Noel en La Charmee

01 Jan 2002 // places

I now know how Christmas is supposed to be celebrated. Here I was, stuck in Paris, nowhere to go, missing kinda that familial atmosphere that is one's birthright in the time of Christmas. When, my friend Olivier offers to take me back to his family's home for Christmas. Of course I accepted. I was no fool.

So we travel some 9 hours deep into the south-east of France (the trains in France are excellent). We change trains at Dijon and make our way to Lyon. From Lyon we get picked up by Olivier's mom and her irascible neighbour and we head out into the pastoral fields. As we travel, the population density drops. Lyon has some million people. Then we pass through Chalon-sur Soane, which has 60,000 and finally we turn into a tiny road into La Charmee, a small village of maybe 60 families. By this time it was dark and when we pulled up into the family house, it loomed into me out of the frail light of the little car. Namely, a 200 year old French cottage complete with stone walls, big country windows and a roaring fire inside the house.

The house was thankfully warm as all houses tend to be in Europe in winter - may you never suffer a power blackout in Europe in winter. A large large room that was both living room and dining room took up the lower floor whilst the bedrooms made up the top floor. Simple design, a delight to live in.

Then onto Christmas dinner proper. In this case, Olivier's mom, his aunty and her partner, Olivier's brother and grandmother made up the company. And of course, the token Australian. For starters, we chomped on this kind of cheese-pastry, a minituaire cabbage called an ondive, and some guacamole (Olivier's mother thinks fusion but cooks francais). Then we talk for half an hour, or in my case, listen. Every so often, they'll ask me something in kindergarten french and my face will contort into thinking mode and then I'll spray out a sentence of dog-french. Painful, yet fastly enjoyable as everyone would roar in sympathetic laughter.

Now, I have been looking forward to the second course all day. It was foie gras, translated, it means 'liver fatty'. Story goes that hunters found that geese killed just before the winter migration had particularly delicious livers - larger, plumper with a smoother texture. Consequently, those wilely frenchman realised that you can forcefeed geese to simulate the storage of food for winter and then slaughter them for their livers to make foie gras. Foie gras is the jewel of peasant French cuisine. Normally beyond the reach of the average French family, Olivier's sisters had pulled some favours from a gourmet chef friend of hers. I was told that such 'ostentation' is reserved only for the yuletide celebrations in families such as Olvivier's.

As for the foie gras itself: it's pure liver of which I am not sure if it was cooked or not packed into a block with some kind of jelly through it. In effect, it is a solid chunck of liver. Sliced, everyone was served one special piece. It is special because it has the smoothest texture that melts in your mouth whereas the test has a very strong flavour that I find it hard to describe to people who don't normally eat internal organs. And of course, we were served bread. Lots of bread. And there was a special wine, specially recommended for foie gras - white, light and very sweet. The first tasting was the best. It was almost as enjoyable watching Olivier eat his foie gras as eating it myself. Like a prisoner tasting his first sight of freedom, Olivier tasted his first portion of foie gras.

We talk for another hour and then moved onto the next course.

Which was, baked small potatoes and a, of all things, kangaroo casserole. I have a feeling that the French probably eat more kangaroos than Australians. Australians feel weirded out to think of eating their coat of arms. But I say, what better way to assimilate than to partake in our national mascot in a material way. And we ate more bread and drank more wine.

Then we talk some more. And out comes the cheese. There was camembert, two types of goat cheese, and a nice hard mature cheese with a sliver of blue through the middle. And we ate the cheese with bread. And more bread. By the end of the dinner I was an expert at ripping out a healthy chunk of bread from the stick of baguette.

To finish off, after talking some more, out came two large baskets of profitterole kind of things. If memory serves me correct, then they were called chou de creme, or cabbage of cream. There was vanilla and chocolate. Whoa-hoa-hoa I didn't know if I could fit any more in but I trooped ahead and consumed to my delight and my stomach's demise.

Then there was more bread and coffee. After that was some present opening etc