I've already made one blog post about this book, and how much I loved it's insights into Paris at Christmas. This post is to concentrate a bit more on French Christmas food traditions, and get back on track with the Foodie's Reading Challenge. Plus it dovetails perfectly into my Parisian longing this July.
John Baxter comes to take on the task of preparing the feast for his French family's Christmas dinner, but before he does he is introduced to their traditional meal. And what a meal it is. A whole goose foie gras, served with cornichons and fresh white bread. Roast guinea fowl, gratin dauphinoise with cheese and cream, green beans and carrots, salad, a cheese course, a 25 egg mousse. Each course with its wine, including champagne with dessert. And we have an array of cold meats and salads!
Baxter comes to the realisation that he has two choices in preparing Christmas dinner for his extended French family- to wow them with novelty or tradition. French cuisine "relies on precisely isolating and emphasizing the essential flavour of an ingredient, then juxtaposing two or more such tastes in a pleasing or surprising harmony. Who else but the French would think of cutting the fattiness of foie gras with a sweet, chill glass of Sauternes? Or serving scrambled eggs with the rose of the sea urchin? Seasonality and regionality also count for a lot."
Traditionally though French Christmas dinners commence with oysters, not foie gras. Strangely they accompany the oysters with a side dish of small fried pork sausages. And these meals are washed down with prodigous amounts of wine. Catering for Christmas one year Baxter becomes panicked that he only has 12 bottles of wine for the 16 expected guests.
One Christmas Baxter wants to make roast pork with crackling. A common enough dish for a lad raised in Australia. It presents unforeseen difficulties in France.
"The butcher on rue de Seine, just around the corner from our apartment, stared when I raised the possibility of a rack of pork chops with the skin still on.
He indicated the neat rolls of deboned pork loin, parceled in their added coats of fat. "Pork doesn't have skin."
"All animals have skin, Monsieur," I said.
"Yes, all right. Pigs do have skin. But our pork doesn't."
Baxter comments that "in planning my menu, I didn't face those niggling premeal discussions of the "I don't eat..." varieties so common in Anglo-Saxon homes. If you're invited to dine with a French family, you're expected to leave your dietary tastes and restrictions at home.
At one stage Baxter and his wife travel to their summer house in Fouras on the Atlantic coast. They arrive several hours earlier than expected, and the housekeeper hasn't had time to make the preparations for their arrival, and fill the fridge with basics. After a heated discussion with his wife, the housekeeper returns with some basics- "a baguette, a bottle of milk, a slab of butter, lettuce, and a bowl of pale pink saltwater crawfish (langoustines)." I just love the French version of essentials.
Baxter also helps us navigate those difficult cross cultural waters. He describes an Australian friend going to visit a cousin in Dijon and planning to take him some cheese. Which is about the biggest mistake you could make!
"The correct gift for such an occasion was chocolates or flowers, not cheese. No French person takes cheese as a gift, any more than they bring bread or wine. To do so is to suggest that a household didn't have any of these three staples.... You would no more bring food or drink to a French house than arrive at one in America bringing your own plate, knife and fork."
"Cheese to the French is an absolute, an axiom of cuisine. Correctly experiencing its pleasures requires education, discrimination, even love. Knowing when and where to eat it, how, with whom, and in what quantity are matters of gravity, worth a lifetime of effort."
Which ties in nicely with the quote starting Chapter 1
"I've noticed that people who know how to eat are never idiots." Guillaume Apollinaire (a fascinating character it seems).
Baxter became friends with George Johnston and Charmian Clift in 1964. At what is to be the first of many family Christmas dinners in France, John Baxter regales his new family with tales of George Johnston in France soon after the second World War. He had not become a famous author as yet, and was in need of money. France was trying to expand the export market for their wine because they had somehow continued to make wine during the German occupation. So, George Johnston was sent on an all-expenses paid tour of the French wine-making regions. He apparently drank wine by the gallon, and was then in no state to appreciate the taste of the last remaining bottle of the now pale 1812 Bordeaux offered to him by Baron Rothschild.....
"Well, I took a sip," George told me, "but my palate was so buggered, not only with the wine I'd drunk that week but the years of arak and jungle juice and sake and bad scotch, that it didn't taste of anything."
....the Baron was waiting. Honor was at stake.
"My skills as a drinker had deserted me," George lamented, "but I thought my skills as a writer might save the day."
"Perhaps like me, you have attended the farewell concert of some great old baritone at the end of a long career...... This wine," he went on, "reminds me of that baritone. The voice is gone- and yet, now and then, and faintly, one hears a pure and perfect note."
There are many other reasons to read this book. It works as foodie memoir, for egging on Paris longing, and providing name dropping literary type stories. Although as a fellow Australian I was astonished that he would concede the invention of Pavlova to New Zealand! Never!
This book appears to be being republished this year having been retitled as Cooking for Claudine. The Sydney Morning Herald published an excerpt from Cooking for Claudine, and it was lifted directly from Immoveable Feast- A Paris Christmas- which I think has the better cover and title. (I've now seen a copy of Cooking for Claudine in the shops- it is A Paris Christmas republished, with two appendices at the back, one containing a few recipes, the other the compiled tips about spending Christmas with a French family).
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