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Snowfall, fairy lights, and presents are great, but Christmas in France is really about indulging the national passion for food. The exact holiday menu depends on the region and the family but the main meal – le Réveillon – is enjoyed on Christmas Eve and puts overcooked turkey and stodgy Brussels sprouts to shame with its variety. Below are ten festive favorites and ideas for wine pairings for the perfect French feast.
To get the party started, you’ll want to line your stomach with some caviar. If fish eggs aren’t your thing, you can swap them for smoked salmon without raising any local eyebrows. A traditional amuse-bouche is either of these fishy delicacies on blinis – miniature buckwheat pancakes – with a little dollop of crème aigre (or sour cream, if you prefer). The first bottles to be popped will mostly likely be champagne or some other sparkling wine like Vouvray, Saumur, or Touraine.
Seafood at Christmas might seem strange to outsiders, but the French love it and Parisians are particularly fond of a platter of chilled oysters as a holiday appetizer. If you fear that raw, slippery oysters are going to leave you heaving over the toilet on Christmas morning then try cooking them with sabayon de champagne. A dry white wine like Sancerre or Pouilly Fuissé will pair nicely with them. And, whichever way you prepare your oysters, just make sure you don’t become one of the hundreds who end up in the emergency room with shucking-related injuries.
Foie gras is another dish not for the squeamish, admittedly, as much for ethical reasons as for its taste or texture. Nevertheless, it is an absolute must for most Réveillon meals and as a special snack throughout the holiday season. Serve it with a thin slice of toast with a fig or onion confit on the side. Vins moelleux, or sweet wines, match best with foie gras, either a semi-sweet Coteaux du Layon or very sweet Sauterne depending on your palette.
The idea that French people regularly chow down on a bowl of garlicky snails might be ill-conceived, but Christmas is one time of year when they are likely to make an appearance. Nowhere is this truer than in Burgundy where they are served as a starter with butter and parsley. You can pick up a bag of frozen snails in the freezer section of most supermarkets (a much better idea than trying to collect enough of them from the garden walls).
Scallops, or coquilles Saint-Jacques as you’ll see them labeled at the market, are a popular choice for a starter on Christmas Eve. There are hundreds of ways to prepare them, but a classic recipe is with winter vegetables in a cream sauce. Your scallops should be alive at the time of purchase and free of strange juices and smells. Pick a dodgy batch and the following morning you’ll be wishing Santa had brought you a bucket instead of that snazzy new watch.
While turkey is by no means synonymous with festive meals in France, you will still find it on many families’ tables. For the main dish, there’s really no limit to what meat can be served. If indeed they do opt for this hefty bird, it will be prepared with a chestnut stuffing. Visit any French town at Christmastime and you’ll smell just how important these nuts are to getting into the holiday spirit – practically every street corner has a vendor roasting them up and dishing them out in paper packets.
Whereas we might spend most of our money at Christmas on what goes under the tree, don’t be surprised if French families have splurged more on what’s on the table. For a truly luxurious Réveillon supper, many people will boil up a lobster or ten for their main dish, potentially accompanied by other shellfish like crabs and king prawns.
If you fancy changing things up and doing away with the turkey, but haven’t the budget (or the heart) to toss a dozen lobsters into a pot, then go wild, literally, in your choice of meats. Guinea fowl, pheasant, goose, and quail are all popular choices as are game meats like venison and boar. A traditional turkey substitute is capon, which is a rooster that has been castrated to improve its flavor. Yum. For a small group, duck breasts in a cranberry sauce will do nicely. Any good French red wine will pair well, especially a Bordeaux or Bourgogne.
Once you’ve emptied the skies, lands, and seas of all their fleshy resources, your sweet tooth will be in need of attention. In Provence, they take this extremely seriously and serve up no less than 13 desserts at the end of le Réveillon. They are supposed to represent Jesus and the 12 disciples and are usually composed of figs, dried fruits, and a traditional cake known as the pompe à l’huile.
Anywhere else in the country, the most popular dessert is the Bûche de Noël, or the Christmas chocolate log. Depending on your baking and frosting abilities, this Swiss roll cake can be as naturalistic as you like or alternatively topped with festive figurines. As this is France, you can expect the other usual after-dinner treats like a cheese platter made from cow, sheep, and goat’s milk and another glass of red wine to wash it all down.