PGB 11: Oysters, Turkey, & Cake—The History of Favorite French Holiday Foods
Holiday food in France? Yes, please! Not only is the traditional French Christmas cuisine delicious, but it is also steeped in history! Join us as we explore three holiday favorites: Oysters, Turkey with Chestnuts, and the Bûche de Noël cake on the latest podcast episode!
Read on to see the recipes, watch how to cook chestnuts 18th-century style, and ponder the meaning of farced…
Oysters—From Rags to Riches
Oysters summon ideas of expensive dinners—a culinary indulgence to celebrate an occasion or take in the local flavor. But historically, they were cheap food for the masses. Enjoyed at home or as affordable street food, they aligned with the fasting rules of the historic Catholic church. No land animals? No problem! Let them eat oysters!
The period of fasting in the weeks before Christmas was an important time in the liturgical calendar. Advent’s fasting served several purposes: it allowed people to show their devotion and piety, it saved up food stuffs for the longform feasting of the 12 Days of Christmas, and allowed you to save money (hopefully) for the same reason. The humble l’huitre was perfect for this time of year. It was affordable, it met fasting requirements, and, when eaten fresh, required minimal preparation. Though watch out when shucking!
Oysters cruised along as an everyday food item until the 19th century. Demand began increasing for them and the supply could not keep up. As prices increased, they were considered more of a luxury item in most places. A treat at celebrations or an indulgence and not a cheap meal. As such, they now they have a place of honor at the Christmas feast, especially in Paris! Fasting beforehand is optional.
One fun side note: Despite its status as a cheap food, there have always been “fancy” oysters for those who could afford them. In France, those from the UNESCO World Heritage Site Cancale in Brittany have been prized for centuries. The Sun King was supposedly quite enamored of them, insisting his oysters only come from Cancale. And one source states the Henri IV (he of the wondering head) ate 300 oysters a day!
Turkey with Chestnuts – The Recipes
If you are feeling up to the culinary challenge, here are the recipes! Some are in French but translating can be a fun experiment. To start: dindon = turkey, marrons = chestnuts, and watch out for the s’s that look like f’s. Bon Chance!
La Varenne’s Potage with Turkie Farced—1653
This is the oldest turkey with chestnut recipe I could find and is definitely open to interpretation. It comes from famous French Chef La Varenne’s The French Cook. He handily published his cookbook in French and English!
Our turkie potage (a thick soup or meat in a sort of thick gravy/sauce) does not have breadcrumbs as a thickener but relies on eggs, meat, and more meat. It is also completely unclear as to when you add the bundle of herbs. But historic recipes didn’t feel compelled to follow a chronological order. I think throwing it in with the broth makes the most sense. Or perhaps you are stuffing it, the veal, suet, beatilles, and the eggs into the turkey and then boiling whole affair? Let me know your thoughts on this farce!
Potage of Turkie Farced. After it [turkey] is well dressed, take out the brisket [breast meat?], and take some Veal and some Suet, which you shall mince very small; thicken your farce with Eggs, & mix with it some Beatilles, or young Pigeons, raw yolks of Eggs, put it in the pot with good Broath [broth], and seeth [boil] it well: put some Chesnuts in it, Mushrums, and Truffles; stove [toast] one loaf of Bread, and Garnish it with what is in your pot, then serve. For to make the bundle of Herbes, take Chibals [chervil?], Parsley and Thime, and tie them together.
For an academic look at the importance of La Varenne and his cookbook Le Cuisinier François, check out this article.
Spit Roasted Turkey—1742
90 years later and we’re getting much closer to the modern version with the “Turkey with Chestnuts and small sausages, on the spit.” I found it in the 1742 classic Le Cuisinier Moderne by Vincent La Chapelle, whose full title translates to: “The Modern Cook: which teaches how to give all kinds of meals, fat & lean, in a more delicate way than what has hitherto been written: divided into five volumes, with new models of dishes, & table designs in today’s great taste.” Whew!
Roasted Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing and Bonus Chestnuts—1873
The Alexendre Dumas of Musketeer fame also wrote non-fiction, including the truly gigantic Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, a collection of French recipes of all kinds. And in this tome, we find a recognizable of recipe of roasted turkey with chestnuts, with bonus chestnuts on the side
Looking for something more doable? Modern recipes abound, in English and French. Most of them seem to use prepared chestnuts from a can or jar, no fussing with the skins required! Here is a tasty looking one from Paris Perfect. Bon Appetit!
