Saturday, January 2, 2010

Meilleurs Voeux!

So it's been quite a bit since I have actually made a post here, that's no secret.  Hell, look at the dates.  I do claim the right to use that it has been a busy time of year.  After all, the Holidays are the biggest traveling time of the year.  The main distraction has been the festivities.  I am still blown away by how different the French notion of a party is from that of Americans.

If I say I am having a party, your first thought is lots of booze, lots of people, and possibly a summons to appear by varying law enforcement agencies.  The parties I think of when someone says parties means throwing on a shirt that looks nice, but you don't care about seeing possibly covered in a drink/vomit.  I should probably add the fact that I am pretty middle class in my upbringing, and went to a state college.  I know, start the snickering now.  You also, as a guy, would never think of wearing dress pants.  It's just not worth the hassle when jeans are so much more comfortable/functional.  Especially in colder weather.

Parties can be appended with different words in English that denotes another function.  The above paragraph is defined as a house party.  Additionally, an intimate party means just a group of friends together hanging out, of course.  Usually, because I am a geek, the party centralized around a gaming console or a movie.  But it usually means a group of friends, what in the US amounts to a casual gathering of friends.  Of course, I am of the opinion that the best parties end at around 5 am at Waffle House, that just doesn't happen here. 

Now there's another type of party that I have not mentioned yet, mainly because I never went to them in the US.  These are always shown as people in their 30s or 40s with their friends in their well-appointed houses with their stylish place settings, etc.  (as I have never been to one, I can only go off of ads like those for Kohler. This is the ad I think of mostly when someone says dinner party.

The first thing you will need if you are attending a dinner party is to bring a small gift of some sort.  Usually, the most common is a bouquet but bottles of wine are almost just as common.  I have also seen chocolates given as well.  There are any number of small things you can get, but obviously the price should not exceed a certain amount, usually no more than twenty euros.  Also, make sure that you take the price tag off before giving the gift. 

The first course is usually an aperitif course.  Aperitif is basically the same thing as an appetizer. There are usually small things to eat, but they are not usually as casual looking as they are in the US.  They are often made with puff pastry or pâte à choux similar to a cream puff. There are crackers and olives as well usually.  Most of the time they are eaten with champagne, a very common hostess gift for such events. 

The second course usually will be some sort of larger appetizer, but especially around the holidays there are oysters.  Oysters are an acquired taste and by and large are either loved or hated.  I am in the love camp.  All the oysters I have had in France tend to be obviously a little salty with a clean finish, for me usually tasting a bit like watermelon.  (Real watermelon too, not the artificial flavoring.)  Most commonly they are served cold on the half shell with either a shallot and red wine vinaigrette or simply with lemon.  There are some people who can eat them without either addition, but they are few and far between.  There is also a medium dense wheat bread with butter served with it.  The best of the breads are those that have the addition of shallots baked in, in my opinion.  You also must separate the oyster from the shell, as most of the time, they do not come detached.  It's relatively simple and often that is the function if you see a small, squat fork above your plate.  You will also get a little bit of shell in your mouth at some point.  It won't kill you, but try and be adept about removing it from your mouth.

The second course tends to be salmon, but this is another variance depending on the time of year.  Salmon is usually served either smoked or marinated.  Smoked salmon is one of the things I consider most incredible in a bagel with some cream cheese.  I am an American, after all.  It is served often with blini which are medium sized savory pancakes.  The batter may be a little thinner though as they always seem to be lighter than the ones I make.  Additionally, lemon is added to bring out the flavor of the salmon.  The marinated salmon is usually marinated in onions, dill, bay leaves, and other spices, and covered in lemon juice.  The lemon juice, as an acid, cooks the salmon as it marinates.  After the salmon has satisfactorily marinated, it is cleaned, and ready to serve.  Usually, I add lemon to it, as it does help to perk up the flavoring again.  The spices tend to become too blended after marination. 

There are two types of meat I have eaten the most here in France that we do not eat in the US, rosbeef and rabbit.  Rosbeef is obviously a cut of beef, which I cannot say for sure.  It is usually served medium rare to rare, and is incredible when done correctly.  I have always been on the happy side of par with the rosbeef of course, and must say it is a possible favorite cut of meat.  As I said, it is served rare so people who are very concerned with the doneness of meat would be well advised to steer clear of this.  This is not something you want to eat well done.  Rabbit is usually served in more of a stew or stuffed.  I have myself never eaten rabbit that was just served as rabbit without some sort of accompaniment.  Most commonly, I have eaten it stuffed.  I cannot explain it more than being a more intensely flavored meat than lamb.  It's something you can only really try to see if you will like.  Rabbit, like oysters, are a polarizing food. 

Now the savory portion may end here, but there is always dessert of some kind.  Often there are apples, pears and usually clementines at this time of year.  France also tends to have a variety of exotic fruits for the holidays, not limited to mangoes and kiwi as most American palate.  There was an abundance of lychee and pomegranates in the grocery stores here in France.  Often shortcakes of differing types are served.  They tend to be home made of course as most things are.  There may also be a variety of tarts and cakes.  There is one of which the name escapes me, but it's a variety of nuts covered in powdered sugar. 

Dessert around the holidays often includes two desserts that can only appear at this time of year.  The first is fairly familiar.  I have seen Yule Logs before, but never eaten them.  I only had a passing knowledge of them in the US.  As best I can describe it is similar to a jelly roll made of genoise and usually chocolate frosting.  It was very good, and surprisingly more sugary than most French desserts. Downright satisfying if you will.  The other cake is called Galette du roi.  It is a very flaky pastry filled with frangipane.  Often a small prize is baked inside the cake and whoever gets the prize wears a crown not entirely unlike a burger king crown.  Usually it's done for children who determine who gets what piece (occasionally while hiding under the table.) 

The end of the meal usually happens when it's time to have tea or coffee.  Usually it is best to take the hostess up on the offer, as tea really does help things sit better on the way home.  Often there are special digestive infusions served for the purpose, but even a small cup seems to help settle a stomach after what has to be called a marathon of eating.  The full range of courses at these parties can last 6 to 7 hours around the holidays.  Usually the company and food are so good, you don't know what time it is until you look at your watch.  Of course, it depends on the party. 

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