A Christmas Letter from France by Fiona Alderman
I wanted to start this article with a tribute to those who were in the helicopter crash in Glasgow this month . As a native “Glaswegian” I was deeply affected to see the images at the Clutha bar that day . As it has unfolded, the tragedy has been apparent and my sympathy goes out to all the survivors and the families of those who lost their lives . I was proud to see that the unfailing Scottish spirit was there in force , in a form of human chain to help one other .On that day I saw in the French blue sky with what looked like the Scottish flag , made out of long white jet streams, but it reminded me of you all in Scotland. Life is precious and we probably don’t tell each other how much we care and love them before it might be too late . Do it now!
Bread is sacrosanct in daily French life, without a baguette on the table, you are either very poor or a foreigner . It is a National institution and a staggering 30 million of them are consumed in France each day! However, the industrial made breads are taking over, which is hitting the traditional bakers hard. The little village boulangeries are finding it hard to keep up with rising costs of flour at 4 euros a kilo. Franchises are opening up all over the place , like Macdonald’s, Pizza Hut and Jeff de Bruges where attractive terms are proposed to be your own boss . However , not everyone agrees. There are passionate bakers out there , with family traditions behind them , who are finding ways of making bread without any chemicals that it is almost an art. Their love is in the earth and nature, starting with the right corn and using no pesticides.
There are a lot of tv programmes about it at the moment and in typical French consternation, it is almost another Revolution.
A typical French boulangerie is a delight to the eye and mouth I think . At the moment ,our local one is getting ready for Christmas, with adverts for the bûche de Noël in all wonderful sounding names. From grand marnier, pastiche, vanille/ et 3 chocolat, praline and citron meringue!.They are expensive though, but it is only once a year!
In Paris at the moment, there seems to be a trend of placing the “less pleasing looking” ie ugly people to the back of certain cafés!!! Nice isn’it it? How do you decide?
It sounds a bit pretentious and has been the subject of many a discussion in the papers. I don’t know how this started but only in Paris, a city of elegance and style could this happen. Already, to sit outside at a trendy café in Paris will cost an arm and a leg! I think it is cheaper to sit inside by the bar and be ugly with it !
There is always a big thing made of the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau. I never liked it much when I was back in Scotland , but here in France it is big news . Our café had it’s soiréé Beaujolais recently. We went along “dutifully” to try it but I have to say the rouge wasn’t that nice, but the rosé one was much better . At 12 euros a bottle , we just had a glass to taste it .
All the Frenchies were busy swilling it around their mouths with a lot of ooh la la’s in between . You couldn’t help but be fascinated by all the adjectives they use to describe it . “un peu cremeux, rafinée, sophistiqué,bizarre” even !
I read that the wine from the Château Miravel was voted recently as the best rosé in the world . Amazing . This is of course the 1,200 acre vineyard owned by no less than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at their estate in Provence. I must see if I can get a bottle! Can’t imagine what price it might be?
We have a very nice custom here in the Perigord called Le Chabrol. This consists of after you are at the end of your soup, in the remains you put in a little red wine and drink it up in the bowl, without the spoon , taking care not to dribble it down your chin! It is surprisingly satisfying. Santé!
Christmas traditions in France
An important aspect of a French Christmas is the Nativity and the Crêche. Decorated with little handpainted figures called “santons” which are often passed down through the generations and added to every year. We once went to a Crêche Vivante ie a living creche , here at the local church . It was extremely moving to see and hear. From the animals , yes, there were sheep, goats ,a cow, a horse and a real baby in a manger . It was remarkably calm and well organised with lovely singing from a choir and the shepherds were all very realistic in their flowing robes.
The Christmas trees perhaps are not so evident as in the UK but we put them outside mostly and are decorated just before Noêl with sweets and little presents for the children. French children normally leave their shoes in the front of the fire on Christmas Eve before they go to bed . If they have been “good” Father Christmas will leave them presents as they sleep , in and around the shoes .
The most important event is Midnight Mass, followed by eating the meal called Le Réveillon. This represents the wakening up to the birth of Christ.This is a family tradition and eaten after the mass at a hotel or restaurant or at home. This meal can vary from region to region but it is usually in the theme of seafood, followed by goose , guinea fowl or turkey and then the bûche de noêl (yule log) usually with different wines at each course and champagne too . This can all take many hours!
For us , it is a quiet time and what do we do? We don’t have a huge French dinner and maybe will just end up doing a “hand knitted” curry at home! I like to decorate my little doll’s house for Christmas and put it up by the door . It is nearly 60 years old now and it still gives me pleasure! It is well known now by our neighbours who will visit and see what we have done with it this year? (photographs of the doll’s house and the bottles of wine by Barry Paton)
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and New Year.
Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année.Vive L’Ecosse et Vive La France.
Fiona Alderman’s Story from the Dordogne: France. December 2013.
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