Festive French Stuffing

Christmas !!!!! Humbug and balderdash !!!!!!

The Sunday before Christmas – the shops are open and the world has gone mad. Down the local supermarket there is barley room to swing a turkey as shoppers jostle for position, their trolleys heaving with festive fare. It is reminiscent of the ghost of Christmas present, sitting atop of mountain of delicious seasonal victuals as he welcomes in a cowering and timorous Scrooge.

Four turkeys! – The woman in front of me has four turkeys in her trolley – either she is off her trolley, or she has a large family or a large freezer. This is France though, and Christmas is all about food and family – inviting the entire family round and then getting stuffed with a Christmas dinner large enough to sink several battleships.

A work colleague tells me he is having 26 people round for lunch on Christmas day – all family. I suppose you’d need four turkeys to feed that amount of people. Coming from a small family unit, I can’t quite imagine 26 people all related in some way, but by the time you add aunts, uncles, grandparents, distant cousins and « hangers on » like the current boyfriend or girlfriend of your offspring – I suppose you could quite easily get to 26 people, but is there anyone with 26 chairs in their house? « Of course you can come for Christmas, just bring your own chair. »

So, Christmas in France, like any other occasion is primarily about food. Traditional festive favourites include salmon, oysters and that particular French delicacy – foie gras – or goose liver pâté in the English translation – which greatly annoys the French, because foie gras is not actually pâté.

For those unfamiliar with foie gras, this is that French gastronomic delight that has animal rights campaigners across the world seething with anger and indignation.

To produce goose liver pâté – obviously you are going to need a goose (though you can do it with a duck) – once you have your goose (or gander), imprison the poor creature in a wooden box – of course leaving a hole for the neck and beak, then force feed the bird on corn until it is too fat to move. And how do you force-feed a goose? Well, you stick a funnel in its beak and just empty down corn. Yes it does sound very cruel and for this reason, there are those States in the USA that ban the sale of foie gras, and this gets French foie gras producers very angry.

If Europe and the US ever do get some kind of meaningful trade agreement together, there are those foods that might be firmly off the menu. This week we had the case of the American « chemical chicken » – the fact that in the US, all chickens destined for human consumption are rinsed in a chlorine based solution to cleanse them of harmful bacteria.

Now, I do know those Brits who will actually rinse their chicken under the hot water tap before roasting – a pretty revolting idea in itself, but as for chlorine. Well, the French don’t want American chickens and the Americans don’t want French foie gras or those stinky French cheeses made from unpasteurised milk. The French would argue that this is not a food but rather a cultural matter – they’ve been gorging their geese on corn for centuries to make foie gras and no matter the risk of listeria – Camembert just ain’t Camembert if it ain’t made with unpasteurised milk. This is a country where food is firmly part of the national heritage. The French don’t eat to live, they live to eat.

Cultural considerations aside, foie gras is big business. France produces three quarters of the world’s foie gras – almost 20,000 tonnes a year from 38 million birds. The « industry » is worth around 2 billion Euros and employs 30,000 people. Outside of Europe, the biggest market for the stuff is in the far east, namely Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand. If you can’t quite imagine the value of 2 billion Euros, that is roughly the cost of a small aircraft carrier.

As for the smelly cheese – there are 51 cheeses made in France from unpasteurised cow and goat milk. In 2014, France’s 20,000 producers of Camembert, Brie, Roquefort and cheeses of this ilk, produced 250,000 tonnes of the stuff. This particular part of the cheese industry was valued at 1.8 billion Euros in 2014.

So, the impact of smelly cheese – I live in a region of France, The Berry, famous for its goat cheese. I personally know small independent producers who have herds of 30 to 40 goats and produce a few hundred tonnes of unpasteurised goats cheese every year. They will sell the stuff on local markets, many sell lit to local restaurants and others to the nation’s major retail chains. Fresh goat cheese is okay, buts as with all things cheesy, it is better, the older, harder, mouldier, stronger and smellier it gets. Give a decently matured goat cheese to the uninitiated and chances are, the victim of your generosity will turn his or her nose up, possibly leave the room and might just even Chuck the cheese in the bin – for goat cheese fans though – well here are some prices – my local goat cheese is the Crottin – on local markets a small Crottin will sell for anywhere from 1.30 Euros to 2.50 Euros. In Paris, the same cheese will sell for 5 Euros, and in the UK in posh shops, the price is such that I wonder why I haven’t started up my own goat cheese export business – a Crottin in that exclusive London luxury emporium, Harrods, retails at around 7 Euros.

This was supposed to be about Christmas, which in France (as mentioned) is all about food. So, what do the French eat at Christmas dinner?

For starters – they have starters: traditionally a meat starter and a fish starter. At the main course (if your hostess with the mostess is doing things properly) there will be a main meat course, followed by a main fish course – all this will be followed by a general distribution of brandy or Calvados liqueur – a good swig to get the appetite up and running again – next up the cheese, salad and then a massive desert, normally a Christmas Log.

Traditional fare – much like where you live – Turkey and all the trimmings – Brussels sprouts, roast chestnuts, or chestnut purée, roast potatoes, carrots …. If you’re not eating a turkey, then this is the time of year for capon, quail, guinea fowl, goose or even a game bird. Wild boar and venison are also very popular.

Apart from foie gras, served as a starter, oysters and smoked salmon are also popular. This is the big time of year for oysters, you normally buy them buy the dozen or by the kilo in a wooden basket that the French call a bourriche. As for salmon? Well France isn’t really a salmon producing nation and most of the stuff we get comes in vacuum-packed cellophane packets fresh from those very unhygienic Scottish fish farms – try some trout instead.

As for dinner in this house? We will see what is still available in the shops on Christmas Eve. Personally I won’t be eating foie gras because I don’t like the stuff and as for salmon – it is always so second rate. Oh for the good old microwave, supermarket, Christmas dinner for one, as sold in some UK supermarkets. Five minutes in the microwave then peel back the wrapping and eat it on your knees whilst watching the TV. Bliss.

Finally, a word on humbugs – well, I’m quite partial to a humbug.

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