One of the joyful fetes we will experience this year is a northern Christmas. Europe is home to many of our favourite traditions: religious observances, Christmas cards, the Christmas tree and its glittery decorations, and the feast with family and friends.
One of the only differences is the weather. You will have sun and ours will be ice-cold — hopefully even snowy. Here in France, Christmas Day is the only day of the festive season to be a public holiday. Mass is held on Christmas Eve, and in our 15th century church it’s quite romantic, though freezing.
Lit only by candles reflecting off gilded angels, we’ll mumble our way through French carols and, if we’ve not got hypothermia, after the service we’ll join the congregation for mulled wine and fruit-laden sweet bread. Locals will open presents when they get home, but we’ll await the arrival of the big guy.
On Christmas Day itself, everyone in our village of Caixon will eat up large. The menus will mainly feature the same foods as last year and probably the last decade. Traditions here die hard; history lives on through the rituals of feasting … oysters, duck or goose foie gras, carefully crafted terrines and pates, guinea fowls, turkey and jambon. As far as dessert goes, there will be no pudding, trifle or strawberries and cream. Instead, the table will feature dried fruits, marzipan, nuts, nougat, rich yeast breads or pain d’epices along with delicious sweet wines.
If a gateau features, it will probably have been purchased at the boulangerie in the morning. There’s no rest for the French baker — not even Christmas lunch goes without fresh bread. Baking a gateau or preparing a rich cream and fruit-filled tart is left to the baker. It’s tradition, not to mention practical. The baker has the skill, equipment and the talent to prepare something special, so why not enjoy his handiwork; seems rather sensible don’t you think?
In the late afternoon I’ll see most of the locals out walking. Oldies on sticks, mums with prams, kids scootering and dads lagging behind — some things are the same the world over — will stroll the rutted laneways until they’ve walked off the feast. The remainder of the day is given over to resting. On Boxing Day everyone goes back to work. Christmas is over!
Gateau Cruesois, like many cakes here, is found only in its region of origin. Cruese, an area right in the middle of France, is known historically for its stonemasons and the monastries they built. During renovations of one such monastery in the late 1960s, this recipe was found on parchment dating back to the 15th century.
It was cooked on a flat tile, like those used at the time to roof the buildings. It makes a very easy and delicious Christmas dessert, served with a raspberry coulis. The secret is to not beat the egg whites as you do for pavlova. Originally the gateau would have been made with a fork, so do not beat any longer than advised as the gateau will rise too much and be dry.
I made two cakes and used the egg yolks to make the creme patissiere to sandwich them together, finishing the gateau with icing sugar and chopped hazelnut praline coatednuts. The cakes freeze well and the custard can be made 4-5 days ahead of time and refrigerated until needed. Get the recipe