France was a major producer of chestnuts from the medieval period up until the 19th century. A combination of rural flight and a chestnut blight reduced the common French chestnut to an affordable luxury by mid-to-late century. I believe this helped enhance its place at the holiday table, much like how we splurge on certain ingredients this time of year to boost our own feasts. Opting for cream over milk or going for the fancier mixed nuts instead of plain ol’ peanuts, for example. They don’t break the bank but we may choose to forgo them most of the year.
The relative scarcity of chestnuts in the US (also due to blight) means we don’t have a modern chestnut tradition like they have in Europe. But, in splendid serendipity, the intrepid chefs at Townsends released a video this week of roasting chestnuts at home, 18th-century style. Beware the exploding chestnut!
Have you ever roasted chestnuts at home? How did it go? Did they explode or did things go smoothly?
La Bûche de Noël – Charadot’s Creation?
Before we get into the supposed creator of the bûche, we must Sucket! As discussed, this recipe was found while I perusing a 17th-century English cookbook for the (unlikely) origin of the modern cake. No reference unturned for you, dear readers!
While the search was a bust, the cookbook was full of interesting recipes, including this wonderfully named dessert!
Heading back to the 19th century, we have the mystery of the true origins of the cake. While there is much speculation (and a depressing amount of copy/paste hack jobs) out there, I was able to narrow it down to the two chefs I think were the most likely contenders: Pierre Lacam and Antoine Charadot.
They were contemporary French pastry chefs in the Belle Epoque. Lacam had worked for Prince Charles III of Monaco. Charadot had a patisserie on the rue de Buci in Paris. Both published cookbooks and even published a book together!
In their book, they emphatically assert that Charadot is the creator of the famous cake. Considering the time period and the fact that Charadot was an author, we should take this with a big grain of salt.
But I think that whoever the inventor was, it seems that the authors assume that their claim was somewhat credible. That the cake was relatively new—perhaps only 14 years old at this point—and that the readers would recognize this fact. So, I believe we can safely assume that the bûche de noël as we know it is a Belle Epoque and probably Parisian invention.
Feeling inspired to make your own bûche? The quirky and hilarious Chef John at Food Wishes has an easy-to-follow version for you—no jet lag required!
Looking for more than the historic cookbooks above? Australian John Baxter shares his adventures in cooking for his new French Family in An Immovable Feast. It is a fantastic foray into French Christmas traditions and the foods that make up the uniquely French holiday season!
Which of one of the tasty trio do you like best? As mentioned in the episode, mine is of course the bûche de noël, followed by the turkey. I am happy to let you enjoy all of the oysters. 😄
Do you think you will make any of the recipes? I really wanted to make the bûche, of course! If you do make any of them, share it with me over on Instagram.
Joyeuses Fêtes!! Please enjoy all of the holidays this season safely!
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Post and Section headers: by author. ©2022 Paris Gone By/Michelle Keel
Modern Oysters: Photo by Ben Stern on Unsplash Paris, France Jan 2020
Oyster Girl: Oyster Seller from Études Prises dans le Bas Peuple où les Cris de Paris: Troisième Suite by Anne Claude Philippe de Tubières, based on sketches by Edme Bouchardon. 1738. From the Met Museum. Public Domain.
Oyster Tableau: Oysters, Cake, and a Bottle of Champagne, 1891 by Victor Morenhout. Pinterest PIN 56506170337833099
History of Turkey with Chestnuts image: by author. ©2022 Paris Gone By/Michelle Keel
Recipe from Le Cuisinier Moderne: Excerpt from pages 165-166 (images 201-202) of Le cuisinier moderne : qui apprend à donner toutes … v.1. by Vincent La Chapelle,1742. Digital copy at Hathi Trust Library,
Recipe from Duma’ Dictionnaire: Excerpt from Grand dictionnaire de cuisine by Alexandre Dumas, 1873. Recipe on page 516. Digital copy on Google books. Public Domain.
Sucket Recipe: Excerpt from Countrey Contentments, or the English Huswife: containing the Inward and Outward Vertues which ought to be in a Compleate Woman, by Gervase Markham, 1623. Digital copy held by London School of Economics, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license.
Title Page of Le Glacier: Le glacier classique et artistique en France et en Italie, By Pierre Lacam and Antoine Charadot. 1893. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Sciences et techniques, 8-V-24609. ark:/12148/bpt6k9735327k.
14, rue de Buci: Google Maps Street View extract. Extract taken Dec 23 2022. Google Image taken April 2021.