A British contribution to Eurochristmas
In this blogposting…
* Thoughts for the Day
* Thoughts for the Day
* La vie en France: Noël IV
THOUGHTS FOR THE DAY
Each day, throughout 2011, I’ve had two page-a-day tear-off calendars in front of me on my desk here.
One of them featured a new French phrase each day and has been invaluable in helping me learn that inscrutable and perverse language.
The other - a gift from Hildie - was called Wisdom of the East and offered me a new and uplifting thought every morning.
The phrase featured on the very last page of the French calendar was Commence a debut - ‘start at the beginning’.
The last phrase on Hildie’s calendar was Every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.
Speaking of Hildie....
Tomorrow - Sunday - is Hildie's birthday.
Happy birthday, babycakes - from us all.
LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE
NOËL / CHRISTMAS - PART FOUR
The expensive, overblown, overpriced and decidedly over-camped Christmas which we all seem to love and hate in almost equal measure is, I suppose, most directly the product of those two pillars of American psychology: greed and sentimentality. Almost everything we’ve become accustomed to doing or seeing at Christmas has been more-or-less foisted on us by the need to spend more than we can afford, consume more than we need and allow ourselves to get swept along on the tide of glitzy mawkishness and entirely false ‘goodwill to all men’, hatred and exploitation of whom resumes as normal the following day.
(If you want to hear a really cynical summation of these sentiments, listen to Tom Lehrer sing ‘A Christmas Carol’.)
Almost the whole world - Christian or not - joins in with fairy lights, twinkly trees and Special Offers.
But, if you dig around a little, the almost universally pagan origins of Christmas quickly make themselves apparent. And, whatever they were called and wherever in Europe they were, the purpose of all of them was to bring light and fire and feasting to what would otherwise be the darkest and most fearful time of year, when the nights were at their longest and the days superstitiously short.
And that’s what Christmas still does.
Fortunately, the unhappy American hotch-potch of images and sentiments has not completely obliterated these decidedly pagan origins of Christmas. In Europe, many countries still mark midwinter as they did long before Christianity muscled in.
The nation that does it best is probably Germany, which - as everyone knows - is where the English got the idea of decorating fir trees from. During the Festive Season ( - isn’t ‘Festive Season‘ the most stilted, yawn-inducing way of referring to the Festive Season? - ) every German town and city seems to be awash with Christmas Markets peopled with laughing, bemuffled families cheerfully splashing out on glühwein and schnapps as if money were no object - which, in Germany, it probably isn’t.
The public decorations and dressed trees of Germany always look so sumptuous to me. You can almost feel the warmth and goodwill of it all. In fact, I’ve just decided where I’d like to spend the run-up to Christmas 2012.
And perhaps, on the way to Regensburg or Munich, I could call in at my favourite city - Amsterdam - because its citizens have their own take on Christmas.
‘Santa Claus‘ is the garbled English version of Dutch Sinte Klaas, itself derived from ‘Saint Nicholas’. Legend has it that when this holy individual was the Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, he paid three sacks of gold to the parents of some children who would otherwise have been shipped off into slavery - or worse.
Which is why he is the patron saint of children and - by extension - of Christmas.
(Interestingly, he is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers, whose three brass balls are said to represent those three sacks of gold. Personally, I don’t believe a word of it.
Sinte Klaas enters AmsterdamIn Amsterdam, Sinte Klaas - although draped in red and white and with a suitably long beard like Santa Clauses everywhere - is also still dressed as a bishop, complete with mitre and accompanying episcopal robes.
Each December 5, he rides into Amsterdam in a boat from Spain with his black ‘helpers’, known as ‘Black Petes’ (Zwarte Piets). He rides round on a white horse and then glides, Santa-like, along the main canals, waving to the mustered throngs of intoxicated ‘Dammers and expectant, wide-eyed children holding them up.
It’s not Sinte Klaas but his Zwarte Piets who come down the chimney and give you your Christmas presents. You leave your shoes near the chimney with a carrot in them for the horse (nothing for the Zwarte Piets) and go to bed. But beware: if you’ve been naughty, there’ll only be twigs in your shoes when you get up.
