Wishing you all the merriest of Christmases, whether you find yourselves in Burgundy, or Africa, or Northern Canada. I hope you are surrounded by loved ones and joy. Here is an excerpt I wrote about a past Christmas in Burgundy (including plenty of food & wine porn) when we were knee deep in renovations at La Maison des Chaumes...Joyeux Noël!
The presents were quickly disposed of on Christmas morning. Charlotte and Camille ripped off the paper and squealed over their stuffy puppies and Polly Pockets. They ate a prodigious amount of papillottes and their enjoyment of the day didn’t seem to be at all affected by the torn wallpaper on the walls or the ugly floor tiles.
The tree and the decorations and the fact that the Père Noël came during the night, drank all the ratafia, and ate the papillottes made it a perfect Christmas in their eyes. A big Christmas was fun, but a modest Christmas had its rewards too.
Stéphanie, Franck's sister, told us to be at her house in Magny-les-Villers by 11:30 for the apéritif. She would not hear of me bringing anything to contribute to the Christmas meal. When I asked Franck why she was turning down repeated offers of help he said that it was her pride as a hostess to do everything herself. I wondered why I had never seemed to possess that particular brand of domestic pride.
Tom and Lola greeted us at the door, jumping up and down and telling us about the presents Père Noël had brought them. The most popular was Lola’s stand up microphone. The four cousins rushed upstairs to her bedroom try it out. By the time Thierry had poured us each a flute of mousseux the strains of loud, out-of-tune voices singing French pop songs floated down the stairs.
We were the last ones to arrive. There was Steph and Thierry, Thierry’s parents, his aunt from Dijon, Franck’s parents and of course La Mémé, equipped with several exquisite shawls to stave off drafts despite the roaring fire. We caught up with Thierry’s parents and his aunt while Stéphanie passed around homemade gougères – crunchy on the outside and rich and airy on the inside - made with Mémé’s recipe.
Eventually Steph went back in the kitchen and André went to help her. When I got up and offered to help I was shooed away and told to sit down at the table, stunningly decorated with tones of red and gold, and an abundance of freshly picked holly from the tree in the backyard.
Steph handed out the plates, beginning with Thierry’s aunt and Mémé and then moved on down the line in order of age. On each plate were two artfully arranged slices of foie gras, two slices of toasted brioche, and a scoop of fig jam.
Thierry busied himself with filling our glasses with a dark yellow Sauternes, perfectly chilled.
We waited until Steph and André were seated at the table and then Stephanie said “Bon alors, Joyeux Noël et bon appétit!” I scraped some foie gras on a piece of toasted, buttery brioche, topped it with fig jam, then washed it down with the beautifully paired Sauternes.
The foie gras was silky smooth of my tongue, enhanced by the sweet pops of the fig jam and the honeyed richness of the Sauternes. They mingled together to form a holy trinity of yum. The table fell silent for several minutes as everyone relished this first sublime bite of the holiday meal.
We talked about preparing the foie gras which Stephanie had done from scratch - well, not completely from scratch - she hadn’t force fed a goose but she had bought a freshly fattened goose liver and prepared, deveined, marinated and cooked it herself.
“Do you like it Laura?” she asked. I knew I should feel guilty about the force-fed goose, but the sheer deliciousness of the end product chased that from my mind.
“C’est délicieux,” I answered.
Why did few things back in Canada taste this satisfying? Why were flavors never quite so carefully and artfully matched? Here on my plate and in my glass was the perfect harmony of sweet and savoury. The buttery-ness of the brioche and the syrupy fig jam highlighted the silky unctuousness of the foie gras. Individually all these things were delicious, but married together they were sublime. Better yet, there was nothing else on the plate to distract any of us from the heavenly combination.
We took a good hour nibbling away at the first course. The children came down and they all ate a full plate just like the adults. All except Lola, that is, who was turning out - much to the despair of Franck’s family of gourmets - to be a picky eater. I wasn’t sure if my kids realized if they were eating fattened goose liver or, if they did, whether they would even care.
