Friday, January 6, 2012

Christmas in Orsay

A few of the the Thirteen Desserts.

Our pink Buche de Noel.

Maria discovers a love of citrus.

The capon.

More food!
Stockings hung by the radiator with care.



We had a quiet, food-filled Christmas here in Orsay. Don took off the Friday before Christmas Eve so that we could prepare and do a market run together. It was by far the most fun trip to the market we've taken as a family. There were three reasons for this. First, Donnie's had improved to the point where he could confidently ask "how do you cook this thing?" and understand the reply. Second, we went with loosened purse-strings, ready to spend on the upcoming festal meals. Third, we had just received a replacement wheel for our big Phil & Ted double stroller, which meant we had a whole second seat to fill with purchases (no hanging bags on the handles of our little umbrella stroller).

With Maria in the front seat of the stroller and Lulu in the sling, we took off. Our first stop was the poultry counter. I'd seen beautifully trussed roasts on previous trips to the market and had resolved to buy one. Our tiny kitchen is not conducive to complex culinary adventures, so I though it best to pay some extra money and let someone else do the flaying, stuffing, and trussing. We picked a roast that was artfully decorated with raisins and parsley. The placard said something about it having a raisin and cognac filling. Wonderful. "Cook at 180 degrees for 90 minutes," the vendor said, and wrote the temperature and time on the back of the receipt. The roast was from a creature called a "chapon," which Donnie's phone translated to "capon." I had heard the word "capon" in a Shakespeare play at some point. That augured well. Judging from the less processed specimens on the meat counter, we concluded that a capon was something chickenish. When we got home and consulted Wikipedia, we discovered that a capon is indeed a chicken--a castrated, male chicken to be exact.

After the poultry counter, it was off to the fish counter to buy fillets for our Christmas Eve dinner, then to the dried fruits vendor for figs, almonds, and candied pineapple, then to the fruit seller for oranges, pears, apples, grapes and dates. Finally, Donnie stopped at the baker's table to buy something to appease Maria, who had grown grumpy with the delay of her breakfast. The loaf he brought back was wonderful--a sourdough with a dense, moist crumb, chock full of raisins and hazelnuts. We rounded out our visit by stopping at the playground near the center of town.

Christmas Eve morning began with the arrival of the Carrfour delivery man. It was the first time we've had groceries delivered. (We are eager to repeat this experience. There is something magical about a stranger showing up at your door with bottles of heavy cream and sweet potatoes. It really beats facing Carrfour in person.) Around 1pm, Muschi and Paschi arrived. Muschi and I began cooking. I should say, Muschi began cooking while I cleaned fruit for our spread of Thirteen desserts.

The Thirteen Desserts of Christmas are a Provencal tradition that I first learned about from Marcel Pagnol's book, My Father's Glory. (I really recommend the book and the movie.) The desserts represent Christ and the twelve apostles. Aside from the "four beggars" (raisins, figs, almonds, and walnuts) and dates, the exact desserts differ depending on where you are, and what's available. I didn't end up with the time to track down some of the more esoteric ones (quince jelly or candied melon), but we did have thirteen things in our desserts spread. To be honest, I lost count somewhere between washing grapes and nursing the baby. I'm sure there were at least thirteen.

Our Christmas Eve feast was a late lunch comprised of fish fried in butter, topped with parsley, garlicky cucumber salad, and Austrian potato salad. In Austrian tradition, Christmas Eve dinner is meant to be something of an austere meal--hence the fish. In reality this was the most complex meal prepared in our kitchen since our occupancy and it was very yummy. Thank you, Muschi!

After lunch, Maria had a nap. Her naps have gotten to be terribly late, often beginning after 2pm and lasting till after nightfall. On this day, her nap ended particularly late, around 6:30. It was something of a rush to get out the door in time to get a seat at the 8pm vigil Mass in Orsay. In the rush, Maria refused to wear her Christmas dress, and left the house wearing something nice, but more casual than I would have wanted. Alas, the best planned outfits go unworn.

The walk to the church was pleasantly warm--no ice to watch out for, no worries about the children freezing. We sang a few carols along the way. The Mass was lovely and homey, with French versions of "Silent Night" and "Go Tell it on the Mountain". For my part, most of Mass was spent wrangling one or the other child. Maria was in a particularly talky mood and Louisa was fussy because of the late hour and a cold. I'm grateful that there are blessings that come from attending Mass irrespective of whether you understand the readings or are able to absorb what's going on. Mass with a toddler can resemble a contact sport, but is nonetheless wonderful.

At the end, the priest invited all the little ones to view the creche, which was surrounded by cardboard models of buildings in Orsay. I went up with Maria. It was the first time she's gone up to join the priest, and I want to mark it down.

We returned the house and broke out the Buche de Noel that Paschi ordered from Muschi and Paschi's favorite baker in Barron-Marlotte. Now, when planning our feast, we had had visions of a traditional, chocolate frosted, Buche de Noel greeting us after Mass. It turns out that some French people have had enough of the traditional yule log, and want something more, ahem, exciting. My father had ordered the Grand-Manier flavored log, thinking they would just add Grand-Manier to the chocolate. Not so. What we got was a roll cake covered in bright pinky-orange frosting, with candied fruit inside. It was delicious and Maria loved it.

At last, after a reading of The Christmas Baby, Maria was put to bed. Maria had been primed for a visit by Pere Noel/Father Christmas by numerous readings of Babar et Pere Noel, and The Night Before Christmas. Muschi and Paschi made sure that she wouldn't be disappointed. They brought the tree and an astonishing number of gifts. Muschi had visited Tante Rosie and Edith in Vienna the week before and came back with some beautiful wooden ornaments, a stocking full of gifts and a large collection of chocolates specially wrapped to be hung on a Christmas tree. We brought in the tree, figured out how to stand it up, decorated it, laid out the gifts, hung the stockings, and cleaned up from the day's feasting. I drew an angel to to top the tree. These things things took until 2:30am.

Maria woke at 7:30 and Muschi valiantly got up with her. Maria was enchanted by the sudden appearance of the Christmas tree. Indeed, I think the Christmas tree alone would have kept her entertained for all 12 days of Christmas. After an hour of great patience on Maria's part, her parents dragged themselves out of bed, and the present opening commenced. There were loads of beautiful clothing for the girls, as well as two games, many books, bath toys, a zebra rattle (Louisa), and a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh (Maria) all from Pere Noel (aka Muschi & Paschi). Our contribution were additional trains and track pieces for Maria's Ikea wooden train set, along with a few odds and ends in her stockings. Maria didn't end up unpacking her stocking until many days later, she was so busy with her new books and Pooh doll. Indeed, the number of new and interesting things was a little overwhelming for Maria. I think in the future, we may look for ways to spread out the presents.

The day proceeded with much cooking, playing, eating, and general good cheer (with a bit of Computer Science thrown in). Louisa's gift to us was to roll from her tummy to back four times in a row, a feat we'd never seen her do before. We Skyped with the Sheehys. What a blessing technology can be!

Our Christmas menu had first course of cauliflower soup, followed by the capon roast with mashed sweet potatoes, cucumber salad, and white asparagus. It was all delicious. I think capon may be on the menu again next Christmas. To aid our digestion, we went on a nice walk through the neighborhood. We rounded out the evening with the rest of the Buche de Noel and plenty of delicious chocolates courtesy of Tante Rosie and Edith. Then it was time for an early bed.

It was a lovely, delicious little Christmas.

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