First of all a very happy Christmas to all of you.
Christmas is a time of fun, love and laughter (hopefully). Last night, Christmas Eve, was all that and more. Let me explain.
We normally close on the 24th December as in France it is a time to stay at home and ‘Maman” cooks for the entire family. In my experience, this is normally fabulous fun for everybody apart from ‘Le chef’ herself (and in French households it is still pretty much invariably the lady of the house who cooks). She is under enormous pressure to serve a superb Michelin standard meal of far more complexity and length than she normally cooks, and it goes without saying that in most families the offers of assistance from various family members are A) disingenuous in the first place and B) if accepted are soon forgotten by the offerer who is far more interested in the lure of the Christmas Ricard or Champagne. In most households this leaves the poor amateur Chef under huge pressure sweating away in the kitchen while everybody else has a whale of a time.
Now partly this huge stress is of the chef’s own making as they tend to cook grand dishes and then complicate the meal even further with at least two extra courses over and above what they would normally serve and further stress is added by the complexity of each dish and the number of extra guests.
I vividly remember a few years ago to us being invited to Paris to a friend’s house for a Christmas meal. I estimate that the four bottles of wine served cost almost a 1.000 € (for 6 of us) and the meal consisted of smoked salmon, boudin blanc with morilles, then lobster, foie gras, Chapon stuffed with black Perigord truffles and yet more foie gras and then 12 types of cheese and a chocolate dessert. Coffee was accompanied by hand made Belgian chocolates. I should add that before you think that we are friends with the Rockerfellas, that our friend is a middle ranking manager with the French post office so hardly a millionaire. But the above does reflect the importance placed on a successful Christmas meal.
I would love to tell you that it was a great success but nerves coupled with the complexity of the meal got the better of our hostess. The smoked salmon she forgot to serve in the heat of the moment. The boudin blanc were cold and needed to be returned to the kitchen for further cooking. The foie gras was unfortunately raw, (she had assumed that it was pre-cooked) so we decided to beat a retreat from that particular dish. Then the terror really started. Her boyfriend had misunderstood her panicked appeal for assistance and rather than taking the Chapon out of the oven he had turned the oven up and left it in and it was while we were summoning the courage to broach the subject of the raw foie gras that the smoke entered the room and our hostess began to cry.
Now we all rallied around and in the end we made it into a great event but it is a lesson in keeping it simple. It was certainly a memorable evening and the wine was excellent as were the Belgian chocolates!
I write the above not to be clever or supercilious. Every chef, including myself, has at least once in their careers had disasters, although I will not dwell on mine here. It does remind us, however, that entertaining should be about having fun. Showing off is also fun at times but keep it simple lest disaster strikes.
Well, getting back to Christmas Eve here last night. As I said at the top of this missive, we normally close but a regular French client from Lapradelle, the neighbouring village, had come pleading. He begged us to open as he did not want his wife to ‘suffer’ as she had in previous years by doing all the cooking. Would I open for them?
Well we did and as somebody who has no other family now other than my lovely wife Val, it was a great delight to see a family all together having a whizz-bang time. We put on a show and we enjoyed it as much as they did, albeit in a rather more sober way, although we made up for that later.
Once they had departed we opened some cracking Champagne. Lucian Lalardier is a NV of very high quality and it was much enjoyed by us. Today, Christmas Day, will of course be roast Turkey, in my humble opinion the greatest of all roasts, and an absolute requirement at Christmas. It has already been pulled out of the oven and is left to rest for an hour.
I am dribbling as I write this in the lull between all the work and serving lunch. Youtube is playing on my laptop and the much missed André Previn is conducting the then 90 year old Arthur Rubenstein at the Royal Albert hall in 1970 playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Normally only jazz finds it way into my kitchen but Chrismas is different and this sublime music is enough to lift anybody’s spirits. Even over stressed family cooks under pressure! If it is too late for you this year to assist then I recommend it the next time you are cooking for a large number of guests.
Whatever you are having have a lovely Christmas and we hope to see you in the New Year.
And remember, keep your cooking simple and fun. Bon appetit!
Love from Paul et Val.