SHAFTESBURY-born private chef Philippa Davis will be back in the West Country for Christmas, but in the run-up to the festive season she has been cooking in the south of France …
Chilled milky blue light rested over the Alpilles mountains as I drove towards my final pre Christmas job down in the south of France.
In the run up to Christmas I am cooking for a couple of energetic families with lots of kids and a delightfully broad palate. This is a private chef’s dream as it’s the ideal way to plan menus with the freedom to go to the market and see what looks best for dinner. As expected there are piles of pumpkins, squashes, mushrooms, stacks of oysters and bundles of cardoons.
Now I don’t have a Scrooge-like bone in my body – I love Christmas with all its trimmings. Mince pies, open fires, mistletoe, twinkling lights, the smell of fir trees, starting one meal pretty much having just finished the last, long walks and the toffee sweets from tins of Quality Street …
Traditions down here are pretty similar to the UK, midnight mass, decorated trees, Christmas markets, last minute present dash, council funds blown on Christmas street lighting etc. Sounds familiar? Yes, until we get to the food. There are no mad dashes here to get their orders in for large free range bronze turkeys (that turn out to only just fit in the oven), goose mostly makes it onto the Provencal Christmas table in its engorged liver form and I haven’t even seen a sprout. There are however heaps of capons to choose from (castrated male cockerels) a process made worth it as it improves the texture and flavour of the flesh, although I can’t help but feel sorry for the chaps.
The Christmas meal in Provence is, surprisingly, relatively humble. Served on Christmas Eve before midnight mass, “Le Gros Souper” consists of salt cod, snails, soups and vegetables like celery, cauliflower, cabbage and spinach, maybe some anchovy paste and aioli, but no meat. Then it’s off to mass…
Now just before you get too shocked and think the French have converted to Puritanism, especially as we are talking about food, I will add that the meal is traditionally served at a table laid with three table cloths, three sets of candles, seven different wines and for the grand finale when they come back from mass – 13 desserts. Yes that’s right 13!
These will include – dried fruits and nuts that represent the four orders of Friar, raisins (the Dominicans), dried figs, (the Franciscans), hazelnuts (the Augustinians) and almonds (Carmelites); a fougasse (bread) which must be torn and not cut to avoid bankruptcy in the coming year (good to know), and is to be dipped in sweet wine; black and white nougat representing good and evil; fresh fruits and dates; calissons (marzipan diamond shapes covered in icing); candied fruits; quince cheese; oreillettes (crispy sugary deep fried bread); and Bûche de Noël, the chocolate Christmas log.
The part of the tradition I really like the idea of is the “Le Cacho Fio” where the oldest and youngest of the family select the largest log from the wood pile (often fruit or olive wood) and walk three times round the table with it, then throw it onto the fire where it is meant to burn to light the New Year ahead.
Chocolate, Chestnut and Ginger Yule Log
Serves 8 to 10 people
100g milk chocolate
100g dark chocolate
100g unsalted butter
Melt all the above ingredients in a bain-marie, mix together then leave to cool and thicken. This will take about 30-60mins.
200g dark chocolate 70 %
200g caster sugar
6 tsp cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbs icing sugar to decorate
Pre heat oven to 170 c and line a 35 cm by 25 cm tin with low sides ( swiss roll tin or shallow baking dish works) with baking parchment. Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie then leave to cool while you separate the eggs.
Whisk the egg whites with 50g of the sugar till they form soft peaks. Whisk the yolks with 150g of the sugar, cocoa powder and spices until thick ( a couple of minutes)
Whisk the egg yolk mix and melted chocolate together. Add the egg whites in thirds. The first third will help slacken off the mix and you don’t have to be too dainty. When adding the next two thirds be more delicate as you want to keep the air in.
Gently pour into the prepared tin and bake for 25 mins. When cooked leave to cool in the tin.
200g vac packed cooked and peeled chestnuts
200ml double cream
4 dessert spoons icing sugar
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
In a food processor blitz the chestnuts until dust like. While the motor is still running add the vanilla pod seeds, icing sugar then slowly poor in all the cream. When the sponge is cool carefully flip it out onto a clean tea-towel or a piece of baking paper.
Spread with the chestnut cream then roll using the paper as an aid to keep it tight and together. Expect charming cracks to appear.
When the icing has thickened drizzle on top then leave till ready to serve. Dust with obligatory snow-like icing sugar.
I wish each and every one of you a very happy holiday, may your plates be groaning with festive goodies and of course have a very Merry Christmas.
Discover more postcard recipes by visiting www.philippadavis.com