Without me realizing exactly when or how, their eating habits had improved drastically since we moved here. They sat down to eat three proper meals a day and a snack when they got home from school around five o’clock. There were still a few things they didn’t like, spinach for Charlotte and brussel sprouts for Camille, but they would try more or less anything else, mainly because the kids around them had to try everything too. The fact that most things they tried actually tasted good probably inspired them to be adventurous.
Charlotte and Camille proclaimed that the foie gras was delicious and declared it one of their new favourite foods, then asked if they could go upstairs to play. The cousins disappeared again, and Steph and Thierry and André took their time doing the dishes from the first course while Steph periodically checked the oven.
Finally she removed what had been in there and the house was filled with the smell of a roasted chapon - a rooster castrated at a young age – filled with a chestnut and pork stuffing.
Stephanie served this with a side of chestnuts for anyone who wanted them. I had grown up in Canada seeing chestnuts cover the sidewalk every autumn but I had never tasted them before or, indeed, ever seen anybody eat them. It was in France that I first realized how much I loved their earthy taste and texture.
Stéphanie served reduced jus from the roasted chapon as the sauce. Thierry, meanwhile, had taken out several bottles of Hospices de Beaune wine and served a Pommard premier cru.
He gave it to Franck to taste. Franck swirled it around in his glass, sniffed, and swashed it around his mouth and proclaimed it perfect. No one rushed on to anything else, and each plateful was just the perfect amount of flavours to savour without overwhelming the palate.
I thought back to our Christmas dinners in Canada. They were joyous affairs, but it was always such a race to get everything on the table at the same time; the turkey, the stuffing, the brussel sprouts, the scalloped potatoes, the green beans...Everybody filled their plates and rushed to the table to eat before it got cold (which it inevitably did). The flavours were good, but there were too many of them at once, and the whole thing was over far too fast.
The protracted nature and the small portions of meals in Burgundy forced everyone to slow down. Slowing down while eating, I realized now, was key to true appreciation and enjoyment of food and wine. There were no distractions apart from the flowing conversation.
After the chapon came a trou normande in the form of a lime sorbet with strong alcohol poured over it. This was, according to French belief, the secret to digesting well and making more room in our stomachs for the cheese and dessert courses.
The fromage platter was massive, and included a truly pungent and perfectly oozing “Ami de Chambertin, a half round of Cîteaux, and a crumbly and salty Cantal sheep’s cheese amongst other offerings.
Here too, the different textures and tastes of the cheeses riffed off each other creating an amazing taste experience. For the wine, Thierry served another Pommard from les Hospices that was groaning with ripe fruit flavours and structured tannins – absolutely the perfect foil to the cheeses.
Dessert came sometime after, along with a vin de paille from the Jura, a sweet intensely yellow wine that used half rotten grapes that had been aged on hay. Its richness complimented Mémé’s two “buches de Noël”, one mocha, one chocolate. Next came a praline kouglouf made by Franck’s father, served with the tiny china cups of strong espresso and bowls of papillottes and clémentine oranges.
As I was peeling my second orange the conversation ranged from wine to a debate about the best markets in the region.
Thierry’s father, nicknamed “Le Cadou” so insistently that I never knew his actual name, was a loyal attendee of the Friday morning market in Nuits-Saint-Georges where he went without fail to visit with friends and his favourite merchants and to buy whatever struck his fancy. Franck’s favourite market remained the Monday morning market in Louhans that featured veal’s brains and chilled white wine for the traditional pre-market breakfast. Mémé had always liked the market in the nearby town of Chagny. I argued for Beaune even though Franck’s family didn’t like the fact that it had seen an influx in tourists over the past decade during the summer months.
I glanced at my watch for the first time that day. “It’s ten o’clock at night!”
Indeed, darkness had fallen over the vineyards behind Steph and Thierry’s house long before, but somehow I didn’t have the impression of time passing. We had been at the table for almost twelve hours.
“A perfect Christmas Day,” Franck said, rubbing his stomach and reaching across the table to caress my palm.