Christmas In France - Part 1 -Tis the season to be jolly

Given the weather today, this post ought to be re-titled, "Tis the season to huddle by the fire and refuse to venture outside" - and whilst this is fine for the cats, who are doing just that, it won't help me finish my Christmas shopping.

This year I am, even by my disorganised standards, going for a new world record in Catharine Fails To Get Christmas Under Control. Not a single card has been written or sent, I'm missing various presents for various people and I haven't even thought about what we are going to eat.

I really do not want to have to go out looking for Christmas gifts on a Saturday when the shops will be full of people panic buying foie gras, reserving oysters and stockpiling their own body weight in traditional French Christmas food, but given the week ahead, needs must.

I am working on Monday, helping friends move house on Tuesday, have various meetings on Wednesday and doing the airport run on Thursday, this leaves me Friday. Christmas Eve is out in terms of shopping; due to yet another planning failure on my part. It is the small son's birthday and trailing round the shops is not his idea of birthday fun. His sister's birthday is on the 26th December so I should by now, have sourced cards, presents and birthday cakes. And of course, I haven't.

The only option is to scoot out this afternoon and belt round the local supermarket and hope that some of their idee cadeau stickers will inspire me. The stickers always crack me up. They seem to be applied completely randomly. You see them on toiletry gift sets, hairdryers and over-sized boxes of chocolates. That I get, but a net for your swimming pool? I would have thought that if you have a pool, you can probably afford to buy a net and besides, would you really want the leaves to build up until December when some kindly Aunt provided you with one? And how the hell would you gift wrap it?

Still, it could be worth buying a net or a broom, simply for the amusement value provided by watching the school kids who are inside the supermarket on 'wrapping' detail, struggling to gift wrap the thing. The kids are usually (allegedly) collecting money for their school trip. I know the kids who are 'wrapping' in our local store and the only trips they are interested in are of the hallucinogenic kind.

But gift wrapping in stores is a long-held French tradition and a great time saver. Unless you happen to be in the queue behind the lady who has bought multiple, fragile items and wants them all wrapped beautifully and separately. And you just want to pay and get out of there because your packet of A4 paper is not a cadeau. You just require it for your printer. Urgently.

It also makes your own attempts at wrapping look rubbish in comparison. And it makes buying wrapping paper very expensive. People do so little of their own wrapping that shops charge a premium for tiny rolls of paper. I thought I had struck lucky the other day when I found a 7m roll with a swirly gold pattern at a reasonable price. When I got it home I discovered that the swirly gold pattern only covered a tiny proportion of the roll. The rest was see through and it was actually designed for wrapping floral bouquets. As Max is getting Lego not lilies, this is a bit of an issue. Kind of spoils it when you can see your presents through the wrapping paper. And not really the kind of thing Santa would do.

So I'm going to go for it, brave the thunder and the hail, run to the shops, buy a random selection of bizarre items, get them wrapped by the surly adolescents, come home, pour myself an extremely large drink and refuse to panic about the Christmas Menu. Until at least the 23rd...

My friend says she does wrapping in two styles, christmas cracker or road kill, hope your's have gone ok. Best Wishes to you and family

I wish I had remembered your words and not said 'Oui' to wrapping in one place yesterday. The aged matron had umpteen Barbie type things that took acrobatic to wrap and chatted with the young staff non-stop which stopped and slowed them down. Consequence: going in and being back at check out two minutes, waiting for wrapping 40+ minutes, sum total = steam coming out of my ears and a very irate queue behind me...

You are so funny catharine!!! I am equally as disorganised and just want to hide away!!! xxxx

that all sounds horribly familair. I'm hoping that the stupid amount of birthday presents my daughter received this weekend, and the stupid budget my husband's family have for cChristmas presents next weekend will totally compensate for my horrific inability to have prepared food or gifts. I'm guessing from the post box that everybody is being useless at cards this year (or that I am finally getting my come-uppance for being so useless since the birth of my children!! Happy Christmas everyone!

Now, now Christopher! Remember it must be bisque because to use French for recipes is posh and stew, as you will and certainly my Irish friends would, and we Scots would call broth and most certainly 'pit tatties an a dumplin' ane'... is rather for the common folk.

celeste, one of my friends who is very overtly gay claims that 'Santa' being female for saint gives him away for what he really is, all dragged up under the beard and coat, and apart from that all the work is done by the fairies! I have heard it umpteen times from him but even when I write it somehow it does not have the same ring that gets me chuckling every time.

The last paragraph seems like the right idea to me.....there's always next Christmas .....

Best wishes to all SFN from Emrys & Veronica in Bedfordshire, who live in the LOT (46)for 6 months of the year.

Its snowing here at the moment and minus 3 degrees.

Oyster bisque is called Oyster Stew where I grew up. We use sherry rather than brandy and potatoes and not rice. I had it three times last week. This is closer. I am trying to find a recipe for a oyster loaf.

I'm also waiting on deliveries. And panicking. Vaguely!

You are not alone! I am very easily distracted and indecisive and bought myself a fridge magnet when I was supposed to be looking for a photo frame - however I am delighted with it - it says in French "Only a boring woman has a clean and tidy house" and i dont think Im stretching its meaning in applying it to a woman who has got all her Xmas shopping done and cards posted before the 16th of December! Needless to say Im going to be chasing my tail all next week but I have to "lose" Monday - all for a good cause - because Im off to Geneva Airport to pick my middle daughter up. Friday is "lost" aswell as I have my bi-annual trip to the hairdressers for a colour and cut and my two girls somehow have managed to wrangle haircuts aswell! Weve still got to put the decorations up, do the food and wine shop, write and deliver Xmas cards for local friends - so thats two more days lost and pick up odds and sods! I thought I was being clever ordering alot of my presents via the internet - unfortunately at the last count Im still waiting for 9 packages and only have 6 more delivery days left before The Big Day - that will teach me.........

