As plans for the Christmas season are being finalised, the question on the world’s collective lips begins to form: what’s for dinner? What delights will be awaiting us on our plates and in our glasses? I know that this question is forming because I see it crop up in my blog feeds and newsletters from France, Spain and Italy, so I thought it would be interesting to take a comparative look at what our neighbours are eating and drinking this Christmas. Let’s start with France, where the traditional feast or reveillon is served on Christmas Eve: rich, indulgent appetisers like foie gras, caviar or oysters, usually followed by a game bird, then a multitude of desserts.
If serving pan-fried foie gras as a starter, Sauternes is considered a classic harmonious pairing, but beware of overindulging the palate with too sweet a bottle. On the other hand, Le Figaro sommelier Enrico Bernardo recommends contrasting the richness of the foie gras with a crisp late-harvest riesling from Alsace. As for caviar, Champagne is a sound favourite: its bubbles go wonderfully with the texture of the fish eggs, and its crisp, mineral character complements the oily, iodine-rich caviar. If opting for raw oysters, however, a bright, crisp muscadet will complement the mollusc much as lemon juice does, with a minerality that will elevate the brininess of the oysters.
The classic main course at a French reveillon is capon, a fatty game bird that can be paired with either red or white. Bernardo recommends a fruity and peppery Alsatian pinot noir, or else a punchy, apricot-heavy white from Châteauneuf du Pape. Alternatively, roast goose may be served, calling for a bold, youthful and preferably tannic red to hold its own against the powerful gamey flavours and unctuous texture of the bird. My English–language sources recommended pairing goose with Bordeaux, barolo or aged Rioja, or even a crisp riesling or gewürztraminer if serving with an apple stuffing; on the other hand, Bernardo recommends a tannat or a malbec for the chestnut-stuffed French version.
The penultimate course of the epic French Christmas dinner is Les Treize Desserts: the thirteen desserts. Originating in Provence, this generous spread of sweets represents Christ and the twelve apostles. Among its best-known components is the calisson d’Aix, a soft almond paste scented with candied melon which, according to Enrico Bernardo, pairs best with a muscat: occupying the space between dry and sweet, it neither overpowers nor is dominated by the sweet treat.
And so we arrive at the cheese plate, the signal that the feast is drawing to a close. The fruity, fatty richness of the cheese can pose a challenge for pairing, so use caution and plan carefully. Overly tannic and full-bodied reds are out of the question, as they will distort the flavour of the cheeses, accentuating their bitter notes: rather, fruity and floral gamays and pinot noirs are safer bets in the red camp. If you do opt for a white, it should be rich and fruit-forward on the nose: a nice chardonnay, perhaps.
Can you imagine surviving such an onslaught of food and drink? I feel ready to slip into a food-induced slumber just writing about it. Once I’ve recovered, I’ll be back next time with some more insight into what the world is eating and drinking at this special time of year.
Thanks to California sommelier Gian Pablo Nelson for his help in composing this post. Links to all other sources are included in the text.