Christmas in France
Quite a bit's changed since the last time I was back in my in-laws' hometown, a 3 hour train ride to the east of Paris. The nieces are, I suppose understandably, much bigger - Jade at 6 has lost most of her baby fat, and now has the vocabulary befitting her cheeky precociousness (a more recent gem being her indignant reply, when asked if she had good girlfriends in her new primary school, that "I'm not a lesbian you know!"); Camille and Manon are towering fashion plates traipsing around mid-winter in patent pumps; and Justine, who I'd hoped would be impressed by my young funky aunt wannabe pink highlights, turned out to have a head of blonde-streaked hair herself, and sniffed that my own colour was closer to orange than pink (despite my protest that it was simply the poor lighting).
I'd also forgotten how indifferent my French family is to my earnest attempts to display good Confucian filial piety. Shooed out of the kitchen, banned from food preparation or cleaning up, I felt useless... betrayed. Didn't my in-laws know that I'm supposed to willingly chop off my own arm to boil them medicinal soup in times of ill health? Bah. A perfectly nutritious arm (slim and nicely tanned at that!), wasted.
Having reluctantly hunkered down to the realization that my dusty skills of friendship-bracelet weaving (for the nieces) and table setting (for the in-laws) just wouldn't cut it any more, I decided to stick to what I do best in France - eating.
This started with a 6am chocolat chaud and pain au chocolat, my usual arrival foods, while killing time at the Gare de L'Est station waiting for the train. Unfortunately, in the freezing cold, I was done with both in about 30 seconds, and eventually yielded my much sought after counter space after many purposeful glares in my direction. This led to 45 minutes of sitting perched on my suitcase in the middle of the station, a magnet for crazy old ladies who seemed to enjoy nothing more than (1) pushing their suitcase trolleys at me full speed, and getting a good laugh as I started up off my seat, (2) admonishing me with repeated utterances of "c'est grave, c'est grave" and finally (3) I suspect, tapping me on the top of my head with an umbrella. I say I suspect because I had a stiff hoodie on, and turning my neck to look behind me only resulted in my seeing the interior of my hoodie back. By the time I'd exerted the considerable effort needed to turn my entire person around, said crazy old lady was nowhere to be seen. But I'm sure it happened. That or the insanity is contagious.
Anyway, on to Christmas foods. Being a tech dummy, I still haven't figured out how to make those fancy collages that seem to come from Flickr, so here they are, old skool.
Christmas Eve dinner at Philippe's sister's started with fresh oysters, followed by foie gras, fresh figs and onion confit.
Then an entree of coquilles Saint Jacques with caramelized endives in cream. The endives were fascinating - crisp yet soft, bitterly sweet. The cream is added later but quickly takes on the flavours, making it a rich and fitting complement to the coquilles.
The main dish was Philippe's mom's traditional capon, a castrated rooster. Little did baby Jesus know that his birth would be celebrated centuries later by Frenchmen enthusiastically lopping the balls of hapless male chicks, albeit that said balls are innocently "the size and colour of a kernel of corn". Nonetheless, the capon was delicious, served with sides of stewed apples and chestnuts (Patrick from Azhang notes that French chestnuts are a completely different breed from Chinese chestnuts and therefore more appropriate for cooking, no innuendo intended.)
The kids got to eat the severed rooster testicles, breaded and baked, a popular TV time snack apparently.
Nah, ok, so they're just pommes noisettes. I've been reading Ivan's blog too much methinks, the mind's getting fouled up. I took the pic cos growing up pommes noisettes were my favourite dinner side (peel the skin then eat the centers), and I was surprised to find out that kids in France eat them too. (Another surprising note, did anyone know that Bata, trusty manufacturer of cardboard white school shoes, is also French? As is the Ayam Tuna brand?)
Cheese plate for dessert, then homemade log cake! Philippe's dad is quite the baker, and proudly insisted that I spend a good 5 minutes snapping photos of his cakes before he carved them up (this is the chocolate version, there was a similar vanilla one as well).
Lastly, a pic of the lemonade bottle that now serves as water pitcher, cos I thought it was cute and also because it served as my beacon of salvation through the endless bottles of wine we went through (more on that later).
Christmas day lunch with my brother-in-law's family at the surprisingly nautical themed (we're hours from the nearest ocean) L'Hippocampe (aka The Seahorse). The meal turned out non-traditional in the Christmas sense, but good.
