The first time I spent the New Year in France, was also the first time I was invited to meet my future husband's family, and I was a little nervous. I flew down to Paris, spent a romantic afternoon in the capital before being whisked out to the country home.
The dinner was to be a traditional family celebration, and that is surely the best way to meet for the first time.
From the moment I walked through the door, I was not only warmly welcomed but made to feel part of the party and allowed to help with the preparations!
The French New Year dinner was bigger and more sophisticated than any meal I had eaten in my life! A long table was laid out for almost twenty people, most of whom were already present and busy.
The men were put to opening the oysters, and laying the fires; little girls shown how to lay the table beautifully, the wonderful grandmother was busy making a wicked chocolate mousse, and keeping a careful eye on what everyone else was doing!
I was given easy tasks and encouraged to join in the busy bubbly conversations around the busy bubbly kitchen table. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that there were many different sorts of dishes being prepared, but I had to wait until we sat down to understand what this dinner would be like.
Suddenly there was a change in tempo, and it was declared to be the right moment 'pour se preparer' to get changed and make ourselves look lovely! I had brought with me a LBD and high heels, neither flashy nor casual, I felt comfortable although by the end of the meal I would happily have let the waist out a bit!!
All the girls, from the youngest (4 years old) to the doyenne (the eldest at 84 years old) disappeared and could be heard chatting as they did each others hair, or buttoned up a pretty dress. The men also changed and little by little everyone drifted back down to the main fire, where bottles of champagne had appeared accompanied by tiny, delicious 'amuse gueules' .
The long table was beautiful, candles placed here and there, pretty napkins, sparkling cutlery and three plates in front of each seat. "On a mis les petits plats dans les grands", smiled the grandmère "we've put the small plates on the bigger ones", simply meaning this is going to be a grand meal.
After almost an hour chatting over the champagne, I could sense that speed was picking up in the kitchen and when the lady of the house declared it was time to eat, there was a flurry of people finding their seats while others carried huge platters of fresh seafood, smoked salmon and baked snails to the table. I was advised which sort of bread to take with the oysters, and to squeeze just the right amount of lemon juice over the salmon.
The atmosphere was fun, loving, fairly loud but never out of place. The seafood platters disappeared after a while and the next course materialised as if by magic. Foie gras and paté en croute. This also meant a change of wine, and only then did I notice that as well as several plates ready in front of us, we each had several different wine glasses. We had enjoyed a dry white wine with the seafood, and switched to a sweeter Sauternes with the foie gras.
There was a pause now, a couple of the women busy in the kitchen, and the man of the house called in to carve. Our foie gras plates cleared away, bottles of red wine appeared down the centre of the table and from the kitchen there emerged a magnificent roasted leg of venison, accompanied by two large dishes of gratin dauphinois (potato bake) and two fragrant dishes of sautéd wild mushrooms.
This is the point where I realised that when the French sit down to eat, it is a serious business, and first and foremost they talk about ... food. Everybody was keen to discuss how long the meat had been cooked for, how well the wine suited the flavour of the dish; which variety of potatoes were best for the gratin ... I sat back and watched ... and understood ... and learned ... and loved every minute of it!
We took our time over this main course, people enjoyed second helpings, wine glasses were kept topped up, children started to look a little weary but nobody was in a hurry. In fact just as we reached the end of this course, the clock struck 12 and everybody stood to kiss everyone else in the room and wish each other the very best for the year to come. You can imagine that with twenty people in the room this took a while, but the movement was welcome, and while we were all standing everyone gave a hand to clear away and ... bring in the next course!
Cheese and salad was next in line. Clean plates, same cutlery, and we continued with the same red wine. A stunning cheese selection, and more food conversation until finally it was time for dessert.
Here the children were served with grandmère's chocolate mousse and for the adults there was a magnificent Buche de Noel, not home made but, as is often the case in France, ordered from their favourite bakers.
This happy, family celebration ended at around 4 in the morning, the tables not quite cleared away, but space made for dancing in front of the fire. The next day, I'm glad to say that the meals were much lighter, and there was a long walk in the afternoon. A wonderful way for me to discover family life in France.