What We’re Eating This Season in France
If you were raised in a North American or British country, you may associate the month of December with decorated trees, lit candles, shopping for gifts, and maybe even watching your favorite holiday movies on TV. Come late December, the French focus most of their energy on meal planning and market shopping. Evenings spent as a family à table are the traditional ways to celebrate the festive season in France and – instead of stacking presents under a tree – no expense is spared when it comes to the evening’s meal.
While the French all agree that eating is the best way commemorate the season, what is served can vary greatly depending on the region of France. Chocolate, shellfish, and champagne – themselves regional specialties – are common among most French holiday meals, but each region has its favorite menu items to indulge in and share when it comes to Christmas, New Year, and beyond.
Here are a few French favorites when it comes to holiday meals along with their region of origin.
This quintessential starter for a holiday meal is almost unavoidable if you’re eating in France anytime in December. While oysters are ubiquitous on French tables this time of year, the best ones should arguably be eaten in Brittany, a region that’s as proud as its fruits de mer as it is of its crêpes and caramel beurre salé. Traditionalists eat their oysters cold from the half shell, without so little as a splash of lemon, but you may also find oysters served with a vinegar based sauce mignonette to give them an extra zesty taste. A crisp bottle of bubbly is the perfect match for an oyster entrée. You don’t have to splurge on Champagne to achieve a perfect pairing- a simple pétillant natural or natural sparkling wine from colder climates like the Loire or Muscadet regions in France will bring the salinity you need to go with these tasty sea treats.
Another sea food favorite, Scallops- or Coquilles St. Jacques, as they’re known in French- are another beloved holiday splurge in France. Simply pan-fried or prepared as a light gratin in their own shells, scallops are a special starter that the French look forward to all year. Although Christmas may come early if you’re passing through Normandy, where Scallops abound in the Northern seas and locals happily eat Coquilles St. Jacques throughout the entire season. Do as the Normans do and enjoy your scallops with a fresh crisp cider. Stray from the standard apple option and try to pick up a pear cider that embodies the sweetness of the season.
With roots in Switzerland, these melted cheese meals made their way into France via the French Alps. A perfect warming meal as well as an excuse to eat cheese for dinner, Fondue is a classic winter staple requiring only a few loaves of stale bread and a little elbow grease when it comes to grating the hard cheeses. Raclette is only a little more involved, in that it includes boiled potatoes that serve as the vessels for freshly melted raclette cheese, which is made using a fun contraption that your nearest French grandmother probably has. If your home kitchen is lacking a raclette machine, you can improvise by putting your raclette cheese topped potatoes in an oven until the cheese is nice and melted. Serve both fondue or raclette with crunchy sides, such as cornichons, radish, and pearl onions. A great white wine from a snowy and mountainous region is perfect for these cheesy dishes, try a bold white from the Jura or a more subtle Alsatian wine to go with this meal.
If someone mentions sauerkraut to you, images (and odors!) of fermented cabbage may come to mind, but when the French refer to their well-loved choucroûte they’s talking about an entire meal. Also called choucroûte garni, this Alsatian dish assembles a selection of sausages, cuts of meat, and boiled potatoes around a mound of fermented cabbage. Sauerkraut is usually served early as its the kind of meal you take your time to make your way through, but paired with a refreshing, bitter beer or a little bit of local Riesling, it quickly becomes clear why this local favorite became a holiday tradition.
You can thank the Provence region of France for coming up with the brilliant, if not a little excessive, idea for ending their Christmas meal with thirteen desserts. To be fair, the menu includes a selection of dried fruits and nuts and other reasonable items such as fresh fruits like pears and tangerines, but it wouldn’t be France if there weren’t a few things to sweeten the deal. Local specialties like biscotins (small cookies), calissons (an almond paste based candy), and pain d’epice (gingerbread) tally up to thirteen. Served with coffee, tea, or another round of champagne (it’s the holidays!) an assortment of the desserts are passed around the table as holiday revelers ward off sleep while digesting yet another magnificent meal in France.
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