Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas in the Pyrenees

Where I live, in Ariège Pyrénées, Christmas and New Year are delightful, hearty, warm, and even quirky; just hours after dinner, we have a mid-night oyster feast.

The oysters come from Arcahon and on Christmas Eve, in our local town of St Girons, a charming, timeless picture is one of people, booted and wrapped up incoloured hats, scarves and gloves, collecting their oyster boxes before heading back to the villages and hamlets in the hills to begin the celebrations.

This being the ‘Grand Sud’, tradition is everything; life is lived according to the seasons and oysters and Foie Gras are the big ones for the festivities.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, the French may seem to work shorter hours and take more holidays, but what they don’t do, is down tools for a massive two weeks of revelry at this time of year.

Christmas begins on the 24th, with dinner very much a family affair. Foie Gras toasts are served with aperitifs and may appear again later, flambéed with fruit. Some people attend late night Mass; others take a stroll around the village. Around midnight, everyone will come together again, often with neighbours, to eat oysters and drink white wine, the feast going on into the early hours.

Christmas day lunch (magically organised, despite the midnight feasting) will have the extended family from grandparents to babies, enjoying a large and lengthy lunch that begins at mid-day on the button. This five course meal, with more Foie Gras, then Guinea Fowl or Capons for main course, will continue until late afternoon.

And that is that until New Year’s Eve. The 26th is not a holiday here, so it’s back to work.

The 31st is when family and friends get together for serious partying and for the Réveillon, Champagne is always the drink of choice. Whether a large lavish dinner or a servez-vous buffet, it is splendid, with more Foie Gras on the menu. Young or old, tradition is observed. 

We are in the Couseran hills; this is the land of top quality Foie Gras.  I love the way these customs are preserved here; the respect for old ways and for the food produced in the area.

Living in a remote part of Francethe foothills of the Pyrénées, is not for everyone. But the place has enchanted me; I love writing in my little study, with a view out over the hills.

And I’m not the only writer in the room. On my wall hangs a framed collection of notes I treasure. They are from a mega-star writer, who, in her study, takes time out from writing best-sellers to send me encouraging notes. I doubt you know her; she’s timid, not a great talker and has no opinions or advice to offer anyone, ever.

Happy Christmas from my hamlet in the hills. 

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