The New Year’s Eve celebration, referred to as Saint Sylvestre in France, is of pagan origin. The celebration existed long before St. Sylvester himself and long before there was even a pope. Ancient beliefs and celebrations, both religious and pagan, are mixed with those of winter solstice.
In Ancient Rome, the New Year was celebrated after Saturnalia, which was around December 25th, and was a time for “feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees.” People exchanged coins and medallions in celebration of the New Year. This tradition has slipped into oblivion, although adults sometimes still give children coins on this day, but other parts of Saturnalia continue today.
Up until the time of Julius Caesar, this end-of-year celebration didn’t have to fall on a fixed date; it was simply about ten days after Saturnalia. It was Caesar who set the date of December 31, and later, in France, Charles IX set the first day of the year as January 1.
St. Sylvester was Pope from 314 to 335, at the time the Church was emerging from the catacombs. Although Emperor Constantine controlled most of what went on in the Empire, Sylvester persuaded him to convert to Christianity and close the pagan temples. The great basilicas were also built under his influence.
What to Eat in France: Bûche de Noël, or Yule Log, Traditional French Christmas Dessert
The Yule Log, or the bûche de Noël, “an elaborate creation consisting of a rolled, filled sponge cake, frosted with chocolate buttercream to look like tree bark and festooned with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly sprigs, spun sugar cobwebs and any other sort of edible decoration,” is the traditional choice of Christmas dessert in France. It comes in many flavors and pastry chefs and home cooks alike let their creativity go wild.
Etre le dindon de la farce. / To fall victim to dupery.
Une dinde. / A stupid, pretentious woman.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, perhaps France’s best-known gastronomic writer, said that the turkey was certainly one of the most beautiful gifts the New World had given to the Old. “…the fattest, and if not the most delicate, at least, the tastiest of all domesticated birds.” It’s not often that the New World gets such compliments from discerning French epicures.
Turkeys were originally called poules d’Inde, “Indian hens,” in France, because they were thought to have come from India, which they later learned was Mexico. The French were not the only ones to get the name wrong. In Hebrew a turkey is a tarnagol hodu, meaning literally “Indian chicken;” in Russian indiuk, Polish indyk and Yiddish indik.
There is some controversy over who brought turkeys to Europe. Columbus probably brought brought them back in the early sixteenth century, since records show that King Ferdinand had ordered that every ship to bring back ten turkeys before the Spanish explorer Cortés set out in 1519. In any case, by 1548, they were the rage in France. In 1549, Catherine de Medicis served 70 “Indian hens” and 7 “Indian roosters” at a banquet held in honor of the Bishop of Paris.
French aristocrats were accustomed to eating all sorts of feathered creatures, including chewy storks, herons, peacocks, swans, cranes and cormorants, so it wasn’t surprising that they fell in love with the less-chewy turkeys, and that in 1570, Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria thought turkey noble enough to serve at their wedding feast.
By the seventeenth century, the French were raising turkeys as if they were their own and most cookbooks included turkey recipes. French chefs weren’t lacking in ideas: they made stews and ragouts; they larded, roasted and glazed it; they stuffed it and made it into soups and pâtés.
Marie-Antonin Carême preferred the wings, which he deboned, then stuffed with chicken and truffles. Alexander Dumas, in his Dictionary of Cuisine, included 27 recipes. Turkeys were well established in the Hexagon.
Christmas dinners usually meant lots of mouths to feed, so turkey, being the largest of the winged creatures available, eventually became the dish of choice for Christmas feasts. By the nineteenth century, it became customary to stuff the Christmas turkey with chestnuts, and the tradition continues today.
In France, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. Every region in France approaches Christmas Eve meals differently, but that of Provence, known as Le Gros Souper in French and the Gros Soupa in the Provençal dialect, is perhaps the best known.
The table is set with three white tablecloths, one on top of the other, representing the Holy Trinity. Three candles light the table, representing past, present and future. The past is in memory of loved ones who are deceased; the present to express one’s loyalty to friends and family, and the future to express hope for children yet to be born. Three bowls of germinated wheat, planted on December 4th, St. Barbara’s Day, and decorated with red and yellow ribbons, are used as table decoration. Once again, the number three is symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
St. Barbara, a Middle Eastern Christian saint, was the beautiful and much sought after daughter of Dioscore, who locked her in a tower to keep her suitors away. Much to her pagan father’s chagrin, she managed to get baptized, inciting him to go after her with a sword. She managed to escape and hide under a cliff, but a shepherd saw her and informed on her. As a result, God punished him by turning his herd of sheep into grasshoppers. She was sent to prison, then forced to give up Christianity and marry a pagan. Refusing to renounce her God, she was tortured and her father finally slit her throat, so the heavens promptly sent down lightning and killed Dioscore in revenge. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by germinating and planting grains of wheat, and sometimes chickpeas.
Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn ! or “when the wheat is doing well, everything is going well,” meaning that if it germinates, it will bring prosperity for the coming year. This tradition apparently dates back to the Romans. The direct connection between germination of the wheat and St. Barbara is not clear, nor how St. Barbara became a favorite saint in Provence.
The French and What They Eat: The History of Frites, what we call French Fries or Chips
Avoir la frite. / To have the French fry, meaning “to be fit.”
The French swear they invented frites, what we call French fries. The Belgians also claim to have invented them. One thing we do know is that French fries, or “chips,” as the British call them, came on the scene relatively late in the context of food history, since potatoes were incorporated into the French diet well after the discovery of the New World. It was in the late eighteenth century that Parmentier made them popular; before that, they had been the food of the poor who couldn’t afford bread and had often been used as animal feed.
