Ah, Christmas, that lovely holiday when Santa Claus comes to the homes of all children who have been good and gentle over the last year. Every Christmas Eve, Santa and his faithful reindeer land on the top of children’s houses. Then, Santa slides down the chimney with a sack of presents, arranges them perfectly under the decorated Christmas tree, stuffs the stockings hanging over the firefplace with little goodies, eats a cookie, drinks the glass of milk set out for him, goes back up the Chimney, and flies to the next deserving house.
As a child, I remember being super excited for Christmas morning. Now that I’m older, I still look forward to Christmas. During the last 4 years, the onset of Christmas meant time to go home, recover from finals, and to eat lots of yummy food that I will only associate with Maryland. But this year I found myself in France during the holiday season. Instead of spending Noël alone, I ended up spending it with a French family, making my 22nd Christmas was one I will never forget.
Christmas Eve we all packed into a car and headed to a neighborhood north of Lyon called the Croix Rousse. The Croix Rousse was the center of silk manufacturing in all of Europe starting in the 18th century; because of this silk production, this hill is nicknamed “la colline qui travaille” – the hill that works – in comparison to the hill to the east with the Fourvière cathedral that is called “la colline qui prie” – the hill that prays. Anyway, we arrived to a 6 course French Christmas Eve luncheon. Typically Christmas in France is celebrated with a Christmas Eve dinner followed by a Christmas day lunch, but circumstances caused us start our festivities a few hours earlier.
After settling in and watching a few children’s Christmas movies (in French, bien sûr!), we sat down to lunch. And this is what we ate.
Course 1: hors d’oeuvres – olive tartine over crackers, mini quiches, escargots in puff pastry shells – with champagne as the aperatif
Course 2: fresh oysters or smoked salmon, or both, depending on one’s preferences
Course 3: crayfish served with a pomengranate, clementine, and pomelo greens salad
Course 4: cheese plate, baguettes, and red wine
Course 5: charlotte au chocolat. essentially a plain looking white cake on the outside, but once cut you realize that there is chocolate mousse inside. then you bite it and realize that there are also pears inside.
Course 6: chocolate and digestifs. specifically, we had chocolate papillotes.
This 6-course meal lasted a grand total of 4 hours. I kid you not. We sat at the table for 4 hours. But, there was a break between hours 2 and 3 because the Père Noël (aka Santa) mysteriously dropped off all the presents!
Course 6 (the papillotes) are worth a mention because I have been eating them non stop all December. Papillotes are a Lyonnais creation and are mainly consumed during the Christmas holidays. Essentially, a papillote is a chocolate wrapped in a piece of paper bearing a message. Both the chocolate and the wrapper are wrapped in an external gold or silver paper. Traditionally, the packet is composed as follows: a surface paper: bright, sparkling cut into small strips, a riddle, a joke, a funny quote and / or a firecracker and a treat, sometimes a fruit paste, but more usually chocolate. Legend has it that the parcels were born in Lyon (in the Terraux neighborhood) at the end of the eighteenth century, when the young clerk in a candy had the idea to charm the beautiful lady who worked at the floor above by sending her little love notes wrapped around a candy. His boss, Mr. Papillot, was originally surprised but then saw that the idea had merit and potentially marketable for profit; thus the modern day papillote was born! Pretty nifty, hmm? My personal favorite is the milk chocolate with pralines.
My French Christmas was extraordinarily magical. This was the best Christmas eve lunch I could have asked for abroad. My only Christmas day wish came true this year; in fact I even got more than I had dared to hope for this Christmas. As they say, the best things do come as surprises. (for the record, I am not just talking about this Christmas lunch).
So here’s to more surprises and magic for the next Christmas. Raise your glasses, ladies and gents!