Saturday, 12 December 2015

On December, 12th

On December, the 12th, 
we were tempted by a Christmas pudding

But we were tempted by a Christmas pudding only because the Advent Calendar is a British Victoriana. Although we have adopted the English tradition, we had a Christmas pudding only when we were in the UK or, now, when one is sent or brought by friends (as this year when Bob brought us one at the end of November or beginning of December). But this is not the French tradition at all. Neither are the mince pies, marzipan cakes or the rich fruit cake or the Christmas cake - not to speak of the brandy butter. All these delicacies are unknown of the French cuisine

What we have instead is a bûche de Noël - a Christmas log. As a cake of course! 

There are now variations around the main theme of the traditional bûche. It may come iced or under various forms. Let's begin with the trditional one.

There are several tastes but the main ones are chocolate, vanilla, coffee, praline, and Cointreau, which is a liquor as you may know. We usually have chocolate. During Advent time, chocolate has been banished as the money to buy it has been part of the common savings used to buy something for less fortunate people, or sent to a priest friend for his parish in Rwanda or another one in Benin. Therefore, there is a true craving for lots of creamy chocolate! The bûche can be made at home but we buy it at one of the bakers-confectioners' who is a master, when we are in The Village in Dordogne.

As the confectioner is up-to-date, and although being half retired, goes on to training courses and sends his employees to them as well, at some of the most important Parisian confectioners' like Lenôtre or Pierre Hermé - he has tried his hand to the "new bûches": the ice ones are now easily found almost everywhere, even at The Supermarket's; others are more audiacious in form, colour, and taste.

We are not so audacious as to taste something like the last green one!

The traditional bûche is mainly a sponge pastry upon which a rich cream is spread out. Then the whole flat thing is rolled as a log and decorations are added. The ingredients are rather basic. This is for the basis - the cake:

and this for the cream:

As you can see, it makes a very rich cake, which is supposed to come with champagne, and after foie gras, oysters or smoked salmon, turkey with chestnuts and green beens, and cheese. But this is a traditional meal, and customs have changed a lot during the last twenty years at least. Menus are now more sophisticated and may be lighter - or heavier in a different way.

One recipe of the bûche de Noël is given by Julia Child. I have to say that the French ignore absolutely who Julia Child may be; they do not know her name and her existence. They may have a vague idea now since the film "Julie/Julia" has been released. As to us (I refer to my family), we have great doubts about the Frenchiness of her cooking and recipes... However, here is the link to Julia Child recipe (as it is in English and I do not have to translate from French to English - sorry but I am rather lazy today) through the famous blog that started the adventure of "Julie/Julia":

Of course, the bûche is a clear reference to the Yule log and the pagan tradition of burning a log during the winter solstice. There is no coincidence that the two great figures of the New Testament, Jesus and John the Baptist (his cousin and precursor as last prophet, who gave Him the baptism in the Jordan River) have their feast on both solstices: Jesus with the Nativity on the winter solstice, and John with his memorial feast on the summer solstice. In both cases as well, logs are burnt. Remember on June, the 24th, the big bonfires? (

Although a Roman Catholic, I do not believe - and lots of RCs do not believe - that Christ was born on December, the 25th. A date was chosen by the primitive Church, and, as most of Church festivals, it came to "christianise" pagan celebrations. They coincided with the Roman calendar first as the need to make the Roman Empire Christian was the first necessity, and then with further countries and further traditions. But several traditions were the same, be they of Northern Europe or Celtic regions, or Eastern Europe, or Rome, Greece, and even Egypt or the great Middle-Eastern Empires. Human beings celebrate the main elements (Water, Earth, Fire, Air) almost everywhere, as they note almost everywhere the longest nights or the longest days, the storms, the wind, etc.

Christians could not, and at the beginning perhaps would not, or were not able to eradicate such fundamental ceremonies. Even in our materialised and rationalised world, we still continue to celebrate, even unknowingly or unwillingly, primeval elements that are firmly planted in our psyche - Jung was no fool!

Another blog gives the meaning of the Yule log and the Yule time. I disagree slightly with some elements, but laziness being too overwhelming today, as it is in English, I give you the link (it is an excellent blog).

The Yule log and the bûche de Noël always make me think of what has been the epitome of Christmas for me during a long time: Dickens and "The Pickwick Papers".

When I was a child, I was given first an abridged version in French one of Father's books from when he was a child himself, and I fell in love with "The Pickwick Papers" and their original drawings. What could be a better and more joyous celebration of Christmas than that at Dingley Dell?

And therefore we find ourselves back in Britain and in front of our Christmas pudding with its brandy butter and its sprig of holly, gaily blazing in a darkened room at the end of the Christmas dinner!
Only tempted today...

Ding Dong, Merrily on High (King's College Cambridge)

Friday, 11 December 2015

On December, 11th

On December, the 11th, a bauble reminded us that it was high time 
to think of the Christmas tree

And this is a difficult choice this year. I hesitate between the real full tree without roots (enough trees in the garden without planting another fir tree), the investment into a fake one (but some are so awful), a bouquet of branches cut from the surplus of the existing yew trees and/or pine and fir trees (not too big but shall I have the proper instruments to cut the branches, and will the trees suffer from my wild and disordered pruning or not?), a modern composition or installation of bare branches sprayed or not with white paint, for instance.

Chances are great that the wild pruning to make the bouquet will win. There are quite a large number of yews near the house; they have not been pruned since before Mother's death and need to have "a haircut"; their branches are supple and light enough not to need great efforts to be cut, and may be arranged gracefully in the adequate container that I shall find easily among our various vases and clay pots. Unless the cleaning lady gives me a hand to install a real tree without roots.

