A Very French Christmas with Ian Moore
A French Christmas with Ian Moore and his family in Loire Valley
Ah, the traditions of Christmas chez Moore
Ah, the traditions of Christmas chez Moore. The Radio Times and a highlighter pen, being told to turn off James Brown’s ‘Funky Christmas’ CD, the argument over whether the lights go on the tree before or after the decorations, the children deciding a week before Christmas Day that their current interests are old hat, thereby rendering all unopened presents already obsolete and, of course, huge numbers of Natalie’s family descending on us for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Growing up, Natalie was always used to big Christmas gatherings hosted by her grandparents and for the last five years we’ve carried on that tradition and have twenty or so guests over the two days of Christmas (they don’t do Boxing Day here, which is a shame as Boxing Day, once the pressure is off, is the best day of Christmas) and I look forward to it.
Christmas Day fare is the usual stuff, turkey and so on, but Christmas Eve has always been my night – a new recipe or a twist on a classic. It’s my chance to show off. I love the planning, the preparation, the cooking and, as a stand-up comedian who just needs to be loved, the ‘applause’. It’s my night and I love it, even the stress. And, as you can imagine, an Englishman cooking for a large number of French people does not come without its pressures.
I love the planning, the preparation, the cooking and, as a stand-up comedian who just needs to be loved, the ‘applause’
Last year, in an act of madness I decided to cook a fish curry. The sheer magnitude of it all only dawned on me mid-afternoon when I was preparing the meal. I broke out into a cold sweat as I realised that I was making a meal I had never cooked before for twenty-odd French gourmets (all French people think they are gourmets) and who, for the most part, had never eaten fish curry. Not only did I not know what I was doing, I did not know what I was doing on a massive scale. And it was fish; I might kill someone!
Thankfully, the meal was a success, but while every child found it difficult to sleep that night in anticipation of Christmas Day, I didn’t sleep either, convinced that I may have started a food poisoning epidemic.
An Englishman cooking for a large number of French people does not come without its pressures
I had planned a safer menu for this year with a selection of English and French sausages; well the sausages were English but the boudin noir (black pudding) were French and the andouillettes were definitely French.
It’s difficult to describe andouillettes, except to say that they are not for the faint-hearted; they are a local speciality, a large white sausage made up from the parts of animals usually reserved for the strings on tennis rackets or spare patches on a puncture repair kit. Needless to say they are something of an acquired taste and even fans of them very rarely manage a whole one.
All of my planning for this Christmas Eve had been in vain
All of my planning for this Christmas Eve had been in vain, though; I’d been usurped.
Natalie’s grandparents had both died a few years earlier, ‘Papy’ from a long and inevitably doomed battle with cancer and ‘Mamie’ a few months later, officially from an embolism but also because maybe she just wanted to. It happens quite a lot I think, when one half dies after a lifetime spent together – in this case fifty-eight years of marriage – the other finds the physical and mental demands of being alone just too much and it takes its toll.
Their house, a massive, almost Gothic monstrosity on the edge of town had been standing empty ever since, partly due to a very depressed local housing market but also because who in their right mind would want it? It’s on a busy road, opposite a builders’ merchants, next door to a kebab shop, and its rooms are so cavernous that heating alone would cost a fortune.
In the meantime, one of Natalie’s uncles had moved into the empty house and although it was lovely to have family back on our doorstep, to celebrate his move back home and the fact that his boyfriend had moved in with him, they would be doing Christmas Eve.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t upset, but the decision was taken while I was away, possibly quite rightly, that I was strung out enough as it was without hosting Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
To me it just represented another chipping away at my life in France, something else I had to give up
It was a decision taken as much with my interests at heart as anything, but that had never stopped me from throwing my toys out of the pram before and it didn’t this time either.
To me it just represented another chipping away at my life in France, something else I had to give up. It’s inevitable of course; one of the many problems of being away so much is that, certainly on a domestic front, jobs that should be mine have to be done by someone else, and so when I do return, I feel a little left out, a bit spare. Obviously there are jobs that could only ever be mine; despite the harrowing journey back the previous week, the first thing I did when I got in was to start re-arranging the fridge which was frankly, after so long away, an organisational shambles but also the perfect ‘come down’ for an OCD-ridden fruitcake high on caffeine supplements.
