Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas à la française

Well, it’s the final week-end before Christmas, and people on both sides of the Atlantic are running around in little circles, trying to find last-minute gifts for their loved ones.  That much is the same in France and in the United States.
     But there are some differences.

Regarding children, the person French kids will be looking for on Christmas Eve is not so much Santa Claus - a deformation of the Dutch Sinterklaas - as it is the French version of England’s Father Christmas: quite literally, Le Père Noël. He comes on December 25th, whereas Sinterklaas comes on St. Nicholas’s holy day, December 5th. So Le Père Noël is more in line with "We Three Kings of Orient" - Les Rois Mages (Magi) - and the gifts they brought to Baby Jesus... although that would be Epiphany on January 6th. Are you still with me?
     Like American children, French children also pass the year in review, worrying if overall they’ve been naughty or nice, in hopes that Le Père Noël will visit and leave them toys. But in preparation, they don’t hang up stockings by the chimney, with or without care. They either have traditional wooden sabots (clogs) or more modern slippers, into which they stuff hay for Santa’s rennes (reindeer). Although that custom is tending to disappear in favor of the odd apple, given the shortage of hay in Paris and other French cities. But that would be the traditional picture: sabots.  And once the hay was eaten, Le Père Noël would put your toys in your sabot, which pretty much precludes large presents, doesn’t it?
     Santa comes down the chimney in France as he does in America. Most French homes do have a chimney, except for very new apartments. Both my old working-class apartment and now my artist’s studio in Montmartre were built around 1870 and they had chimneys; of course that was the only form of heating back then. In between the two, the apartment in the 19è arrondissement was built in the 1970s - when central heating had become the rule of thumb - and so had no chimney. Each apartment had a balcony though, and I presume children were told Le Père Noël came in that way.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the run up to Christmas centers on shops and stores which try to woo people through their doors to buy as much as their arms will carry. In the time-honored tradition of American stores, Parisian stores go to great lengths to make their windows eye-catching. Shops in each neighborhood band together to string lights up back and forth across the streets, and the counters of each shop are decked out in tiny lights and snowflakes and yards of fake white snow fabric.
     Most spectacular are the two side-by-side department stores on the Boulevard Haussmann - the famous Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps - which are a thing of wonder. The décors are planned a year in advance and prepared in workshops sworn to secrecy; then the windows are dressed by early December.
     As at least some of their window displays are aimed specifically at children, much animation is involved and a maximum number of toys available on the store’s shelves are put into action to entice parents to open their wallets. In fact, raised platforms are constructed along these window fronts so that Little Ones - les petits - can have greater visibility, their noses pressed right up against the windows. I remember taking my children to see them for many years, buying them a little paper cone filled with hot roasted chestnuts to keep their hands warm, bought from a street vendor with an ancient-looking charcoal contraption on wheels set up right there on the sidewalk. He knew a captive audience when he saw one!

The religion of the majority of French citizens remains Roman Catholicism, although most Catholics are lapsed, at best, and generally of the feminine persuasion. (It's said that a Catholic man will go to church four times in his life: for his baptism, his communion, his wedding and his funeral... but with many skipping a church wedding, even that number has dwindled.
     Yet Christmas is one of the days of the year when even non-church-goers sometimes grace the church with their presence. Unlike the U.S., where the Christmas service tends to be on the morning of the 25th, French Catholics hold their Christmas service on the eve... especially in the south of the country. There is much singing of traditional carols and sometimes re-enactments, complete with real shepherds (in the countryside, obviously) and real sheep.
     For a real thrill, go to Notre-Dame for its midnight mass. The cathedral is aglow with lots and lots of candles, the organ will set your chest beating and the choir is joyous. But wear warm socks; the stone floor is cold and the chill will migrate right up your legs until you’ll be shivering in style.

In France, the big Christmas meal is eaten after mass, and the table is fairly groaning with goodies. Which is a good thing because everyone is cold and ravenous by then.
     In preparation for the big meal, food shops are rife with the Holy Trinity: foie grashuîtres (oysters) and champagne, all ending in the traditional bûche de Noël (Yule log) for dessert.  Oranges are also a traditional fruit to offer, an expensive rarity in the old, pre-refrigerated shipping days, and even up through World War II. Now more exotic tangerines and mandarins also grace the stalls on the sidewalk in front of the green grocer’s, and they add a splash of color to the otherwise grey Paris winter light. (The capital of France lies at the same latitude as Labrador, in spite of its notably warmer weather - it rarely snows - and so daylight makes only a fleeting appearance from 8:30 to 4:30... provided cloud cover doesn’t whittle that down even further.)
     But it’s hard to dampen the spirits of a Frenchman bent upon celebrating, and every café-bar does good business at Christmastime. And now that cafés have outdoor heaters, you can sit on the terrace and people-watch even in the long nights of winter!

