The holidays in France for us are always like a fairytale come true. My brother-in-law's Mere has spent days working her magic in their mini-chateau in the French countryside (about 3 hours outside of Paris).
Humming while she works
in her lovely blue-and-white-
backsplash kitchen with the
red marble table and
Louis XIV palace-sized fireplace,
Madame D. appears effortless
as she gracefully mixes and pats, stirs and tastes.
The Christmas tree has been adorned in the billiard room where a few presents are scattered under the tree. One of the things my partner loves about Christmas here is that the holiday is mostly about family and food. The gift-giving event is a short and sweet amuse bouche between champagne and dinner, more like a brief set-up to the main event.
During the holidays (or any of our visits), every meal begins with champagne and we sip from flutes and snack on salty chips as the family visits in the salon. After days of preparation, the food is ready, the long table elegantly set and the taste of champagne bubbles as we speak.
Christmas Eve dinner begins with the Foie Gras entree, bought and cooked fresh and served with a Coteaux de Lyon or Vouvray.
The buttery slices melt in the mouth, awaiting the perfectly complementary wine and the tang of confit d'oignon. Fresh oysters follow served raw with lemon or a mignonette sauce made by Ed--which by the way, was pointed out as an American term, not French-- of red wine vinegar and shallots. And for those children (and this one adult) who are not fans of raw oysters, smoked salmon lox are offered.
The main course consists of individual pidgeons stuffed with chestnuts and accompanied by petite fois (baby peas) mixed with carrots and cream and a 1979 St. Emilion Bordeaux.
Cheese is always a grand affair with large blocks and petite rounds of various smelly delights of Muenster, Comte and Chevres.The cheese course is always paired with a plain green salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. Dessert: a double choice of chocolate cake (in the shape of a yule log), topped with pear, then cut in thick slices and doused with rhum~
~or a white raspberry swirl cake coated with a layer of meringue.
(I asked for the names of these cakes and was told that one is the creation of the chef and the other handed down by her mother. No names. So it was decided we would name them Gateaux Claudine de Naives.)
On Christmas Day, after champagne of course, lunch begins again with Foie Gras on plain, white toast and sweet, white wine. The main dish for this meal is wild hare (most likely caught by the host as hunting is his passion). The hare is cooked in a deeply dark sauce which we learn is made of the animal's own blood.
The idea takes some getting used to but the result, served with pasta and a 1986 St. Estephe, is delicious. Cheese and salad follow with more wine specifically for the cheese. Dessert is my brother-in-law's favorite: Maman's Creme de Marron. Served in petite glasses and looking like chocolate, this rich combination of butter, chocolate and chestnut paste spoons like barely melted ice cream~ thick and creamy.
Coffee follows dessert (true to form in France, coffee and dessert are never served at the same time) and a walk in the woods follows lunch. We pile into Monsieur D's jeep (hats, scarves and gloves in hand) to make a quick stop in a tiny nearby village, picking up large bags of corn from the garage of a hunting friend. While we walk, Monsieur drives the maize from one location to another, distributing the food for the 'wild' boar. (One of the rules in hunting here is that one cannot hunt the same property where the boar are fed, unless of course one is French and then you can break any rule. Already this season, the hunting group has caught 28 wild boar and that was as of last week!)
The walk is followed by a quiet afternoon of napping after which Madame prepares a lighter meal for dinner. Champagne starts the evening again and vegetable soup begins this night's courses. A large, rectangular, pate en croute is served filled with half domestic pork and half wild boar ground together. Salad and cheese are always offered and the cake and Creme de Marron return. Coffee is a must after this day even for those like me who rarely partake.
Boxing Day is our day of departure and since we are driving, champagne is offered but not automatically brought out before lunch. Ahead of time, Madame has prepared several meats for today's main dish of Choucroute, one of our favorites. A huge platter of sauerkraut is covered with various sausages, ham, bacon, and other pork cuts.
Three kinds of moutarde are placed near the platter as well as several types of beer. A reisling is also offered as the typical complementary wine. Cheese follows and then leftover desserts and light wafer cookies known as Petits Croquets aux amandes and noisettes (little cookies with almonds and nuts) of which, after asking for the recipe, our hunting host declares that if they come to visit this summer, I may serve these to him then and be tested on my skill.
Goodbye is always the hardest part of our visit. Never certain how long it will be before we return, we sadly say our farewells to the chateau, our family, this fairyland. We promise to see each other soon, and hope that the world, the Gods of the Hunt and time will be kind to them while we are away.
Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen