Christmas in Brittany
My father comes from a small town in Bretagne, Brittany, in the west of France. The town, Janzé, is a twenty-minute drive from Rennes. Growing up I would spend my holidays at my grandparent’s place. My grandfather started his own cider company when he was in his twenties. When I was younger and the cider company was still running, my older brother and I would climb over mountains of apples in the outdoor garage. I first tried my grandfather’s eau de vie, his very strong (50-70% alcohol content) distilled alcohols, when I was eight.
My great-grandmother had a small stand in Rennes where she sold galettes. Galettes are savory, buckwheat crêpes. They are the same shape as a crêpe but a darker brown color. Back in the day, the galettes were sold by the dozen like bread to be taken home, or served hot with an egg cracked on top, for lunch. She taught my father how to make her galettes, and later my father passed the knowledge down to me. As a twenty-year old, my father worked in a crêperie during the summers. When my grandfather sold his cider company he started to make jams and distill alcohol. He already had a fertile and abundant vegetable and fruit garden in the countryside. You will often see him wandering the fields in search of rare fruits, climbing his cherry and plum trees, or picking raspberries behind the house, to then concoct his delicious jams in the basement.
It seems to me, talking to my friends, that we all have our versions of food family history, whether it is our grandparents, our great aunt, our uncle, our mother and father, or even a close family friend, there is that one person who makes those dishes we crave for, over and over again. The smell, the taste, the repetition of eating the same thing. There is comfort and familiarity in going home and eating home-cooked food, but food that uniquely creates our family meal. For me, the convergence of tradition, food, family history, and pleasure happens at the end of the year, on the 24th and 25th of December. Without fail, I go back to Janzé to spend Christmas with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. There were those years when we were stuck in Australia eating thick fruit pudding with double cream in the middle of a hot summer. But mostly, I find myself in the familiar setting of my grandparent’s big house. They still have offices in the basement of their house, where they once ran the cider business.
There is always a chapon – a capon, a rooster that has been castrated so the flesh is tender. The capon is stuffed with stewed prunes, fresh chestnuts picked by my grandfather, the innards of the capon, and little pieces of ham from the local butcher. My grandmother lathers the skin of the capon with thick streaks of butter. Then she roasts it, taking the chicken out now and then to drizzle boiling water on the cooking meat. The result is a crispy skin with a moist inside. We usually add potatoes from my grandfather’s garden. These cook with the chicken, turning golden from butter. Then, there are the double roasted apples. The apples are cooked twice, creating a caramelized, terracotta colored apple puree. No sugar or butter are needed, just a little water. The apples are slightly acidic, but surprisingly sweet and creamy. Delicious when served with the capon.
[Photo Credits: Patrick Lemoine]
There are the green beans from the garden, cooked with a little butter and seasoning. This year’s appetizer was wild boar terrine from the butcher. My grandfather found a tough black boar hair and held on to it, as proof that we were indeed eating boar meat! The meal was accompanied by a remarkable and powerful red wine: Pommard from 2006, a Bourgogne. For dessert we ate a Bûche de Noël, the traditional Christmas dessert in France. This is a cake in the shape of a log and decorated in many different ways. For instance, this year we had two different ones. The first Bûche was homemade with apricots, pistachio, mascarpone and sponge cake. The second one was from Lenôtre, a vanilla raspberry white chocolate almond cake with a warm raspberry coulis.
I spent the 24th of December evening at my grandparent’s place, eating the capon and the apricot Bûche. On the 25th in the morning we set off to my aunt’s house, in the same town, a three-minute drive from my grandparent’s house. There she had prepared a feast with my uncle. My aunt and uncle cooked a superb leg of lamb on the 25th for lunch. They roasted the lamb for seven hours on low heat (100 degrees Celsius), and baked it with garlic cloves, the skin still on. We ate the incredibly tender lamb with a tagine of root vegetables, yellow carrots, different types of turnips and potatoes. I brought chocolate and almond biscotti to eat with the coffee–Check out the Recipe Below! We also savored chocolate covered almonds and hazelnut meringue with our tea and coffee.
I thought we were done with eating by 4pm on that Sunday afternoon. But by 7pm we were set to go again, and my aunt prepared a spread of cheeses, leftover homemade foie gras, a loaf of bread and a big green salad. There was goat’s cheese, a Camembert, a soft Munster cheese, Roquefort cheese, and Tête de Moine, my favorite, which is scraped into thin, crinkled slices to resemble flowers.
Christmas in my family is not so much a religious holiday – for my grandfather and grandmother it is, but for everyone else, it is mainly an occasion to gather and enjoy good food and family conversations. It is that time of the year when we eat with abandon, we spend hours nibbling on bread and chocolate between meals, we sit around on the sofas, by the fire, digesting, drowsing off, the men fall asleep, we tell stories, sometimes we knit, listen to music, discuss the meal and what we will be eating next.
It is over before you know it, and soon enough, at around 10pm, I am saying goodbye, kissing many cheeks, driving back to my grandparent’s home, and falling asleep in my father’s childhood room, deeply satiated. The next day, we are on the road back to Paris with a trunk full of leftovers.
Chocolate Almond Biscotti
Adapted from Gourmet, 2002, “Almond Apricot Biscotti”
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 whole large egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole almonds with skins (5 1/2 oz), toasted, cooled and chopped into small pieces
1 cup dark chocolate, chopped into pieces (good quality chocolate is preferable!)
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Blend in butter with your fingertips until mixture resembles a crumble. Add whole egg (lightly beaten like for an omelet), milk, and vanilla extract, stirring with a fork until a soft dough forms, then knead in almonds and chocolate.
3. Divide dough into two or three balls. Form 2 or 3 equal logs and place them on a buttered baking pan.
4. Brush logs with egg wash and bake in middle of oven until pale golden and firm, for about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300°F while logs cool.
5. Transfer baked logs to a cutting board using 2 wide metal spatulas, then cut logs into 1/2-inch-wide slices with a large heavy knife.
6. Clean baking pan and butter the pan again. Place the slices, curved sides up, 1/2 inch apart on baking pan and bake in upper third of oven until the biscotti are dry, for about 30 minutes (they will become hard as they cool). Transfer biscotti to rack to cool.