Turns out that the owner/chef is a certified disciple of Monsieur August Escoffier himself, which puffed me up no end with a false sense of pride. I married the man who is brother to the woman who married the man who organized lunch at an Escoffier restaurant! It's as if The Man cooked a special meal for me himself! My hands got quite sore from patting myself on the back.
The Man and his disciple
The cute handpainted lamps. Note that at any French family celebration, it is de rigeur to scatter little bits of sparkly paper across the length of the table.
Folding boat-shaped serviettes. Ahoy!
Starter: Foie gras (again), with toasted baguette, a smattering of loose spices, and an apricot chutney
Main: trio of fish with pasta
Dessert: a Bomb Alaska (which failed to spectacularly ignite, but tasted good anyway)
Fast forward to New Year's Eve as this post is getting way too long.
End of the day, festive holidays in France are not more exotic than anywhere else in the world. There's the countdown TV specials featuring the best of "Candid Camera" type gag shows and champion ice skating, kids still run off between courses to ping friends on MSN, and when mom finally gets tired of cooking, you order home delivery.
Fortunately, French home delivery from the local traiteur, albeit ordered in advance, is still way snazzier than anywhere else in the world. Take a look:
Foie gras (yes again) with spiced bread and onion and ginger confit (or to be atas, confiture des oignons et du/de la gingembre - is gingembre masculine or feminine?)
A kind of bouillabaisse of coquilles and ecrivisses (shrimp, the little-ish ones), served in individual copper pots (provided by the traiteur. To use the phrase my nieces just taught me, "c'est classe!")
Poulet bresse with a morels and cream sauce, with a slice of potato hash
Unfortunately, that was as far as I lasted on New Year's Eve. Having held my own in finishing, between 4 adults, a bottle of champagne, two bottles of white and a bottle of red in the span of just over an hour, I excused myself during the cheese course, ostensibly to visit the bathroom, but in reality passed out on the bed with a dustbin by my side for good measure, visions of cream, foie gras and wine spinning in my head and churning in my stomach.
I can only imagine that I missed some pretty good cheese, two cakes (I saw them on the table earlier - one pistachio, one mandarin) and about 2 hours of hilarious footage of people falling down at weddings (the gag special continued in the background).
Here are some of the culprits by the way:
As an aside, the two nieces who joined us for dinner at the last minute decided to bring their own. Their food of choice? Cantonese from the local supermarket freezer section! To be specific, frighteningy large and soggy spring rolls and a mystery box of microwavable riz du cantonais, or white rice with carrots, peas and corn. I was sitting on my hands trying not to grab the rice, fling it into a wok and at least top it up with egg, scraps of meat, anything, ANYTHING! that would at least add some flavour, colour to that flagrant insult to fried rice.
Last meal of the trip, promise! Lunch on New Year's day was raclette, a kind of upside down fondue where you melt little pans of cheese over an electric hotplate till it gets bubbly and runny, then pour the cheese on your plate over potatoes and various hams. Fun for the winter, and it seems to arouse the same nostalgic, communal, comfort food feelings as a good steamboat does here at home.
Tipple of choice this time was a 1982 bottle of Bordeaux that came from the same Chateau that supplied our wedding wine. We'd had a 150 bottles of reds and whites (albeit not from 1982) from this Chateau shipped to Singapore for our wedding here, and since the dinner was a fairly intimate affair by local standards, ended up with about 50 bottles leftover which we spent the better part of a year finishing. Was fun to see the bottle again, especially the day after our 5th wedding anniversary (child bride, me).
And then a little something something to keep us intoxicated through the train ride back to Paris - home made alcohol! Eau de vie if you want to be snooty about it. Note the handwritten labels/post-it pads - the one on the left is mirabelle, the one on the right prune. Plus some nasty chartreuse unpictured - 55% alcohol made from a secret blend of vegetables. v8 left unattended. But I was told it was good for me, so no choice (just like the night before, when I warned my in-laws that I would soon be drunk if they didn't stop pouring all that wine, their only reply was "so what else do you have to do anyway?"). Gan bei!
Thanks for putting up with (yet another) marathon post. In case you're observant/really bored, you might've noticed a few days missing in between Christmas and New Year's. We spent those driving up to Germany to visit some friends and hunt down some pork knuckle. Will post on how that went shortly!
In the meantime, happy new year all! May 2007 be full of good eats!