So next time you’re looking for something to do at Christmas, think outside the box and head to the City of Light, a name never more true than at Noël.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 
Joyeux Noël à tous!

My one and only attempt at a bûche de Noël,
complete with confectioner's sugar snow

Monday, December 17, 2012

Speaking in Tongues - No. 1

Being bilingual is interesting. And one of the most interesting sides of it, to me, is the sociological facette.
     Words evoke images. And those images change from one language to another. When you grow up with one language and then learn another, you get layers of images.  (If you grow up being bilingual, it may be different. I’ll have to ask my children. I had to learn French the hard way: at school.)
     But back to the layers of bilingualism.
     Every language expresses those images in its adages, its proverbs, its catch phrases that we all hear and incorporate painlessly growing up, but which foreigners have to learn in a more formal manner. All of them reveal something about a country’s national identity. For instance, a proverb about snow would have no meaning to someone in the Sahara. Sea references might not be evident in landlocked countries.
     Yet many translate fairly well. Some are even identical in two different languages - in my case English and then French. (I’ll have to look into Spanish, which I’m also reputed to speak.) Such as "the walls have ears" (les murs ont des oreilles). But not always. There are often tiny differences. Here are a few examples.

Let’s start with another proverb about overhearing things, this time referring to children. "Petits chaudrons, grandes oreilles" translates to "little cauldron, big ears". But the English equivalent is "little pitchers have big ears." Same idea, parallel structure. The only difference is that in French the subject isn’t pitchers but those big pots, often copper, that are used in cooking... and also in the Astérix comic books, where Panoramix the Druid uses one to mix his magic potion.
     And as long as we’re talking about cooking, how about "manger comme un ogre"? I suppose as France produced one of the world-famous authors of fairy tales (especially Sleeping Beauty), it’s only normal that a Big Eater would be an ogre instead of just a mere horse ("eat like a horse").
Ussé castle, with Sleeping Beauty's tower on the right
Author Charles Perrault stayed here in 1697
Keeping that ogre in food would cost an arm and a leg, except that in France that becomes the skin off your behind: "coûter la peau des fesses".
     And if the ogre washed it all down with some of the renowned French wine, he wouldn’t become "drunk as a skunk" but rather drunk as a pig: "saoûl comme un cochon". (Come to think of it, I’ve never smelled a skunk in France, so maybe that explains it. When the French hit the New World and got their first whiff, suddenly the pig just didn’t seem so bad.)
     While we’re on pigs, if you bought something sight unseen in France, you wouldn’t be buying one in a poke, but rather a cat in a "poche", which is a pocket but signifies something wrapped up and slipped in the pocket where it can’t be seen. (Wonder if that’s where that word "poke" came from?) In either case, don’t buy one: "il ne faut pas acheter chat en poche".
      But whatever you’re thinking about buying, plan wisely. Don’t go selling the bearskin before you kill the bear - vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué. The English version is far less dangerous: Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.
     If you want to go to Heaven and leave all your worries behind, you have to be "sage comme une image", whereas in English the idea of being "wise", meaning "good", becomes the banal "pretty as a picture". Maybe the "image" isn’t a religious picture in English.
     But while you’re still on Earth, not all things will come to you automatically, not food, nor drink, nor pretty pictures, Sometimes you just have to hope and wait. And sometimes even that doesn’t help. Your wishes will come true "when pigs can fly" in America. The French have a similar equivalent - it won’t happen until cows sprout wings ("quand les vaches arount des ailes") - and another less parallel one: when chickens grow teeth ("quand les poules auront des dents"). I’ll leave you to figure out which of the three is most likely to happen.
     And while we’re talking about hopes, let’s finish - at least for today - in Paris. After all, it’s the capital. "Avec des "si" on mettrait Paris en bouteille." That translates as "With an "if [only]" you could put Paris inside a bottle." But what it means is "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." The English proverb is a far cry from the French, but they mean the same thing, translate the same idea.
     So as you can see, the human mind works in similar ways on either side of the Atlantic. Or even the English Channel.

