By guest contributor Patricia Ford
Mad About Montpellier
Imagine my delight when French friends in Montpellier invited me for Christmas! I just love the Christmas season in Montpellier – the buzz, the vibes, browsing the festive markets for one-of-a-kind gifts and gourmet items, a concert in one of the churches or concert halls. It’s impossible to do it all! The town sparkles like freshly poured Champagne with glittering decorations, light shows and animations. Normally one would linger for a glass of mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and other traditional dishes in a Christmas market, but necessarily this year’s market was cancelled. Yet nothing could prevent Montpellier wielding its magic. An illuminated heart lights up one side of La Place de la Comédie, on the other the traditional Christmas tree – or sapin de Noel. A nice touch – the heart symbolising love when the world most needs it. Children were delighted by a magical Fairyland on the Promenade de Peyrou.
And Now for the Feast: Le Reveillon
My first Christmas Eve feast, Le Reveillon, was simply unforgettable! Quite rightly the French believe that food is to be savoured and our six hours seated around the table allowed ample time for debates, getting to know other guests (and to hopefully improve my French). My hosts were seasoned chefs and everything was perfect from the first glass of Champagne and aperos to the 13 desserts (les Treize). The Christmas menu can include – literally – everything from soup to nuts: oysters, foie gras, salmon, caviar, poultry, a Christmas log (buche de Noel), extensive cheese board (France boasts nearly 500 different cheeses) and wine to complement each course. Cheers! I wondered how on earth I could ever prepare such a feast.
The French Gift of Christmas Giving
An appropriate gift for my hosts posed something of a dilemma. I asked around and learned that perfume for ladies or gents, soaps, Champagne or a good bottle of wine in a pretty box, truffle oil or chocolate truffles are always welcome. Children are delighted to receive papillottes – little chocolates or candied fruits wrapped in sparkling paper. By the way, Montpellier is a shopper’s paradise, from high-end boutiques in the old town, to the markets and the modern Polygone shopping centre with the flagship Galeries Lafayette. Following an extensive refurbishment, a new glass ceiling has opened it to the habitually blue skies.
Sinners, Saints and Santa’s Helper
France shares many of our customs, some with a slight variation but others are, shall we say, unusual! One of Santa duties is to reply to every letter. Hopeful children place a shoe by the fireplace for their gifts. However, it’s Santa’s helper, Le Père Fouettard or ‘Father Spanker,’ with the power to decide who has been naughty or nice. If the latter, he delivers a spanking! (Is this why French children are well behaved?) From sinners to saints: a crèche (nativity scene) is traditional in many French homes, filled with Santons or saints, little clay figures sold in Christmas markets. And for the grand finale the twelfth day of Christmas really takes the cake, when La Gallette des Rois – King’s Cake – is served. Whoever finds the fève – a little figure or a bean hidden in the cake – is crowned king for a day.
Where to find fine food and drinks for Christmas
Champagne, wines : Aux Grands Vin de France
Truffles and Foie Gras : Les Halles Castellane indoor market in center town. Browse the stalls of the many merchants selling fine festive food items.
Cheese : La Cloche à Fromage
Chocolate : Artisan chocolate master Papereureux
MONOPRIX upmarket grocery store right on the central Comédie square : Any food item with their label “Monoprix Gourmet” is delicious.