Rasteau, France is a teeny village next to Chateau-neuf-du-Pape smack in the middle of the Rhône Valley. It also happens to be the very place in which I survived my first authentic French Christmas dinner. At the time, I was dating a fellow I’ll just call the French Wine Baron (FWB).
See, a French Christmas dinner is more than delicious hedonism. It is an outright war on your stomach. Like war, it requires careful planning and precise execution. If you hope to emerge victorious (aka still standing) after 6+ hours of butter-laden courses, you would be wise to set pride aside and pace yourself.
For those of you about to experience your first French Christmas, here is what to expect and how to survive. For Francophiles in the US, here are some recipe recommendations for reenacting the battle of French Christmas Lunch at home.
12:00 – THE EATING COMMENCES WITH AN AMUSE-BOUCHE
HOW IT WORKS: In France, Christmas guests are summoned for noon, or slightly earlier. The first order of the day is apéro and amuse-bouche. Translation: some form of alcoholic drink, and small nibbles to maintain one’s sobriety before seated courses. At the FWB’s, this consisted of a glass of champagne, and smoked salmon verrines.
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: Keep the libations simple – champagne, a good white, or a bold red will set the tone well. One glass of alcohol should be plenty, as there is much more to come. As for the amuse-bouche, you can get as fancy as you like. Small bits of ‘toast’ spread with hummus, olive tapenade, or salmon tarama do well. You might also try fancier recipes, like this smoked salmon verrine.
HOW TO SURVIVE: Festive and hungry – Beware! Only animals and amateurs waste their appetites by wolfing down too many hors d’oeuvres! An “amuse-bouche” must do exactly that – delight the palate, and not overwhelm it.
1:00 – TABLE TIME: FIRST COURSE
HOW IT WORKS: What would the French do without their foie gras? A deeply fattening and delectable delicacy, foie gras is savored at the beginning of important meals. Christmas is no exception. It is usually accompanied by fig jam and sprinkled with sea salt, spread over toasted slices of bread.
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: If you are OK with the idea of eating foie gras, go for it. Depending on your state of residence, you might be able to find it in a high-end grocery store or specialty shop. If you’re not so interested in eating foie gras, try pâté de campagne or chicken liver mousse. For vegetarians/vegans, olive tapenade is a safe bet.
HOW TO SURVIVE: Bittersweet. That foie gras was incredible, so you may mourn the likely fact of having to wait 365 days before tasting it again…We understand. We feel your pain – But whatever you do, DO NOT take seconds. In fact, don’t EVER take seconds!
1:45 – SECOND COURSE: SALMON
HOW IT WORKS: This is one of the simplest courses, consisting of smoked salmon with fresh slices of lemon, squeezed and served as is.
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: The idea behind the first courses is to keep them easy to prepare and consume, which is why they are modular. If you or your guests aren’t big foie gras or salmon fans, you can always swap out one course for the other.
HOW TO SURVIVE: The effect of the foie gras hasn’t hit, but it will. You may be tempted to over-indulge in such a light, palate-cleansing course…Bad idea: One piece of salmon. One only.
2:30 – THIRD COURSE: TRUFFLE OMELETTE
HOW IT WORKS: FWB’s mom brought out the big guns for my first real French Christmas: a gorgeous truffle omelette. Made (as one does) with truffles foraged from their own property.
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: Here’s where it starts getting real. Omelettes seem straight forward, but the French trick is B-U-T-T-E-R. Keep the heat low, fatten up the eggs, and let them be slightly undercooked. In the off-chance you don’t have truffles growing in the yard, you can substitute truffles for herbs, mushrooms, or whatever you like. Maximum flavor, maximum fat.
HOW TO SURVIVE: Ouffff. Ok, yeah. Stomach is starting to feel a teensy bit full. And while this may be like no omelette you’ve ever had, savor the flavor by keeping bites small.
3:15 – FOURTH COURSE: CHAPON AND POTATOES
HOW IT WORKS: The crowning centerpiece of French Christmas dinner is typically a form of volaille. Many families cook what is called a chapon, or a capon, a rooster that has been castrated to tenderize its flesh for consumption. (Because #oldworld #tradition).
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: Chapon is tough to find in the USA, so our recommendation is a solid roasted chicken, a turkey (if you and your guests aren’t bored to death of it), or even a honey roasted ham. Pair with roasted potatoes, or, to be wise, steamed veggies.
HOW TO SURVIVE: Oh. My. God. Oh my god. Pain. No more eating please. But maybe…? No. Just no.
4:00 – SALAD
HOW IT WORKS: Respite for your stomach. Simple salad tossed with vinaigrette to cleanse the palette…before the cheese course.
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: Toss together some watercress, spinach, or your favorite greens. Mix a quick vinaigrette with olive oil, Dijon mustard, a bit of diced shallot, salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar.
HOW TO SURVIVE: The tart, crisp mustardy dressing is just what the doctor ordered to get the metabolism back on track for…
5:00 – CHEESE
HOW IT WORKS: Ah! Of course there is cheese…this is France! Out comes the massive tray of cheeses, usually one or more of each kind (goat, cow, and sheep milk).
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: Create a cheese place with a mix of Brie, chèvre, or comté, or an assortment of your favorites from your grocery store. If you’re lucky and your grocery story has a cheese counter, ask for recommendations!
HOW TO SURVIVE: Righteous in your suffering. No temporal pain could outweigh the injustice of American restrictions on importing Mont d’Or cheese. Consume plentifully, on principle.
6:00 – DESSERT
HOW IT WORKS: If you’re alive, bravo. But hold your horses. Dessert is coming. There is usually an assortment of 2 to 4 options. And as Pokémon must all be caught, so to must all dessert be sampled.
HOW TO MAKE AT HOME: Traditional French Christmas dessert is a bûche de Noel, which can be replicated with this recipe, or an île flottante…but I am a particular fan of Mimi Thorrisson’s tarte au chocolat.
HOW TO SURVIVE: Proceed directly to bed, and assume the fetal position. You are so full you will not entire eat the entire next day. But rejoice: You are a warrior.
Joyeux Noël and Bonne Chance!