It's Christmas time in Burgundy and I am surrounded by all the reasons I moved to France: friends, family and a life rich in simplicity. It's hard to believe that we have just a couple more days until Christmas and then in a flash, 2009 will be over. To add to the Christmas spirit, we've been blessed with several days of snow and Beaune is festively lit with garland and twinkle lights that illuminate the cobblestone streets.
This is my second year spending Christmas in France and I am looking forward to adding some new holiday traditions in celebration of my daughter's recent marriage to her very own "French boy" from the South.
In celebration, we'll be enjoying a traditional fish dinner inspired by the South of France and a new tradition of serving les treizes desserts de Noël on Christmas Eve before we bundle up for our walk to church for Christmas Eve mass.
In general, the French enjoy their holiday meal on the 24th of December. In Provence, the meal is called le gros souper and is served before midnight mass. For dinner I'll be making red rascasse, a Mediterranean fish, baked in sea salt and bay leaves and served with steamed fingerling potatoes and pistou I preserved from last summer's garden.
At the end of the meal, we will honor the Provençal tradition of the thirteen desserts. It is said to represent Jesus and the twelve Apostles at the last supper. The assortment varies from village to village, but they all include the les four mendiants (literally the four beggars) followed by Pompe à l'huile (the olive oil pump) and the two nougats.
The list of the first seven desserts are:
• Hazelnuts or walnuts symbolizing the order of St. Augustin • Dried figs symbolizing the Franciscan order • Almonds symbolizing the Carmelite order • Raisins symbolizing the Dominican order • Pompe à l'huile (the olive oil pump). A flat, yeast bread made with olive oil, such as fougasse • White nougat, a soft candy made with sugar, eggs, pistachios, honey and almonds symbolizing the good times • Black nougat, a hard candy made with honey and almonds, symbolizing the sad times
The next six desserts may include dates, the symbol of Mary and Jesus' safe journey from the East, oranges, clementines, apples, pears, melon, quince paste, and Calissons from Aix en Provence. It is said that one should sample each of the thirteen desserts for good luck in the New Year.
There is something really special about the Christmas holiday in France. I fill my house with shades of white and fresh greens, gathered on my morning walk with Lily, the focus is on good food, simple entertaining and lots of candlelight. A simply, cozy hand-made holiday and filled with the tiny little details that make it magical.
Wishing you a Joyeux Noël and a Happy New Year!
Whole fish baked in sea salt
One whole fish weighing about 1 1/2 pounds, cleaned, head, tail and scales left on Bay leaves 2 pounds coarse sea salt Extra virgin olive oil for serving Lemon slices
For the pistou
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts 3 garlic cloves sea salt 2 cups basil leaves 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil freshly ground black pepper
To make the pistou, pound the pine nuts and garlic with a pinch of salt in a mortar. Add a few basil leaves and continue to pound. Alternating basil and olive oil, continue pounding until a smooth paste is achieved. Stir in any remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Makes about one cup.
For the fish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Rinse the fish with cold water, pat it dry and refrigerate until just before cooking.
Pour a layer of sea salt in the bottom of an ovenproof baking dish and place the fish on top. Place the lemon slices inside the belly cavity of the fish and season with freshly ground black pepper. Pour the remaining salt over the fish to cover it, leaving the tail fin exposed if necessary.
Place the fish in the middle rack in the center of the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the fish from the oven and gently crack off the layer of salt, removing as much of it as you can.
Remove the filets and place on slightly warmed dinner plates. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with lemon slices and pistou.