Oh yes, Catharine, now we are in business... It's oyster time! Forget Christmas turkeys when you have these little gems. The bisque is deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevine looking.

part 2:

onions are tasteless)

1 tbsp. of malt vinegar

1 small bunch of parsley finely chopped

2 level tbsp. of plain flour

400ml of Guinness

250ml beef stock

90g of lard

2 medium sized tomatoes (finely chopped and salted)

1/2 tsp. Tabasco sauce

500g short crust pastry

1 egg

1) Lightly grease a 25-cm enamel plate with lard. Roll out the pastry and line the enamel plate, then roll out the excess pastry to make a cover for the pie and place this cover on a plate and put both in the fridge to rest.

2) Put the meat into a large bowl and evenly coat the meat with some flour and celery salt. In a large casserole pot heat the lard until smoking temperature and add the small portions of the beef at a time (leaving the remaining flour in the dish), for about 1 to 2 minutes.

3) Remove the beef, leaving the juice in the pot, and place on a plate. Add the chopped vegetables to the boiling lard remaining in the pot. As the vegetables start to soften, add the remaining flour from the bowl, add the parsley and stir for 1 minute.

4) Now add the freshly chopped tomatoes and reintroduce the beef in their juice to the pot. Leave the dish to cook slowly for an hour and a half on a low temperature, stirring every ten minutes.

5) Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.

6) After 90 minutes, add the smoked oysters to the slow cooked beef. Allow for the meat to be chilled before adding it to the pastry.

7) Now take out your pre-rolled pastry and brush the base and sides with a beaten egg before spooning in the chilled filling. Brush around the overhanging edges of the pie with a beaten egg so it forms a glue to stick to the top cover of the pie. Place the chilled meat in the pastry-lined dish and cover the meat filling with the overhanging pastry dough.

8) Brush the top of the pie all over with the beaten egg and place in the fridge for 20 minutes to make sure it does not shrink. Put the pie into the preheated oven for about 30 minutes and remove when golden brown. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, and serve.

Two lifted from an online version. I prefer a winter ale because it is seasonally right but porter is pretty good too.

Beef, oyster and ale pie


1kg/2lb 2oz beef braising steak, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

50ml/2floz vegetable oil

175g/6oz smoked bacon, cut into large lardons

125g/4½oz onion, chopped

125g/4½oz carrots, peeled, cut into batons

1-2 garlic cloves, peeled, chopped

125g/4½oz baby button mushrooms

25g/1oz plain flour

500ml/17½fl oz dark ale

1 tbsp chicken bouillon powder

2 litres/3½ pints boiling water

1 large bouquet garni (bay leaves, parsley and thyme, tied together with kitchen string)

1 tbsp wholegrain mustard

350g/12oz new potatoes, larger ones halved

1 tsp tarragon, leaves only, chopped

12 large fresh oysters, shucked

250g/9oz ready-rolled puff pastry

1 free-range egg, plus 1 egg yolk, beaten together with a pinch of salt

Preparation method

Season the beef with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat a large pan until hot, then add the vegetable oil and fry the beef for 2-3 minutes, turning occasionally, until browned all over.

Add the smoked bacon and fry for a further 1-2 minutes, then add the onion, carrots, garlic and mushrooms. Fry for 2-3 minutes, then add the flour and stir well to prevent any lumps from forming. Cook for a further minute.

Pour in the dark ale, bring to the boil and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until reduced by half. Dissolve the chicken bouillon powder in the water, then add to the pan along with the bouquet garni, wholegrain mustard and new potatoes. Bring to the boil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then reduce to a simmer and cook for two hours, or until the beef is tender.

Add the chopped tarragon to the pan and season, to taste, if necessary. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool. Discard the bouquet garni.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

Spoon the beef mixture into a 20cm x 15cm/8in x 6in pie dish and add the oysters, folding them gently into the beef mixture.

Roll out the puff pastry until it is 3mm thick, then cut out pieces of pastry large enough to fit over the top of the pie dishes as a lid, with a bit of overhang. Crimp the edges with your fingers, securing the pastry to the dish.

Prick the surface of the pastry with a fork, then brush with the beaten egg. Place the pies onto a baking tray and bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden-brown and crisp.

Serve the pies with sides of lightly boiled seasonal green vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli or spinach.

Beef, oyster and porter (Guinness) pie


500g of beef rump steak (chuck beef) or stewing steak cut into 1 inch cubes

2 x 85g tins of smoked oysters in sunflower oil

1 tsp. celery salt

2 carrots finely chopped

2 small onions finely chopped (larg

Christopher - try this recipe for Oyster Bisque - that way you could freeze it (and send me some!)

I will try that. I just got 4 bushels from a neighbor.

Beef and oyster pie. Web search for a good one. Talked about it with my OH couple of days ago given the availability here too.

This is Oyster season here on the coast and I'm buried in oysters. Any recipes to use them up?

Tra-la-la-la la la la!

Very encouraging to read this as I thought it was just me who was way behind this year!! (eg People will be getting e-cards this year except those who aren't internet users). I reckon we ought to go for the excuse of the Twelve Days of Christmas because then we'll have until January 5th to sort everything....I suppose also we could get a 'gesture present' for people for the 25th and then look for something 'proper' in the Sales!!

My 10 yrd old daughter however IS organised - she came back furtively from the bakers two days ago & I saw a wrapped packet appear in the fridge. Yesterday she said 'Er Mum, I don't know if your present will last until christmas day...'so I opened it & found Almond Croissant!!! Aaaah ...that really touched me. ...and it was delicious.