Le Marché de Noël [Secret Life of an Expat]

France took the Christ out of Christmas long, long ago. The word Noël comes from the middle French nael, which comes from the latin natalis [dies] which means [day] of birth. To wish someone a Merry Christmas, one would say Joyeux Noël. There is no all-inclusive “Happy Holidays” greeting in France, but in keeping with the French (at least the French I talk to) denial of any religious connection to their many religiously scheduled and named school vacations and national holidays (All-Saints, Easter), wishing someone a Joyeux Noël is merely wishing them a good vacation. In that way, it can be said to anyone whether they celebrate or not.

This year, I scoured Paris for something Christmas-y to write about, but beyond a lot of blue and white lights (I know, counter-intuitive, right?), it seems the best things we have going here are the display windows at the big department stores, and they are a little scary.

Then I realized that what I was looking for was all happening in my back yard. I live in a somewhat boring suburb of Paris, but the powers that be are good with community events, and every year there is an adorable Christmas Market.

Maybe this is what you expect a market “in the old country” to look like? With chickens and rabbits (bottom right) and a veritable cornucopia all spread out on hay. Well sorry, this is just a display. The bananas are plastic.But the geese are real. There were lots of animals in attendance, professional show offs: geese, goats, sheep, cows, even a donkey. Seeing all these agricultural animals gives you a sense of plenty and makes everything feel more, I don’t know, wholesome…

Lots of vendors sold the traditional foods you would buy at a Christmas, or really any French, Market. First and foremost, CHEESE. The big (both in size and in quantitiy) cheeses here were Raclette, Tomme, Comte, and Brebis.

You can’t have cheese without sausage. This is the kind you cut into slices, peel the skin off and dig into, in spite of the  fact that it’s full of big globs of white fat. The little signs indicate what’s in the sausage, like noisettes (hazelnuts), or cêpes (a type of mushroom), but there’s also âne (donkey), and sanglier (wild boar). Speaking of wild boar, one ran amuck in Toulouse a while back…

Noël isn’t Noël without the very traditional appetizer foie gras with onion jam. These sisters from the Gers region sell just that, plus a bunch of other prepared duck dishes such as magret de canard, canard à l’ancienne, and paupiettes de canard.

And of course brioche, a sweet, rich bread that reminds me of Challah except there’s dairy in it. These breads are enormous and you purchase by weight. The brown breads are pain d’epice, or spice bread. Something like gingerbread but in my opinion, not as good.

Time for a snack? Try a raclette sandwich. What is that, you ask? You see those half-disks of oozy toasty cheese? That’s raclette, and like reblochon, it melts deliciously well. The contraption they’re sitting in is a horizontal toaster. So when you hand over your 5 euros, a lovely man from the Alps will slice a layer of melty raclette cheese into a warm baguette with cured ham inside. You could also have tartiflette, a barbe à papa (cotton candy), or even a churro…

Wash your low-cal melted cheese sandwich down with a glass of wine. There were many wine vendors offering samples but our local vintners were the best dressed. They have been harvesting from vines planted beside the playground 14 years ago.

Or you could have a rum punch. What with all the tropical islands the French have colonized, rum punch is kind of a big deal here. These vendors were from Guadeloupe, and sold their delicious concoctions for 20 euros a bottle. I love that they were using one of these juice machines to sell by the glass.

While digesting, take a moment to watch the demonstrations. A shepherd walked around the market showing off his very dedicated sheepdog. The border collie looked more like the Looney Tunes Ralph E. Wolf (Wile E.’s twin cousin, apparently) than his rumpled nemesis Sam Sheepdog, and wouldn’t stop creeping around long enough for me to take a clear picture. The day before I saw him herding geese in the same fashion.

This fellow was making sabots, wooden clogs formed from a single piece of wood, and also the French answer to stockings hung by the chimney. It used to be, if you left them by the door, or maybe by the chimney, Baby Jesus, I mean The Rich, I mean Santa Claus, would fill them with presents… Sorry I can’t get a good account of the tradition.

 So there you go. Christmas in Noisy. Joyeux Noël à tout le monde!!

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