It all looks like great fun so - yes, I’ll definitely be calling in at Amsterdam next year.
I’m not sure where Stockholm would fit into the itinerary, though - and I have to go there, too.
A julbockenIn Sweden, I would be reminded of the decisively unChristian origins of the seasonal festivities each time I saw a julbocken - a ‘Christmas Goat’. (The jul there is the origin of ‘yule’.)
In Norse mythology, it was goats who pulled the sun across the sky - and Swedes commemorate this fact at the darkest time of the year by making small, decorative goats out of straw and giving them pride of place on the Yule Table.
They also make gigantic, statuesque versions of julbocken and erect them on village greens, where they are promptly ignited by arsonists. Which must be worth a visit...
A Spanish 'caganer'Perhaps the strangest adjunct of all to Christmas, though, comes from Spain: the caganer - the little model man always seen hidden somewhere in Spanish nativity cribs with his trousers round his ankles, defecating profusely in the corner. A tradition which is so bad that it’s good - and which, for many people, says all that needs to be said about the ‘Festive Season’.
This was my first ever Christmas away from England so it wasn’t just images of German or Spanish celebrations that were floating into my mind’s eye as I gazed out of the car window at the Beaujolais sunset on Christmas Eve. I tried to imagine how a European blogger would summarise my native country’s variations on the festive theme and was proudly happy to add pantomimes (a uniquely British and utterly inexplicable phenomenon) and industrial-strength Christmas pudding to the Continental mix.
And mistletoe, of course. I noticed plentiful bunches of it hanging from the trees as we drove by and tried subsequently to explain to baffled French folk the deeply mystical and druidic significance it held for our ancient Celtic forebears. And, in mistletoe’s case, the more you explain, the more mystifying it becomes.
Yes, I thought, the British can match any esoteric custom Europe can throw at us.
As for France’s Christmas customs...well, I knew from last year that, in common with many Mediterranean countries, they have a lot of fun at Epiphany - the day on which, by tradition, the ‘Three Wise Men’ arrived at Bethlehem. You can read about the way they celebrate ‘KIng’s Day’ in posting 245.
But King’s Day isn’t until January and - as I was about to find out - Christmas is of a different order altogether.
Serge’s sister Chantal is a good cook (to put it mildly). I knew already that everything she puts before us is always a treat. Good, home-cooked French country fare rather than the stereotypical, namby-pamby bits and pieces that Parisians are so smugly proud of. I didn’t dare to even imagine what she would prepare for us on Christmas Eve….
I really ought to have known that a rural French Christmas is measured by the quality and range of what’s on the table - the same as on most other French high days and holidays.
It was, in truth, overwhelming. For the purposes of this posting, I actually kept a record of each course as it was proudly brought from the kitchen to the table, which was itself already groaning with wine, glasses, candles…
Hors d'oeuvresFirst of all, there were savoury hors d’oeuvres, small pastry cases with a dozen different fillings, most of which I couldn’t really identify. Amongst them were several dozen escargotines - snails in a kind of creamy, parsley sauce - and, as usual, all eyes were turned on the Englishman. Quite why the French use snail-consumption as a kind of culinary test I can’t imagine. They were lovely - and I ate a lot of them.
HuitresNext there were oysters - huitres - accompanied by fresh lemon-juice and a kind of hot, shalott sauce. I’ve never been a big fan of oysters and can easily understand why, until comparatively recently, they were the food only of the very poor. The lemon-juice and sauce added the necessary zest here though and once again I downed a good half-dozen with relish (as it were).
Crevettes and bulotsNext on the table were prawns - crevettes - unshelled and therefore still gazing helplessly up at me from the bowl. I gritted my teeth, topped and tailed them and devoured them with enthusiasm. Christmas is, after all, the best time for inexcusable over-indulgence.
With the prawns there were more snails; this time bulots - large snails from Normandy cooked and served in their shells, like cockles or winkles, and eaten in the same way. I thought they were lovely and, by saying so, achieved near-hero status.
As I’d found out before, it is social suicide to suggest to French people that anything even remotely edible can be sourced in Britain. This is mostly because they simply don’t believe you. To sing the praises of English apples or cheese, or Scottish raspberries, or Welsh lamb engenders a reaction that varies between straight incredulity and deeply-taken offence.
