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Culinary Discovery:
A Christmas Tour

by Gabriella True

 

Across this great globe, many celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, decorating a tree, going to church, setting up a crche, hanging stockings or putting shoes out for St. Nicholas. But when you think of the quintessential Christmas feast, what do you picture? What do you smell? Throughout Europe the answer to these two questions would be quite different. What remains the same is the love of friends and family gathering around a table filled with delicious food. Join me in a tour of European Christmas time feasts.

France

Across France many delicious meals are served at Christmas time. Dishes include oysters, ham, roast poultry of all sorts, salads, bche de Nol. In Alsace, roasted goose and foie gras are served. In Brittany, buckwheat cakes are the central part of the meal. In Burgundy, chestnuts and turkey take prominence and in Paris oysters, foie gras and bche de Nol are the prime dishes. Bche de Nol, meaning Christmas log, is traditional because it represents the Yule log burned from Christmas until New Year's Day to bring good luck in the coming year. They would scatter ashes in the fields to ensure a good harvest, some in the barns to repel rats, some in their home to protect them from lightening.

Parisian pastry chefs created the bche de Nol cake in the late 19th century. It is a rolled cake filled with chestnut cream and coated in marzipan or icing. In Provence, the Christmas meal is called le gros souper (the big supper) and is finished with thirteen desserts.

Each dessert represents the 12 apostles and Jesus. Raisins, hazelnuts, and figs represent the four orders representing that Christ came from the Middle East, black and white nougat to represent purity and evil, quince jelly, pompe a l'huile (flat bread made with olive oil), thin wafers, and fresh and preserved fruit including oranges, pears, raisins, and melons. They also serve calissons and butter cookies.

Italy

Christmas lunch is often a seven-course meal including antipasto, pasta, roast meat, salads, puddings, cheese, fruit, and chocolates. Italy is known for their Christmas cakes that vary from region to region: struffoli, panpepato and pan forte in Central Italy; frutta secca from Southern Italy; panettone, pandoro, and torrone in Northern Italy. The Italians feast on cotechino, a fresh pork sausage, with lentils during the week between Christmas and New Year's.

Portugal

In Portugal, the quintessential Christmas Eve dish is made from dried codfish called bacalhau which is served with boiled potatoes. The dessert is often rabanadas, almost like French toast with slices of white bread soaked in wine and eggs coated in sugar and fried until all that remains is a candy caramel glaze.

Spain

The Spanish eat turrn which is a candy similar to the French Nougat. The Christmas day meal consists of chestnut soup, cheeses, white sea bass coated in breadcrumbs and roasted with olive oil and lemons, roast capon or turkey stuffed with bread crumbs, pork sausage, mushrooms, garlic onions, and olive oil. Another traditional way of serving turkey is pavo tufado de navidad, a turkey with truffles.

Malta

Before the British Empire was stationed in Malta, the rooster (serduq) was served for Christmas dinner. After WWII, the British tradition of serving turkey (id-dundjan), and plum pudding (il-pudina tal-Milied) became the norm. Two other traditional dishes are baked macaroni that is covered with pastry, timpana, and treacle, qaghaq tal-ghasel.

Austria

Throughout Vienna on Christmas Eve, braised carp is served in a ginger and beer sauce with vegetables. And then for dessert, topfenpalatschinken, which are sweet cheese crepes with an apricot caramel sauce are served. On Christmas Day, a roast goose is the main part of the holiday feast.

Germany

Germany introduced the world to the Christmas tree and to many delicious holiday treats. Christmas Eve is often called dickbauch (fat stomach) because those that don't eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. Like in Austria, carp, Gebackener Karpfen, and goose are often served. The Germans serve potatoes, cabbage, pickled vegetables and parsnips with their goose. In the rural regions of Germany, wild boar or venison is often found on the Christmas table. For grand feasts, a roast suckling pig is prepared.

A popular cookie known as Christbaumgerback is made from sugar dough, rolled, then stamped into shapes of Christmas trees, gnomes, and snowflakes. Stollen is a quintessential German cake. First created in the 14th century, stollen is a dense yeast cake with dried fruit throughout resembling Christ in swaddling clothes.

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