But it’s the little things. I no longer prepare Natalie’s pre-dinner gin and tonic for instance, that responsibility now lies with Maurice, who clearly has some talent in that area.
The one small advantage of not ‘doing’ Christmas Eve was that I had more time for other things
The one small advantage of not ‘doing’ Christmas Eve was that I had more time for other things. The trampoline that had blown away the previous week needed to be removed from a neighbour’s garden across the road, which was quite some task; I was tackling it truculently and wondering how such a heavy, metal structure could possibly just ‘blow away’ when a passing farmer told me that it was right to get it out of sight, ‘otherwise the Roma might have it away.’
But by now the thing was useless, so in the end I decided to leave it in full view and hope that the local Romani population would indeed live up to their stereotype and ‘have it away’, that’s not me being lazy you understand, that’s just recycling.
My Christmas Eve ‘unemployment’ also meant that everything was ready. The presents were all bought, wrapped and hidden, though Natalie’s was, as ever, a trial as she veered violently between ‘I don’t want you to buy me anything’ and ‘I’d love a Pomeranian puppy’.
The dogs had had their visit to the ‘Doggy Parlour’, a twice-a-year shampoo and set which tends to leave them a bit confused. Natalie had returned from the parlour with horrific tales of what the Spanish do to greyhounds – apparently Sylvie, who owns the parlour, belongs to a rescue charity and greyhound foster home which is good news for greyhounds, but I suspect bad news for me.
Thankfully, Natalie hadn’t returned with an actual greyhound this time, though I feared a New Year Crusade coming on.
My Christmas Eve ‘unemployment’ also meant that everything was ready
She actually missed an opportunity. I was so pleased to be home, so happy to be back, that she could have turned up with half a dozen and I probably would have just laughed it off; I was full of festive spirit. I love being part of big family Christmases. Christmas is a control freak’s time of year: so much to plan, organise and delegate. Orders to be barked, strops to be thrown – I love it. And the boys are obviously excited too. Samuel and I had already done the final big supermarket run.
Orders to be barked, strops to be thrown – I love it. And the boys are obviously excited too. Samuel and I had already done the final big supermarket run.
‘Daddy,’ he asked as we cut a swathe through Christmas- shopping dawdlers, ‘is this shopping list in the same order as the shop layout?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, a touch defensively, ‘otherwise it’s just chaos.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘It’s the only way.’
He really was becoming more like me, which while no doubt flattering, isn’t necessarily the best way to go for his own sanity. He had even started performing.
I love being part of big family Christmases. Christmas is a control freak’s time of year: so much to plan, organise and delegate
The highlight of this particular Christmas Eve was Samuel and Maurice singing ‘One More Sleep ’til Christmas’ from The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is, in my view, the best Christmas film of all time (sometimes I veer towards It’s A Wonderful Life, but Samuel and Maurice haven’t acted out those scenes yet).
They had secretly been practising for the previous week with Natalie’s dad on guitar and it was tear-jerkingly lovely.
It’s something of a tradition at French family gatherings, or this French family at least, that people get up and ‘do a turn’, something which I know to my cost.
The first time I met Natalie’s extended family (and there are hundreds of them) was at the wedding of an uncle and it was felt that the best way for me to ingratiate myself with the entire clan would be to perform.
This wasn’t my idea obviously – I would have been happy to write a card of introduction and buy each of them a drink, but that wasn’t an option, so I had to sing a song. It was quite, quite terrifying – and long before I’d started stand-up.
The Muppet Christmas Carol… the best Christmas film of all time
Even now I feel like I was the victim of some grand practical joke, part of some elaborate initiation test. I performed a drunken, mumbling rendition of Elvis’s ‘Love Me Tender’ and after that, to most people’s relief, this tradition seemed to fade away.