P.S. As it’s almost Christmas, let me add a few things.
- First of all, French children don’t hang stockings by the chimney, with or without care; they use sabots, wooden clogs that they fill with hay for Santa’s reindeer. And yes, that is a bit dated now. But so are stockings.
- There are the four Christmas ages of Man:
"Il y a quatre âges dans la vie de l'homme:  celui où il croit au Père Noël; celui où il ne croit plus au Père Noël; celui où il est le Père Noël; celui où il ressemble au Père Noël."
(The age when he believes in Santa, the age when he no longer believes in Santa, the age when he plays Santa and the age when he looks like Santa.)
- How about a quote from French author Pierre Jakez Hélias, who is a native of Brittany, the nose of France pointing out into the Atlantic, a land filled with legends dating back to times when the only warmth in a home came from the fireplace. A fresh fire was lit after Midnight mass and letting it go out was bad luck.
"Quand on laisse mourir le feu de Noël, il n'y a plus qu'un moyen de le rallumer. c'est d'aller chercher le feu des étoiles." 
(If you let the Christmas fire die,
the only way to light it again is to go seek the fire of the stars.)
- And one last Christmas reference, just for the fun of it. It always makes me laugh because it mocks all those two-line bits of folk wisdom you’ll find in the farmer’s almanach:
Froid en novembre, Noël en décembre.
If it’s cold in November, Christmas will come in December.
So Merry Christmas to you all. I hope Santa finds your clog.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Recipe of the Month: Coq au vin

Christmas is a festive time. And you don’t always have to eat turkey, especially if you just had it at Thanksgiving. There are other poultry dishes that are equally delicious. For instance, the humble chicken - and even the stewing kind that you have to cook a long time - can become a delicious feast.
     Once upon a time, I was enamored of a French aeronautics engineering student. And he was making "come away with me to the Casbah" noises. His particular Casbah was in the mountainous département of Corrèze in the center of France. He was homesick. And I knew how to "cook French". So he asked his mother for her recipe for coq au vin, cock in wine sauce (and please, no sniggering). Actually, the recipe came from a restaurant his family went to often. The chef gave it to her, but asked that I be sworn to secrecy, promising never to divulge the recipe.
     As that was almost half a century ago and the chef probably doesn’t have the restaurant any more (or may even have shuffled off her mortal coil), I feel free to print it here. But if you ever go to Corrèze, please don’t tell anyone where you got it.
     Most coq au vin recipes I’ve seen, including Julia Child’s, list fresh sautéed mushrooms, braised pearl onions and diced thick-cut browned bacon among the ingredients. You can do that if you like, cooking them separately from the chicken and adding them in at the end, when you’re ready to serve it up. But I’m giving the recipe as the restaurant owner passed it on to me.

(P.S. I did go away with him to the Casbah, or rather sail one month later on a different crossing of the oceanliner Le France, but he’d already reconverted his life to French ways and no longer had a yen for Things American. After a suitable mourning period, I got on with my life. I hope he got on with his. At least I got a great recipe out of it.)

  • one stewing chicken (or alternatively, a roaster), cut up into pieces
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 3 T flour
  • 1 bottle (75 cl) of good red wine, preferably full-bodied
  • 75 cl of brown stock, preferably veal
  • salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 1 large sprig of fresh thyme (or 1/4 t dried)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cloves
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ½ c of port wine
  • 1/4 cup of blood (or cornstarch as needed to thicken)
  • 1 T crème fraîche (or sour cream) (optional)
  • 1 slice of foie gras (optional)

- In a Dutch oven or other heavy pot, melt the butter with the oil added in to keep the butter from turning dark. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces and then sauté them until they’re golden brown on all sides. Set them aside on a platter.
- In the same butter-and-oil, add the carrots and onions. Cook until the onions are golden, then add the flour, stir and cook for 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and the brown stock. Bring to a boil as you whisk. Add the nutmeg, as well as more salt and pepper, to taste.
- Put the chicken pieces back in the pot, along with the thyme, bay leaf, cloves and garlic. Add in the port. Simmer 40-60 min, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time will vary with the age of the chicken.
- Remove the chicken and keep it warm in the serving bowl. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve, pressing the vegetables to extract all their juices. Put the sauce back on the burner and add the blood (or cornstarch), whisking energetically. (If you’re using cornstarch, first dilute 1 T in 2 T warm water to avoid lumps.) Bring the sauce back to a boil.
- Remove from the burner and whisk in the crème fraîche. Then add the foie gras cut into small pieces and whisk until totally dissolved.
- Pour the sauce over the chicken, decorate with parsley and serve immediately.
Serve with something (s)mashed/pureed: potatoes, chesnuts, celeryroot, carrots, any/all of the above. Accompany with a young, full-bodied burgundy, beaujolais or côtes du rhône.

N.B. I know there’s some discussion about foie gras, so if you’re violently opposed to it, you can leave it out. But it does add another rich layer of taste to this dish.
And obviously, unless you live out in the country near a pig or cattle farm, you won’t be getting fresh pig’s or calf’s blood. Even in Paris, that might be a problem. As blood doesn’t come packaged industrially, just leave it out. What it does is to thicken the sauce. So you can either reduce the sauce or add just a bit of cornstarch. It needs to end up thick enough to coat the back of a spoon lightly.