There are French people who haven’t spoken to me for months because I had the effrontery to compare the range of British cheeses favourably with theirs.
This attitude is reflected in French supermarkets, where nothing from Britain is ever available, cheese (naturally) included. British producers have a lot of work to do in France - as opposed, interestingly, to Spain. In Barcelona, I saw British-sourced food everywhere.
Next came another French speciality - pate de foie gras.
As far as I am concerned, pate de foie gras - like snails and frogs’ legs - is an acquired taste which the French have no right to expect other people to enjoy quite as much as they do. Its problem for me is that it is unpalatable on several levels. No-one has been able to prove to me that it is not cruelly produced and its taste - for me at least - is strangely rich and thick, so that it seems to stick to your gullet as you swallow it.
Nevertheless, my co-diners enjoyed it hugely; it’s a luxury in France as much as it is here and Christmas is a good time to wave aside the expense and indulge yourself. They spread it very thickly on bite-size rounds of delicious local wholemeal bread and butter.
The onion jam is in the topmost bowlIn my case, its presence on the table was made infinitely more bearable by one of the most beautiful concoctions I’ve ever tasted: confit des oignons - onion jam. I’m still not sure how it’s made, even though I asked for, and was given, the recipe. It was utterly scrumptious; soft strings of onion in a thick, sweet sauce. I could happily have eaten it continuously throughout the evening and all next day - or until Chantal was forced to go out, unearth more onions and work her magic on them.
The confit des figues - figs - was scrummy as well; but nothing on the table before or after was ever going to compare to the sweet wonderfulness of that onion jam. Damn it - I can taste it even now; or want to.
By this time I was flagging a little. And, knowing Chantal as I do, I was well aware that there was more - a lot more - to come. I tried to slow down but the French are nothing if not persistent and looked at me anxiously each time they noticed that I wasn’t eating anything.
I tried to use the little wrapped cubes of cheese as a stop-gap but it didn’t work; especially when Chantal produced her palette-cleanser - an unbelievably refreshing and tasty apple sorbet with cinnamon. My only regret is that I didn’t bury it beneath a ladleful of onion jam and eat it until I was sick.
But that wouldn’t have worked either, because next up to grace the table were moules - mussels - in a lightly sweet coconut curry sauce.
In my experience, French people have not taken to spiced oriental food, even if it’s only lightly spiced. Mediterranean food of all kinds is common (especially French colonial food from Morocco and Algeria, like tajines) but Indian, Thai and Chinese takeaways are much thinner on the ground there than they are here.
So Chantal’s experiment - a kind of moules korma - was very brave, surprised me a great deal and was very, very successful.
The woman deserves a tv cookery programme; she is truly the Nigella of Beaujolais.
And finally...It all ended with several flamboyant desserts appearing on the table all at once. There was a rich chocolate log complete with candy figurines; there were home-made truffles and pralines; and there was the most ornate stack of ice-cream rolls I’m ever likely to see.
This was yet another example of my lifelong regret that we eat celebration meals in entirely the wrong order. We gorge on snails, prawns, salmon, onion jam, bread, paté and oysters and leave no room for the best bit of all: pudding.
Someone should establish a Pudding Club, wherein every meal taken would consist entirely of desserts. I would be at the head of the queue to join.
I pretended to sample Chantal’s desserts out of sheer politeness but it didn’t fool anyone. I tried - and liked - all of them.
As the clock ticked over into Christmas Day, I was outside in the garden, looking up at the stars. There, in the deep, dark French countryside, the stars have the stage to themselves and exploit the fact magnificently. There were hundreds of them. It was a fathomless sea of stars.
Confronted by such magic, all I could do was smile. I realised how lucky I was to be there - and that, somewhere overhead, petit Père Noël had already begun his journey….
THE WORLD: A TRUCKSHUNTER GEOGRAPHY
It’s almost time to make the next port-of-call on our journey round the world - in which we try to see the funny and unexpected side of each country we visit.
Next up is Angola.
So please get any information you consider quirky, wayward or otherwise of interest - however trivial - to me in any of the usual ways.
Post comments on this blog or email me: email@example.com