The fact my eldest children, lovely though their performance was, appeared to be mounting some sort of resurrection of this tradition was a bit worrying and there were some anxious expressions around the table, memories of previous karaoke horrors coming back from the distant past and encouraging some of the more deranged members of the family to insist on doing it every year.
Well, you won’t catch me warbling away, that’s for sure; this Elvis has definitely left the building.
Though I bang on about planning and menus and the like, Christmas Day is actually relatively stress-free.
There may be twenty-three people in the lounge, but everybody will have contributed to the meal.
Natalie will have prepared the foie gras, someone else will have brought the oysters and someone else the smoked salmon.
This Elvis has definitely left the building…
Natalie’s mum might have part-cooked the two turkeys, while I prepared the vegetables. Somebody else will have brought the cheese, another the bread. A fruit salad will be rustled up, other homemade desserts will arrive and someone else will have made a Christmas log. Brian, Natalie’s dad, will have baked homemade mince pies and a Christmas cake. Someone will have brought dessert wine (a Jurançon or a Sauternes), someone else the red wine, and there’ll always be bottles of the ‘family’ champagne.
Papy once owned some land in the Champagne region, where he was born, and the ‘new’ owners now provide us with a few cases of the stuff, in what some of the family see as recompense for the underhanded way in which they obtained the land in the first place.
Finally, and after having taste tested various high-class Christmas puddings throughout December, a winner will have been decided upon on and the whole thing will finally be set fire to by someone wobbling after hours of rich food and wine indulgence and wearing a dangerously angled, highly inflammable, paper crown. The children, of course, are spared all this and are excused most of the sitting down; not that they miss any courses.
So everybody does something. It’s obviously one of the signature meals of the year and the French want to be part of the preparation not just the execution, a case of too many cooks definitely not spoiling the broth.
Having said that, though, Christmas Day didn’t start too well for me.
Everything was pretty much under control by midday; presents had been opened, wrapping paper folded up and put away for future use (not my OCD this time, but Natalie’s), the table was laid, the turkey was on, the vegetables were ready to go, teams of oyster-openers were outside in the watery winter sun and already hitting the wine for their trouble.
And then sartorial disaster struck.
Christmas Day didn’t start too well for me
I had a chorizo sausage hanging in the larder, drying out for post-Christmas, non-turkey leftover meals; but it was in a precarious position and so really I only had myself to blame.
I reached into the larder without concentrating, not looking at what I was doing, until I felt something fall onto my arm.
It was the chorizo, as yet undried, and my arm was now covered in its oil.
Only it wasn’t just my arm, it was my sleeve. My beautiful new jumper, my heavy wool Breton- style sailing jumper which I had got only that morning was soaked in red chorizo juice; I looked like I’d been shot.
Of all the potential Christmas calamities that could have befallen me – like undercooking the turkey, dropping the champagne, leaving the cats in charge of the smoked salmon – there is absolutely nothing worse for a mod than gaudy coloured sausage juice on your new sweater.
Now, I like swearing and I think there’s an art to it; those who say that it’s neither big nor clever or that it shows a lack of vocabulary haven’t heard it done properly and are also cutting themselves off from the most vibrant and organic parts of language.
Badly timed, unnecessary swearing is crude and jarring, but when your best jumper has just been covered in spicy oil there is an opportunity for some really inventive expletives.
I like swearing and I think there’s an art to it
I prefer the use of alliterative word plus friendly word juxtapositions and Christmas time offers a whole range of opportunities for the switched-on potty mouth.
I was in the larder for a good couple of minutes, giving it the full invective, and eventually emerged to find everybody standing there, open-mouthed, staring at me.
The look on their faces was a mixture of shock and awe, like a particularly well-endowed streaker had just skipped through the kitchen.
Most of them weren’t even aware of what I was saying, but when such venom and poison are spouted, clearly the actual language element is no barrier. So I scurried back to the vegetables and pretended nothing had happened.
My favourite part of Christmas Day has always been the turkey and stuffing sandwiches in the evening
Personally my favourite part of Christmas Day has always been the turkey and stuffing sandwiches in the evening but that’s not really an option in France, not unless I eat them before we actually finish dinner.
