Christmas in France
Christmas in France for me is so much more than the beautiful window displays and Christmas markets. Here it is spending time with my husband's family in their village, Valbonne, on the south east coast of France. For me, joining in with their traditions is to immerse ourselves in the beautiful French culture.
We arrived late on the 23rd. The trip is not a short one at 8 hours plus stop for lunch and to get our wiggles out. Yet we found the journey was doable since our kids are used to our months of travel this past summer, and it is so worth a day in the car once we get there.
Valbonne is a busy village during Christmas. The narrow streets are lined with red carpets, the centre of town is packed with vendors selling marrons chaud, linens, pastries and chocolates, confiture, miel and crafts. The streets are full of tourists, locals and children running freely. Everything is decorated and festive.
When we arrived, we couldn't remember which street exactly we were staying on, but as it is here, we walked down from the parking lot and there were two cousins sharing a laugh and having a smoke in the street. After our hellos and bisous, a kiss on each cheek, we turned to see my mother-in-law standing under a street lamp, waving and calling out "Hello Darling!" Our kids took off down the street to throw themselves in her arms.
We had a week in Valbonne, staying in a gorgeous apartment (sadly I did not take as many photos of the interior as I thought!) with exposed stone walls, all in a warm tone of blond. When the sun shone in, the apartment lit up a bright beautiful golden vanilla. To me, this is the colour of the South of France. Vanilla. As I write this I realize vanilla is also the scent I smell the most here. My cheeks smelled of the auntie's perfume, a soft fragrance of musky vanilla, from all of the bisous.
The next morning after a fumbly sleep, as it is first night anywhere new, an aunt called from her window across the way, "Coucou!" I felt the warm rush of excitement and felt instantly charmed. We moved the small table aside and called out our hellos. My mother-in-law called this radio-window. Every morning, they would lean out their windows, aprons on, and have a chat. A cousin would pop her head out the window above the aunt's to say her hellos too.
Over the course of the week, I watched as my kids connected with their cousins without skipping a beat. The girls were as though they grew up spending every Christmas together not just the two we had here when they were toddlers.
Our days were spent visiting, eating, sharing laughs about the good days, and sometimes tears as we connected over the hard days. Our meals lasted for hours and hours. The small portions of cuisine in front of me always had me stunned. Fresh oysters and shrimp, vol au vent, plates of cheese with salty parmesan, warm camembert, and my favourite, a sharp roquefort. Poultry falling off the bone with a serving of gratin dauphinois (thinly sliced potatoes cooked in cream, salt and pepper and topped with cheese, of course). At an Uncle's house, we had wild boar in a deep gravy with soft salty baby potatoes. And tarts. So many beautiful savoury tarts. Pissaladière tart (caramelized onion and anchovies) Asparagus tart with grainy mustard spread between the pastry and egg topping. Tarts with salty ham and soft cheese. We drank white, red and rosé wines, and champagne. We sat together until there was nothing left but empty bottles and breadcrumbs left on the table.
But for me, nothing, none. of. it. is like Christmas lunch. Daniel's aunt prepares a daube de boeuf that has me in tears every time. I am quite certain I heard a moist pop when I put my fork into the meat to serve to Diaz; the beef practically dissolving it was so tender. Served in a dark rich gravy with hints of orange and placed on top of fresh-from-the-market beef ravioli. I would travel far and wide for Nadine's daube de boeuf. There is nothing like it.
The women here (and no matter where in the world, it is always the women putting together all of the dinners and lunches and celebrations, isn't it?) give their everything to bring the family together: to celebrate and connect.
That connection this year has me overflowing with happiness.