We never had an artificial tree even when we were abroad and in flats. Father and Mother  always managed to provide natural trees or bouquets more easily manageable. What changed a lot was the decoration.

When we were at home, we had the real thing with the roots that was planted afterwards in the garden, and semi Victorian or Edwardian (real and pseudo) decoration.

We had the traditional decorations as well, with themes: sometimes all golden, sometimes green and red, sometimes like tartans with the assorted ribbons, once silver and purple in a dash of fancy and modernism. It depended in fact of where we were that year. It was more traditional when we were in the Dordogne.

Mother enjoyed decorating the tree with my sister - I think that I have already mentioned that I have two left hands, which in my case is two right hands as I am left-handed, and therefore not of much use -. I suggested colour schemes and was able to draw the map of the decorations. I say decorations as Mother loved to have not onlly the tree but the whole sitting room, the dining room and the little dining room cum kitchenette (in this house) decorated with garlands, ribbons, bows, cards in temporary frames as ephemeral pell-mells, all manners of things that she created, cut, assembled, glued, pinned, knotted and fastened.

But in the last years when we were all together, Mother had turned to things more natural: string, oranges and lemons, cloves, pommanders, cinnamon, wooden ornaments, and ribbons.

All this was done with music and singing: the favourites like "Messiah" and the traditional French and English carols. Sometimes, the music is the same, the words only are in different language. My sister was a devoted help, trying no to drop anything and not to break baubles! In the last years, she was in charge of the decoration of the tree, with gentle indications and directions given by Mother - some corrections in the balance of the ornaments afterwards sometimes as well!

This is what we have done these past two Christmases, The Girls and I. And what we shall do again either on Sunday or at the very beginning of next week. They will be officially in charge of the decorations and we shall spend an afternoon of pleasure followed by a well-deserved rest. We shall go natural again. It is more in keeping with our mood. But we shall add white ribbons as we did last year. And we shall have our "White Christmas" come rain or sun or - who knows? - snow...

All this starting with a bauble!

In memoriam

Ave Maria - Schubert - Maria Callas

Thursday, 10 December 2015

On December, 10th

On December, the 10th, a snowflake was dancing

There was hoar frost when we opened the shutters this morning but in the little window of the Advent Calendar, there was snow - one snowflake.

Of course, in the Northern hemisphere, we tend to think of "White Christmas" and to associate this season with that of cold, snow, and  cosiness inside the houses. In the South of the Northern hemisphere, it is already different: it may rain in Rome and be very cold because of the humidity; it is mostly sunny in Northern Africa and rather warm; and I have already spoken on another day of this flabbergsting Christmas we spent on the beach in Florida. 

In the Dordogne, there is very seldom snow, and not for Christmas. It comes later, in January or February, leaves some five inches on the ground for a week at most, and paralyses all life as we are not ready at all for such a circumstance!

I always forget that friends in the Southern hemisphere are in the middle of  summer, eating cherries or other fruits, trying to find coolness in (if possible) air-conditioned houses, afraid sometimes of terrible storms and heavy rains that bring coolness and perhaps disasters.

As a good French girl, I associate the Nativity and Bethleem with cold, snow, Joseph and Mary shivering in their stable, the warm breath of the ox and the donkey over the Babe, muffled shepherds with chattering teeth hurrying to adore - well, not to adore really, rather hurrying to try to warm themselves with some physical activity -, and the infamous innkeeper who left the Holy Family outside at the end of December when the days are so short and the weather so inclement. With a little rational thought, of course, I know that I am far from the truth and falling into the trap of folklore and distorted history or history rewritten to fit the Christian Church faced with pagan rites and rituals.

The acme of this love of snow and cosiness was probably Victorian and more British and German than French (I need to be told about Eastern Europe). 

My own love of a white Chritmas came with my beloved Scandinavia. What is more beautiful than Stockholm at the time of year. It is bitterly cold and one hardly breathes when out for long but, oh, the beauty of it!

And then, there is Norway with the gaily painted houses in Bergen for instance,

or, not on the coast but deep in the mountains, the high walls of snow and ice that are made to allow traffic to go on and isolated houses and trees bent under the weight of the snow. 

It never seemed that cold up in the mountains and the beauty of nature was enough to make forget any inconvenience.

It seemed to come with hard and simple but joyous life. We spent days up there and there was no quibbling or illness or discontent. One of those perfect moments of happiness I like to remember. 

This is what conveys the painting of Carl Larsson for me: light, purity, innocence of a sort, contentment, little things, and, most of all, family.

Later, I was to read the best seller "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" by the Danish author Peter Hoeg ( That was another, much darker vision of snow and ice. And I developed a  hobby for the study of the different sorts of ice.

Coming back South, I understood that the rigour of older winters made snow a very different element in the Middle-Ages or later, until people could be warm more easily. I encountered Bruegel of course, who does not have the same vision of life in winter than Larsson at all.

And the 19th century French, like Monet and Sisley brough yet another opinion of winter time, snow, cold, solitude sometimes.

They were somewhat precursors of the renewed vision of these natural elements - snow, ice, cold - that we have today after a century of wars, financial and economic crises: scandalously lonely and ignored human beings left to freeze in the streets of our great Western cities. In this case, my silly idea of the Nativity finds its sense again: the homeless stay outside our cosy inns/homes and sometimes the poors among the poors hurry to give them comfort, warmth and tenderness. Then and there, each time this happens, this is Christmas that lives again. (

Anyway, there should be only rain, fog or hoar frost in the Dordogne in the coming days and the snowflake will be dancing by himself in its little window of the Advent Calendar.

Creator alme siderum
(Trinity College Chapel Choir)