Joy Magazine

Christmas dinner in France

The legendary five-hour French holiday dinner requires endurance
This is a scene from the Christmas market in Brossac, France, during our first trip to France about 10 years ago. The villagers had fired up the ancient community bread oven for the occasion.Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

In France, my name is Robert, which is pronounced something like "row bear." My son's father-in-law is Robert, and his father-in-law is Robert. As a result of my son's marriage and immigration to France, I have learned there are no Bobs in France.

Some member of my family has spent the past 12 Christmas seasons in Brossac in west-central France. It's a storybook town that my son's father-in-law, Robert, proudly refers to as a working-class village.

As part of our son's immersion in a French family, we have been introduced to the legendary, five-hour, French holiday dinner as served by Robert and Maryse Guillet. In turn, we have introduced them to American short attention spans and long, after-dinner walks in the bitter-cold countryside.

Robert often comes along for the "apres-diner" promenade even though he is not sure why he should leave the warmth of the house to stumble around in the dark.

Following one marathon dinner featuring beef cooked in wine, we again walked. Robert led as we bisected the village, lit by a single, 10-foot strand of lights serving as the village's holiday decorations. He stopped in the dim light to talk with a stooped, 4-1/2-foot-tall woman wearing a long, wool coat and head scarf. Robert proudly informed us that we had just met the owner of the cow that provided our earlier dinner.

Southern Oregon may be in the process of discovering a farm-to-table movement, but for the 300 people of Brossac, this is just called dinner. Table wine comes in a bucket from the vineyard, vegetables from the backyard garden, fruit from Pepe (Grandpa) Bessede's trees, beef from the field next door.

The Christmas dinner starts with hors d'oeuvres and a small glass of pineau des Charentes, a sweet, fortified wine. This is a regional drink not found everywhere in France. You can get it in Medford if you look around.

The hors d'oeuvres can be a very simple dish of chips or small toasts with salmon spread.

Fois gras comes next and is served with a sweet wine. This dish is so seasonally important that our French exchange student got her boyfriend to smuggle this stuff through U.S. customs so she wouldn't be deprived of a proper Christmas.

Pace yourself because you're just getting started now as oysters are served with a dry, white wine.

The big event is a bird of some kind cooked with truffles placed under the skin and served with a good, red wine or roast beef cooked in good, red wine. Red wine is served with the main course, whether it's fowl or red meat.

A winter-vegetable dish appears after or with the main course.

When you've had all the food you can imagine eating this year, the salad appears, followed by several types of cheese and red wine. I have never seen the French standing around drinking wine while eating cheese before dinner like Americans seem to think they do. Cheese makes its appearance late in the game.

It's about this time that 80-year-old Grandpa hoists a dining-room chair in the air to demonstrate his remarkably good health. There always are empty chairs around the table because someone always is fetching more food from the kitchen.

The traditional Christmas dessert is "bche de Nol," a cake baked in the shape of a yule log, often with a small, three-dimensional scene of a woodcutter on top. This is served with Champagne.

Now comes the cognac or "eau de vie." This is a brandy or straight whiskey. There are a lot of wines and other spirits served, but I have never seen any Frenchman even a little tipsy during or after diner. This behavior is reserved for weddings.

When you smell coffee, you know the epic dinner is almost over. Coffee often appears in the form of espresso, sometimes served with chocolate.

Thinking that I may have combined several dinners into one memory or in some other way exaggerated courses or events, I sent this diatribe to my son for fact-checking and French spell-checking.

It came back with a note proving there is always one more thing: I forgot to mention the prunes macerated in cognac that come after the coffee. In some families, if you don't have prunes, you dip a sugar cube in cognac.

Reach Mail Tribune photo editor Bob Pennell at 541-776-4489 or

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