Here in this house we adhere to a Catholic interpretation of Christmas, Catholic in both senses of the word in that we take the best from all over Europe. Christmas Eve is still Advent and therefore a fast (that means fish – and plenty of it). The standard interpretation is carp, but it is a muddy, slimy sort of fish and even in childhood we complained of having to eat it. Most years we eat lobster, but in these lean, post-Brexit days that is far from certain.
If we do manage lobster then the vinous locus classicus is Corton-Charlemagne: Miss Right for Mr Lobster. That can be inhibitingly pricy – so the trick is to think top Burgundy and scroll down – a Puligny-Montrachet would have more ‘nerf’ than a Meursault, or maybe even a ripe-ish Chablis. If you can’t run to lobster, then buy a nice big sea bass, depending on how you cook it, this would open the discussion to all sorts of sappy white wines starting with a Loire Sauvignon such as a Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. If new world wines are more your bag: think wiry (not fat or blowsy) Chardonnay for the lobster, and lean, biting Sauvignon Blanc for the fish.
A bottle of champagne is opened to mark the point when my children have finished decorating the tree and I have put a flame to the logs in the grate – then the festivities may begin. We don’t buy a tree in August or November, but at the very last moment, and we abide by the tradition of hanging the baubles in preparation for the feast itself.
In this budget year, the champagne on Christmas Eve might well be a simple Mumm or a Perrier Jouët. Both remain good value at a time when “you pay well over £30 for a bottle of bog-standard Moët” and both have improved in recent years, Mumm in particular.
I normally make a terrine of foie gras in the days leading up to Christmas, and we cut the first slice on Christmas Eve. I know that a duck (it is usually duck unless I can convince a friend to bring me a goose liver from Budapest) is not a fish, but mediaeval monks often swore it was, because they became rapidly bored of eating fish during the forty days of Lent and “claimed the duck’s aquatic proclivities made it an honorary fish”.
The problem of having the foie gras before the lobster/fish is that foie gras’ favourite wines are sweet and sweet followed by dry will make dry taste lean. One way round this is an aromatic or off-dry wine, such as a Loire Chenin (Vouvray, Montlouis), Gewürztraminer or Muscat. Or you can simply concede defeat, have a sweet Sauternes and Barsac, drink one small glass each, eat a big slice of bread to clear your palate and have the rest of the wine later with the Yuletide log.
As we like to have a few red wines, we drink these with the cheese. Of course some cheeses – notably crumbly goats – are better with dry whites; while blue cheeses (Stilton, Roquefort) are more conducive to sweet wines. If you want to drink red you might stick to a mature cheddar from Quicke’s or Montgomery, or some lovely Beaufort, Comté or a proper old Gruyère; or like the Bordelais – eat old Gouda (providing it is properly old and as hard as its French imitator Mimolette).
The best of all is the Vacherin Mont d’Or, flowing like lava under its grey crust. Like the wonderful Portuguese ewes’ milk cheese Serra da Estrela, it ripens just in time for Christmas. Best for the Vacherin is a nice old red Burgundy like a Chambolle Musigny or a Chambertin from the Côte de Nuits, in Oporto Serra is naturally consumed with port.
Port is clearly another consideration. I have finally exhausted my stocks of single-quinta ports and I think the most likely candidate is a 1987 colheita from Burmester, which is a sort of tawny – albeit from one single year. There is some Vau from Sandeman – an experiment in early drinking vintage that did not pay off – and a few other things including some interesting half bottles. Ideally you should be drinking a 1977, or one of the better vintages from the eighties (80, 83, 85). I find that I am the only taker here, but there is an advantage in opening and decanting a bottle, in that it is at arm’s reach when you need it – such as that moment when you come home wet, freezing and foul-tempered, having walked back from church in sleet or rain at one o’clock in the morning and you know you still have some wrapping to do and stockings to put out.
Christmas Eve is a now bit of a squash, because the children are big enough to scoot off to Midnight Mass and that brings the feast to a premature close. We therefore sit through the Canon of the Mass in a beatific glow, belt out he hymns with enthusiasm and breathe our rich wines and lobster over the friars as they raise the Communion Host and pronounce a solemn ‘corpus Christi!’
Although there are sometimes guests at Christmas, the morning is an entirely family affair when presents are opened, and at around noon, glasses of champagne are handed out. This tends to be a more special bottle, and I have my eyes on the 1992 Drappier, which will remind me of a lovely trip to the eponymous family two or three years ago when the temperature was minus 25 in the Aube and a bracing wind blew in from Siberia, but the Drappiers – grandfather, father and son – made me more than warmly welcome.
As dinner is at five or six, I don’t eat much lunch and survive on the breakfast pannetone until it is time to cut a fresh slice of foie gras, or in the years we have had something from Lance Forman, a bit of wild smoked salmon. There is a hot, and as yet unsettled, debate about the correct meat for the feast. My family tradition is goose, and I am not at all enthusiastic about turkey, but there is one of us who says she hates goose and wants turkey. One year we listened to her and I made the recipe from the Société des Mercredis – stuffing the bird and cooking it slowly in a luted pot with a smidgen of sweet Jurançon wine. Then they left me with the remains and I ate turkey curry for four days on end. We now compromise and eat a nice rib of well-hung heifer meat instead.
In the goose days I was still an accredited Rhone-man and it was the moment to crack open Hermitage or Côte Rôtie. I still have a little Jaboulet ’82 or Chave ’86, for example, that would have done nicely. Turkey is a Côte de Beaune bird, requiring a Volnay or a Pommard. The heifer, on the other hand, will only accept claret. After my big tasting of the 2003s in September I realise that these need drinking up, so it could be the moment to drink the Château Pichon Baron, of which I have heard good reports. More burgundy will come with the cheese. I still have a few singletons from the 90s. You tend to take pot luck: sometimes they can prove strangely rewarding.
Then there is the Christmas Pudding (if someone gets round to making a Christmas Pudding). I have noticed a bottle of 2002 Château Suduiraut from Sauternes that should go down a treat. Again it might be better to open it with the cheese as it would also be lovely with stilton.
British Christmases are anti-climactic in that we do little on the other days of the feast excepting New Year’s Eve, when many people get drunk, throw up and fall over. I stay at home with the cat, quite often alone as my family heads for Devon and I am not as keen on country matters as they are. I therefore have a solitary Italian feast of a zampone or cotechino sausage with lentils, tomato sugo and potato puree and filch out a bottle of Barolo. If I had a pipkin of champagne I might open it at midnight, but on most occasions I am already tucked up in bed, listening to the people getting drunk, throwing up and falling over in the street outside.
Finally there is Epiphany – the last night – and the galette des rois eaten at tea time before we take down the cards and put out the tree. This has been a triumph these past few years, as I have made the puff pastry (with reserves for a few good tarts later) and the frangipane filling especially, having discovered that even quite expensive commercial renditions are virtually tasteless. A nice wine is also a boon. I see quite a burgeoning collection of Auslesen building up on one of the racks. Something with a bit of power from the Rheingau would go down a treat.
Wishing my Friends and Readers,.. and the Connoisseur MAGAZINE Community
“A very Happy Christmas!“