Although this piece focuses on Christmas feasts, much of it also applies to other feasts as well. This is because feasting practices, especially in modern times, tend to have a lot in common, apart from perhaps the drinks – but more on that later.
If one analyses a Christmas feast, the main components making up the meal can be more or less decomposed into the following:
> Luxury proteins
> Luxury fats
> Luxury carbohydrates
> Maillard reactions, resulting in Advanced Glycation End-Products
> Luxury seasonings and spices
> Seasonal greens
> Seasonal fruits
Luxury proteins are a wide-ranging term, especially here in France. It is also likely to be the most costly components of a Christmas feast as it covers items such as caviar, foie gras, lobsters, scallops, langoustines, other shellfish, specially-raised farm meats, etc. Of course, if you remove the word “luxury” from the above list, then it would more or less also describe most normal family dinners, with the other difference being the prodigious quantities of food at Christmas.
Even though France is a large country, even the deepest reaches usually get supplied with oysters, another traditional Christmas item. Personally, I enjoy the process of shucking open oysters (using a special instrument as it is quite dangerous to use knives), and the fresh oysters are then consumed with dry white wine (eg. Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chablis) as an accompaniment to kill off any lingering bacteria – at least, that is my excuse. But there are now potentially sobering issues with this practice.
Although the first warnings about microplastics were sounded as long ago as 1971, the prevailing assumptions for a long time were that such pollutants would be excreted and not linger in the organisms themselves. However, a January 2018 paper from Portugal has determined that microplastics found in water have severely detrimental effects on tiny crustaceans called Daphnia Magna – and curiously the impact of microplastics even extended trans-generationally; ie, offspring which were not exposed to microplastics were affected and some tested Daphnia Magna families were killed off within two generations.
Experiments involving microplastics in mammals were fortunately not so disquieting, and an observation to date is that certain microplastics in blood can provoke heart attacks in hamsters. Note though that research on humans is restricted as it is unethical to deliberately poison people with microplastics.
Humans, at least in the United States, appear to ingest over 5,800 particles of microplastics each year and not all of it is from seafood as the sources tested were tap water, beer and sea salt. In France, there have also been concerns expressed about microplastics in mineral water which is normally supplied in plastic bottles.
Therefore, it is not only marine food that is affected. If you are curious, the various types of microplastics in our environment include, in order of prevalence: polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyamide, polyester, acrylic, polyvinyl (alcohol and chloride), polyurethane, etc, and all of it is derived from human industrial and waste disposal activities. A certain proportion would contain chemicals such as Bisphenol-A, a well-known hormone disruptor linked to cancers and birth defects in humans.
It is probably too late to do anything significant about microplastics now, but if everyone would be more considerate about the recycling/disposal of plastics, perhaps arising from their Christmas presents, it would likely help future generations.
The other starter
After the shellfish, it is common to move on to foie gras, served on toasted brioche bread accompanied with a cold sweet white wine (classically Sauternes, though I prefer Montbazillac as it is a touch drier). I am embarrassed to admit really enjoying foie gras, though not the way commercial foie is produced, so I tend to get it from quality farms in areas around Périgord or Gers, in south-west France. Preparing it is also ridiculously easy: just cut a thick slice onto a steel tray, sizzle with a kitchen blow torch until the top is slightly brown and runny, slide it over a toasted brioche on a plate, add a touch of salt flakes, dab on some onion or fig compote, arrange a few salad leaves drizzled with walnut oil – and that is it, until people ask for another helping.
We usually roast a huge Flintstone-size slab of beef for Christmas dinner, but this year we plan to roast a capon instead – a capon is a castrated cockerel fed with milk and porridge grains which results in a texturally tender, tasty flesh. A 4kg capon would cost the environment 14.8kg of greenhouse gases (GHG) whereas our normal 5kg slab of prime beef rib would cost our planet somewhere between 1,460kg and 5,000kg of GHG. The difference is staggering.
Flavour would be added to the capon via the Maillard Reaction acting on the external surfaces of the bird when roasting. Additional flavours would also be introduced beforehand via a garlic rub over and under the skin, plus a stuffing made from mashed seasonal chestnuts, wild mushrooms, chopped onions, spiced with herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper. The skin would also be drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt flakes and garnished with garlic cloves and fresh herbs from the garden. I might even use a new meat syringe to inject some melted demi-sel (partly salted) butter into the breast.
Next comes the tricky bit of actually roasting the capon. As I am always insecure about the timings, I will use a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast and roast at 200°C (dropping to 180°C after 20 minutes) until the internal meat temperature shows 72°C. At this point, I will check that the temperature is consistent in other parts of the bird before taking it out to rest for 10 minutes. In the past, I have used even lower temperatures as all bacteria would also be destroyed at 62°C for 10 minutes, but the resulting texture of the meat was slimy and tasted very raw so I now know chicken does not taste like chicken when cooked below 72°C. If you are curious about how bacteria is killed by lower temperatures, have a look at this story.
The rest of the dinner would be various root vegetables and legumes roasted with French specialities such as “boudin blanc”, a seasonal white sausage made with minced fowl meat and truffles. The gravies are based on butter roux flavoured with stock made from dried forest mushrooms.
Desserts, oh dear
The French are serious about desserts, which usually follow the cheese – but we usually have only a few small morsels of local cheeses as there is no requirement to overeat. However, this intent is usually forgotten by the time the desserts roll around, which is also a good excuse to start with the spirits and liqueurs (or “digestifs”). I can never bake as well as professional patisseries here so desserts are usually ordered and collected in advance. Popular in the region is the “Bûche de Noël” (Christmas log, usually made with chocolate) and that is enough for us with a cognac or eau de vie.
However, in Provence, they have the tradition of “Les Treizes Dessert de Noel” (the 13 desserts of Christmas). The 13 desserts symbolise Jesus and his 12 apostles at the Last Supper and every guest must have a least a taste of each dessert, toasting each bite with a liqueur.
After our Christmas dinner, I am sure to vaguely remember again why I was groaning when I wrote this article.
One observation is that bottles of cognac and scotch can lie around on the shelves for months but they rarely survive a week around Christmas. And carefully-stashed cases of fine claret can somehow vanish into thin air, reduced to bottles cluttering around the dustbin.
The other observation is that Christmas dinner is not just about the food – Christmas is a blend of the season, presence of family, anxious cooking, jokes, bad pullovers, conversations, silly games, overfed slumping over boring TV seasonal shows, and so on.
Everybody’s Christmas is different and personal – and I hope you have a good one.