But before there were French fries, there were fried potatoes, sliced, then fried in butter or lard, or sometimes breaded and fried like fritters. There is mention of this method in the eighteenth century, and recipes started appearing in French cookbooks in the nineteenth century. Already in 1807, the famous gastronomic writer Grimod de La Reynière, advised eating steak with potatoes fried in fresh butter. The following year, Stendhal wrote in his journal: “At quarter past four, I ate grilled mutton with fried potatoes and salad.”
It was only in 1838 that a Belgian by the name of Monsieur Fritz discovered the secret to making frites or French fries as we know them today. He had learned the technique in a rotisserie in the Rue Montmartre in Paris. His secret was to cut the potatoes into sticks instead of slices. This method soon took over in France and abroad.
Early Recipes for Frites and French fries
Make a batter using potato flour and two eggs beaten with water. Add a spoon of oil, a spoon of eau de vie, salt and pepper. Beat well until there are no more lumps. Peel raw potatoes. Slice. Soak in the batter. Fry until they form a nice color.–Madame Mérigot, La Cuisinière républicaine / The Republican Cook, 1794
Peel raw potatoes. Slice them. Flour them and throw them into extraordinarily hot deep fat. When they are fried, sprinkle salt on them.–A.T. Raimbault, Le Parfait Cuisinier / The Perfect Cook, 1811.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She writes for the British publicationsÂ In Search of Taste and Modern Salt, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, born the Marquise de Sévigné, was one of France’s most prolific letter writers of the seventeenth century. Known often as simply Madame de Sévigné, she was known for her love of chocolate, although her letters of 1671 reveal that she sometimes had a love-hate relationship with it.
In her letter of February 11, 1671, to her ailing daughter, Madame de Grignan, she wrote:
“You’re not feeling well, did you not sleep? Chocolate will make you feel yourself again. A thousand times I have thought: she has no chocolatier near her, poor child. What will you do?”
Letter of May 13, 1671:
“I beg you, my dear soul, my beautiful, to not eat any more chocolate. I’ve turned against it myself. A week ago I suffered from 16 hours of colic that gave me an acute kidney infection.”
Letter of October 25, 1671, when Madame de Sévigné’s daughter, who was pregnant, continued to follow her mother’s earlier words of advice:
“Chocolate, what can we say about it? Aren’t you afraid you’ll burn your very blood? All these miraculous effects, do they not hide something obscure?”
Letter of October 28, 1671:
“I wanted to reconcile myself with chocolate. I ate some the day before yesterday to help me digest my dinner and enjoy my supper. I ate some more yesterday just to get a little nourishment and to help me fast until evening. It had all the desired effects: this is why I find it so pleasant. It does what it is intended to do.”
Et pevent estre diz en francois gloutons et gourmans./ And can be said in French gluttons and gourmands.—Nicolas Oresme, fourteenth century
Les gourmands font leurs fosses avec leurs dents. / Gluttons dig their graves with their own teeth.–Henri Estienne, sixteenth century
Gourmandism is an impassioned, considered, and habitual preference for whatever pleases the taste. It is the enemy of overindulgence; any man who eats too much or grows drunk risks being expelled from the army of disciples.”–Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1825)
The meaning of gourmand is now certainly closer to gourmet than it is to glutton, but our evidence shows clearly that gourmand and gourmet are still words with distinct meanings in the bulk of their use, and are likely to remain so.—Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994
In English, there is confusion about the term gourmand. Technically, it means “one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking,” just like in French, but it is often used as a synonym for gourmet. Being a French speaker, I cringe every time I hear it used to mean “a connoisseur of food and drink.”
Yes, I’m a purist, and perhaps I’ve lived in France too long to find this acceptable, because being a gourmand has a pejorative connotation in French. It means someone who enjoys too much of a good thing and can’t quite control his appetites. It means “glutton”. It’s quite all right to be a gourmand of books or theatre, but not of food, as paradoxical as that may seem.
All major Western religions deem gluttony a sin. It is one of the Seven Cardinal Sins, with moderation being the virtue.
Gourmandizing means overeating or eatingimmodestly; it means eating like a refined pig or stuffing oneself with good food and drink.
Gourmand is extended to other sensual pursuits as well. You can have gourmandes lips; I’ll let you imagine the meaning of that. One can also be too gourmand about money, i.e. like in a little too much.
Then comes the question of whether gluttony includes pleasure, because gourmandise does, despite its negative connotation, contain an element of pleasure. Gourmands eat too much, but they do so with pleasure.
Gourmandise may be a sin in the eyes of religion, but thanks to Brillat-Savarin, probably France’s greatest gastronomic writer ever, it recovered its sense of finesse in his “meditations,” and he spent a good deal of time looking for evidence that it was a sin. He found none, he said. All the etymologists and theologians had gotten it wrong. He concluded that gourmandise is in reality a passionate, reasoned, regular preference for objects that please the taste buds. It is, he said, the enemy of excess and is only to be encouraged. That’s one writer’s opinion.
Some say the word gourmand probably comes from the Burgundian gorman, but that’s not clear. Gourmet is different, despite the fact that it may well have the same root, groumet, meaning “servant orvalet in charge of wines,” from the MiddleEnglishgrom, meaning boy orvalet (as in groom). Somehow along the way gourmand took on the meaning friand, often linked to glouton, meaning “greedy.” A gourmet is a person who cultivates a discriminating palate and knows how to appreciate both good food and wine. In French, its synonyms are gastronome, expert, connoisseur, or master. In English and used as an adjective, gourmet often means “fancy” food. It does not carry with it the connotation of excess or lack of self-control, either in French or in English.
It’s interesting to look at the origins of words, and they do change meaning over time, as we have seen, and when they are borrowed by other languages. Whether this is technically the case in English with regard to gourmet and gourmand is still questionable however, because one often sees the word gourmand used in lieu of gourmet.