The meal lasts all day and it’s not difficult to see why: firstly, there are about ten courses, each demanding a different wine, and each course is ambled through – there is no rushing here.
Each new plate seems to set off another philosophical debate or moral dilemma which must be debated at full volume. Nothing passes at the Christmas table without comment or counter comment, nothing.
And just when you think things may be flagging another course is introduced (the turkey was the sixth course to arrive) and if conversation gets a little dull, things are always easily livened up with a cracker.
The French, unsurprisingly, don’t do crackers; it’s a distraction from the important job at hand, which is eating.
Most of Natalie’s family are aware that Christmas at our house is an Anglo-French affair, the Anglo bits are Stilton, Christmas pudding, crackers and the music, and the French bits are everything else.
Watching a novice Frenchman having a cracker explained to him then by another equally sceptical Frenchman is a bit like watching two Americans discuss the rules of cricket.
The French, unsurprisingly, don’t do crackers
‘We pull these things as we sit down to eat.’ ‘Why?’
And you know that at this point he wants to say, ‘Because it keeps Ian and his kids happy. Just do it, for God’s sake, don’t set him off.’
‘And we have to wear this paper thing?’ ‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Why have I got a luminous paperclip?’ ‘Ah, foie gras! Thank God.’
I’m not going to defend any of the ‘jokes’ in the crackers. Most sentient English folk read them, groan and move on. But watching a clutch of French people cope with crackers while already having been through a good portion of champagne, oysters, sweet white wine and a full-bodied Burgundy is funny enough in itself.
‘OK, OK, I ’ave one. Oo ’elps a rabbeet get dressed?’ one of the throng asked to uninterested silence.
‘An idiot!’ someone said after a while.
‘Rabbeets don’t wear the clothes! Is eet a reedle?’ another said, a response that set off a flurry of philosophical debate about what constitutes a riddle.
Then came the punch-line: ‘An ’are-dresser. Sorry. A hare dresser.’
The French don’t get sillier the more they drink, they get more earnest
‘I don’t get it,’ someone else said, and then came a number of explanations, all of them giving the rather tired pun far more gravitas than it deserved.
The French may love their slapstick and puns of their own, but there is simply no room, it seems, for frivolity at the dinner table.
The French don’t get sillier the more they drink, they get more earnest.
When at last it was explained that it is just a joke, a deliberately poor one as is traditional in crackers, a few of them looked at me, clearly bridging the gap between a joke in a cracker and my job as a stand-up comedian, holding me responsible for this nonsense and wondering just how secure my children’s future really is if it’s built on this sort of flimsy, substandard punnery.
Eventually, sated enough to render turkey and stuffing sandwiches unnecessary, we all retired to the living room and flaked out like a pride of lions after a particularly good kill.
Natalie, having put my injured sweater in to soak earlier, emerged from the bathroom with it miraculously restored to its former glory and I felt magnanimous or festive enough to allow even the cats and dogs in to join us.
Immediately Flame jumped on me and settled on to my chest as he usually does, started doing that non- claw pawing that cats do, purring heavily and then – as apparently male cats are wont to do – sprayed the foulest excretion this side of a dirty protest in a Bangkok prison cell all over my bloody jumper!
Christmas at our house is an Anglo-French affair, the Anglo bits are Stilton, Christmas pudding, crackers and the music, and the French bits are everything else
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Like I said, this family likes a performance at a gathering and they got a full five minutes of juicy Anglo-Saxon of the kind that some people would happily pay for. Quite magnificent swearing, to add to the already impressive effort I had made in the larder earlier.
It had been a long day and as Natalie and I put Maurice to bed the excitement he was still feeling, as children do for the whole of the Christmas period, was still very much there.
We talked for a bit about his presents and what, inevitably, he wanted next year and he began to drift off. I got up and went to switch his light off and then he said sleepily, ‘Daddy, what’s a festive-feline-fuck-knuckle?’
Natalie looked at me aghast. ‘Right,’ she said, ‘there have to be some changes around here.’
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