Middle Ages, midnight Mass was preceded by a meagre meal: It was customary to eat only a little bread, fish or vegetable broth and drink a glass of water. Christmas dinner was the big traditional meal served to worshippers after a long, nighttime service.

Though fewer French today attend midnight Mass, the tradition of a big Christmas and New Year meal has survived. Here are some of the staple dishes of a French winter holiday feast:

Foie gras

Throughout December, supermarket shelves are stacked to the ceiling with cans and jars of foie gras, a French specialty of fattened duck or goose liver, often served as a starter as a pâté on warm toast with some jam – or chutney – generally of onion or fig.

Though many have stopped eating foie gras because of the way the birds’ livers are artificially fattened through gavage, or force-feeding, it remains one of the most popular food items for a French Christmas meal, and France today is its largest producer by far.

Literally translated as “fat liver”, foie gras originated in ancient Egypt before it spread throughout the Mediterranean and was adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans. Later, in the Middle Ages, the tradition of gavage was carried on by the Jewish population, since goose meat was viewed as a good source of nutrition and its cooking fat conformed to Jewish dietary laws.

Foie gras’s popularity grew during the Renaissance, when it became associated with the kings of France. The term “foyes gras” was coined during the reign of Louis XIV and it was served at royal banquets under Louis XV, but it was Louis XVI who declared it the “dish of kings".

Foie gras is often also served pan roasted, or sliced over a cut of meat, or as a sauce. It is produced in winter, and its high price makes it a luxurious holiday product perfect for the year-end festivities.

For those who do not eat foie gras, other common starters at a French Christmas or New Year’s dinner are smoked salmon, scallops (coquilles Saint-Jacques), shrimps, or oysters.

Oysters

The French are among the largest consumers of oysters in the world, with more than 100,000 tonnes of oysters served in France each year, a large portion of which makes it to the Christmas dinner table.

Oysters are easy to find in France, with its long coastline, and are relatively inexpensive for a holiday dish. They are most often served fresh with a vinaigrette of red wine and shallots or simply a squeeze of lemon.

It is French custom to eat oysters only during months that have an ‘r’ in their names – September through April. This is not only because they taste best during this period, but because of habit. Long before refrigerated transportation methods were invented, oysters could only be shipped inland from sea during the cold winter months if they were to stay fresh and not spoil before being served.

For the same reason, salmon, lobster, crayfish and other seafood are also traditionally eaten in the winter. But unlike oysters, these are relatively expensive, and again, a perfect luxury to splurge on during the end-of-year holidays.

Duck, duck, goose (or turkey, capon, or any other stuffed bird)

Much like in the US or in the UK, a true, traditional staple of a French Christmas dinner is the stuffed turkey.

Before the turkey arrived in Europe from the Americas in the 17th century, the French ate stuffed goose. But the turkey has mostly replaced the goose as the holiday bird of choice because it is less expensive, yet still larger and meatier than a plain old chicken.

The turkey’s main advantage is its size (it can weigh up to 18kg) for big family feasts. This year, with Covid-19 measures restricting the number of guests recommended at the table, other birds might make for fewer leftovers.

A smaller, but at least as succulent fowl that is very popular in France during the winter holidays is the capon (chapon in French), a cockerel that was neutered to render its meat fattier, usually weighing three to four kilogrammes; or else the even smaller guinea fowl (pintade).

Whatever bird is chosen, it is generally roasted and served with a special Christmas stuffing that traditionally includes chestnuts and mushrooms.

Other classic holiday main dishes in France include roasted meats, such as lamb or beef, and also game meat, such as doe, wild boar, venison or pheasant, not usually eaten year-round by most French people who are not hunters.

Bûche de Noël

Perhaps it is not quite the light dessert your gut might be pleading for after a meal of foie gras and stuffed capon, but no Christmas meal in France is complete without a bûche de Noël, otherwise known as the Yule log cake.

The bûche is an elaborate creation made up of a rolled sponge cake filled with cream – or ice cream – and frosted to look like tree bark, or a log. It is a reminder of an earlier tradition, dating back to the Iron Age, when people in Europe would gather to welcome the winter solstice. Families would burn large logs, usually from fruit trees, anointed with wine and salt and decorated with pine cones, holly or ivy. The log kept the house warm, and its ashes were said to have medicinal benefits and to guard against evil.

Other Christmas desserts in France include gingerbread (pain d’épices) and chocolate. Traditionally, well-behaved children were given chocolate and other sweets on December 6, the day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Gradually, the tradition of Saint Nicholas disappeared in most French regions except for the east, and the ritual giving of chocolate and gingerbread was incorporated into Christmas.

A small price to pay

After a meal of stuffed goose or capon or other roasted meat – not to mention champagne flowing like water, good wine and a wide variety of rich desserts and chocolates – it’s not surprising that the French complain of crise de foie (translated literally as “liver crisis” but more accurately as indigestion) at the end of the winter holiday season.

But a little crise de foie is a small price to pay for a fantastic festive meal with the family during these difficult days of coronavirus.