Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Crowns,Crêpes and Chopsticks
You’d really think after the excesses of Christmas that French digestions would need a bit of a rest, Well don’t you believe it.
January has gastronomic delights which can brighten a dull month, starting with ‘Revilllons’, the Feast of Saint Sylvestre, or as we know it - New Year’s Eve. Unless you happen to come from East Anglia, where many still perversely refer to it as Old Year’s Night.
Revillon dinners can consist of seven or eight courses with copious amounts of champagne and surprisingly, they are very pricey in a country where good meals are generally less expensive than the equivalent meals in the UK. But a ‘Repas de Saint Sylvestre is to be enjoyed regardless of cost.
In the UK Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, is the cut-off date for taking down the Christmas decorations, but that means nothing over here, indeed village Christmas lights often stay strung across the street all year. Not lit up, of course…well that would be really daft, but the Feast of Epiphany in France means….yes, you got it! Food .Cakes, to be precise.
Gateaux de Rois are on sale in every supermarket and patisserie throughout January. There are two sorts, one is made of brioche dough, fashioned into a ring and decorated with coarse sugar and coloured candies or crystallised fruits. The other is a pastry based cake….crème patisserie or an almond paste mixture sandwiched between two layers of buttery flaky pastry, plus (and this is the Health and Safety bit) half a dozen fêves (French for beans). I expect dried beans used to be put in the cake, but for the last hundred years or so beans have been replaced by little porcelain figurines which are now highly collectable and turn up regularly on the French eBay site or car boot sales. Recently plastic ones have taken over; such is the march of time. The person who gets the ‘king’ (or in the case of the cheap modern ones, ‘The Lion King’) is crowned with a gold paper crown and gets to kiss all the girls in the room! That’s the loose connection with Epiphany I suppose.
As well as Gateau de Rois the supermarkets are getting stocked up for the second January blow-out. Large displays of bags of flour, eggs, vanilla sugar, chocolate spread and jam are artistically arranged around crêpe pans, large and small. Yes, it will soon be pancake time. Not for Shrove Tuesday, as is the case in the UK, but for Chandeleur, which is known in English as Candlemass, a religious festival which has rather gone out of fashion. It’s observed six weeks after Christmas, and I think (though someone may correct me on this) it commemorates the Infant Christ being taken to the temple to be blessed in the Jewish tradition. In true French style packets of ready made pancakes are on sale as well, just in case making them from scratch is too taxing, or time consuming. The French love anything sweet and served with chocolate so crêpes are consumed par tout le monde
There’s another gourmet treat in store for January and as if cakes, crowns, and pancakes weren’t enough there’s the Chinese New Year. Now for a country that assiduously ignores anything vaguely foreign, the enthusiasm with which the French embrace this Eastern celebration is quite astounding. Lidl, that last retreat of the cash-strapped expats and suddenly wildly trendy epicerie of those expats who are pretending they’re not cash-strapped, is going to resemble a Chinese take-away next week, if their promotional leaflets are anything to go by.
I love the French take on standard Chinese labelling: Petals de Crevette…..prawn crackers to us. Sauce aigre- douce …sweet and sour sauce And a drink called Shunji which is a new one on me….a wine based drink flavoured with passion flower, plum, orange, or ginger. 10% alcohol and €1.40…..might give it a whirl! There’s also a serious outbreak of woks, chopsticks and dinky little bowls to accompany all the bottles and cans of ‘Saveurs d’Asie’.
Once through this calorie laden- month we have a bit of a rest until Easter, for which my stomach will be very grateful.